I Always Wanted Christmas to Be Perfect. Here's Why The Stress Was Too Much.
How one man allowed the stress of the holidays to take over his life.
As a younger member of a large family living in Ohio in the 1990s, Ehron Ostendorf had to regularly fight for attention. But ever the keen observer—he now works as a journalist—Ostendorf saw his opportunity to stand out fairly early on with Christmas.
Over the years, he took note of just how important the holiday was to his family, who often worked tirelessly to make every Christmas event seamlessly perfect. And so, as he grew up into a responsible adult, Ostendorf decided to outdo them all and provide the best Christmas experience for his family they'd ever had.
Ostendorf hosted Christmas parties and dinners, created his own "Christmas Mood Board," filled his house with a vast collection of Christmas-related DVDs and albums, and created what he calls the "First Christmas" party, which is thrown the day after Halloween, on November 1.
His outsize dedication, believe it or not, came with an insidious dark side. Excitement gave way to stress, which gave way to poor judgment. At one point, he nearly killed himself by driving nine hours through ice and snow just to see his grandmother for a Christmas party. (More on that below.)
Fast forward to today, however, and Ostendorf has moved to Germany, where he'll be spending the holidays this year with only a few close friends and relatives who have promised a low-key Christmas without any of the accompanying stress and anxiety.
If you're guilty of an insatiable desire for holiday revelry to be A-plus perfection, allow Ostendorf's lessons to be your voice of caution. Here, in his own words, are the ways that his perfectionism taught him valuable lessons about family and identity—and what the holiday season should really be about.
And for more ways to avoid bringing unwanted stress into your life this holiday season, check out these 15 Biggest Holiday Depression Triggers You Never Even Knew About.
"Christmas nearly killed me…"
Every year, it seems, the thought of a white Christmas makes me smile. Though I never felt as though I could fully enjoy the snow without worrying about the annual drive to my grandmother's home in rural Georgia. From Ohio, this drive is around 9 hours—just for a Christmas party. And, lo and behold, each December has perfectly adequate weather—until the few days surrounding Christmas, right when I'd have to hit the road.
Two years ago, despite knowing that weather would get in the way of my travels, I went through with the trip, compelled with the feeling that, if I didn't show up to the holiday party, my family would think that I had simply been lazy. I wanted to show them that I cared—despite knowing that my small car wouldn't be able to make it in this weather.
In my haze to please, I hit a rut and lost control of my car. My car spun out in front of a snow plow. Luckily, there was an on-ramp right as I lost control, so my car ended up passing in front of the snow plow and slowed down, due to the incline of the onramp. Needless to say, I wouldn't have had to stress myself during that terrible weather if it weren't for the obligation I felt to drive to Christmas dinner—a trip that I've now put less stress upon myself to make. And for more personal words of advice about the difficulty of the holiday season, check out How I Cope with Christmas Depression Every Year.
"I [felt] like a failure."
The entire family dynamic changed one holiday season when my grandfather, who had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, came to live with our family. And, of course, as someone who wishes to make the holiday season a perfect experience for everyone, I took it upon myself to ensure that he was completely comfortable in my home.
From cooking for him to running errands for him—so many trips to the pharmacy—I somehow managed to put myself in the driver's seat of his fate, even when there were plenty of other people willing to pitch in and help. My desire to make everything and everyone feel perfect made me dismiss the idea of asking for help, since I assumed that meant I was accepting defeat, which I now realize was my first mistake. The stress of never accepting help from anyone eventually made me feel like a failure.
"I let the stress of the day consume me."
Despite feeling as though I have everything under control during December, my dog, Soka, a black lab/chow mix, seems to always get in the way. For instance, one morning—right before a holiday celebration—I was cooking and preparing food when he decided he wanted to play. I played with him for a time, but I had to quickly call it quits. (It was time to mash the potatoes.) Even as I said, "all done" and "no more," he didn't listen. Instead, he leapt at my hand to press his toy onto me and accidentally bit my hand.
While I can understand now that it was only a silly accident by a dog who wanted affection from his playmate, I will admit that I lost control. Instead of handling the situation calmly, I let the stress of the day consume me, and I stormed him outside and made him stand out in the cold until I finished preparing the food. Rather than actually blaming my stress on my own tendencies to overextend myself, I decided to blame it on my innocent dog. And for more ways to remain zen during the most stressful season of the year, check out these 17 Top Tips from Psychologists for Dealing with Holiday Stress.
"I lost power—literally and figuratively."
As soon as I was old enough to help prepare our home for the holidays, I took every responsibility way too seriously. One year, I remember an ice storm knocking out the power in my neighborhood. And with this literal loss of power came a metaphorical loss of power over my newfound responsibility.
I was hoping to have family time as we cooked dinner together. But then we couldn't even use our own stove. I distinctly remember running around the house trying to make the holiday season as bright as possible without electricity. Despite the loss of power, the rest of my family seemed relaxed and took it all in stride. Meanwhile, I couldn't seem to chill out, and I wasted cherished days with my family angry and resentful at a set of circumstances that I did not realize were simply out of my control.
"A surprise visit [ruined] my control."
A few years ago, my aunt, uncle, and two cousins from Arizona showed up out of the blue. I wanted to feel happy that my family was coming to visit, but instead I began stressing over all of the ways that a surprise visit would ruin my control. In my eyes, suddenly, without warning, I had to prepare my home for guests who could judge any mess or any item that's out of order. The anxiety became so much that, even after they arrived, I spent more time fussing over their short stay in my home than actually trying to spend time with family members that I rarely see.
This past year, however, I went to visit this side of the family, and their messy, loving home seemed to only make me realize that sometimes a spotless home isn't the most important part of a family gathering. And for more ways to entertain your guests over the holidays, check out these 20 Super Fun Ways to Spend Christmas Eve.
"The stress I put my body through made me sick."
One particular year, after tiring myself out setting up Christmas decorations, finishing work before the holiday, and cooking and cleaning for family members, I started to feel really sick. And of course, while I knew that I wasn't immune to the office sickness everyone gets every year, I also knew that nothing would ever stop me from achieving every goal I set in place.
However, as my cold got worse and my to-do list grew, my body eventually told me that it had gone through enough. I let the cold progress so much that it lasted another two weeks longer than your average head cold. The stress I put my body through finally gave way to an awful cold that made me totally miss the holiday that I had been obsessing over for months. Oh, the irony…
"I [passed] on my stress and anxiety on to others."
Surely, this won't surprise you, but I find it hard to trust my big family with any kind of party planning. Even though this can seem like a relatively minor worry to others, this partly triggered my initial need to control every holiday get-together.
Most of my family members are relaxed people, but I still got into the habit of inciting arguments, generally when ordering them to bring particular dishes or to act a certain way during the holidays. As I now realize, it was never my place to do this—I was only passing on my stress and anxiety on to others.
I distinctly remember arguing with one family member about green beans for at least thirty minutes—a fight that I was not ready to lose in that moment. In my mind, every holiday table was meant to look picture-perfect, when, in reality, it's not the food that was important—it's the time spent with family.
"I wanted to hide my sexuality."
As a gay man, I historically avoided conversations about my dating life with my extended relatives, who are Catholic. While my immediate family seemed to be accepting of this fact, I struggled to find a way to communicate who I really was to my extended family. So, of course, to keep the relationship with my family the way I wanted it—and to not tarnish the holiday I loved so much—I would dodge questions about my dating life like any closeted gay.
Over the years, my family members grew more persistent in their desire for me to find a "good woman." And while I've always wanted to stay true to myself, my need to please them often got in the way of this desire. This put a ticking time bomb on me, as each one of my family members would loop significant others into family gatherings, while I was always mysteriously single. This meant, at least to me, that it was only a matter of time before they started suspecting—and I couldn't have that get in the way of my "perfect" holiday facade.
When they finally did find out that I was interested in men, after years spent on my part avoiding the topic entirely, they stopped pestering me about relationships. In fact, it turned this magical time of loving family members spending time with one another into "avoid giving hugs to Ehron—he's the gay one." My family and I started spending more time having "close" or "intimate" family Christmases, instead of extended family get-togethers.
Now, I've found out that their issue isn't with my sexuality, but actually lies with my careful deception about who I truly am, and that I had hidden from them for the longest time. My need to show them that I live a perfect life overshadowed any attempt that could have been made to make them a true part of my life.
"I turned to the bottle when things didn't go my way."
Not only did I feel the need to control every part of the holiday season that I could, but, when any of these attempts at perfection would go awry, I'd often turn to a bottle of wine.
For instance, when I arrived at Christmas a couple years back, I was ready to help out with whatever I could. But, it turned out extended family was handling everything, so there was nothing for me to do. Feeling out of control and wanting to quiet feelings of anxiety and stress, I turned to a trusty bottle of wine.
Hours later, after thoroughly embarrassing myself multiple times throughout dinner, I sobered up to the reality that I had to find better ways to handle my anxiety—which eventually turned out to be therapy and medication.
"I'd let [family members] stomp over my feelings."
As a gay man, it's obvious that, if I did choose to have children, adoption would be perhaps the most viable option. My aunt didn't like the sound of that; after coming out to her, she always had the habit of bringing up adoption in a negative light, holding fast to the fact that she felt as though any child that wasn't your own wasn't worth raising. I let her completely stomp over my feelings every year in fear that I would somehow make her judge my life choices, ruining any magic of Christmas in the air. Though, now that I'm older, I've learned to put aside my own need to please and instead stand up for the things that I believe in. And if you find yourself in need of a break from holiday tradition this year, head to one of The 23 Most Magical Christmas Towns in America.
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