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Warning: This poem contains some intense and controversial scenes. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes holiday triggers with extreme emotional stress due to past abuse, hypervigilance, flashbacks, fear of punishment, hatred of Christmas, challenges of introversion, difficulty expressing needs or asking for help, poor use of current resources, aftermath of recent (and older) sexual assault, reference to domestic violence with a Christmas tree, which also plays into why Shiv says no at knifepoint, sarcasm and general belligerence, fear of angels due to past religious abuse, past neglect, avoiding the scene of recent sexual assault, bathroom issues, and other angst. This poem may be rough reading for survivors of child abuse or other folks with holiday issues. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
The Tree of Damocles
[Midday of Tuesday, December 23, 2014]
Shiv couldn't take his eyes
off the Christmas tree.
Every time somebody
walked past, the thing
shook its branches at him,
the ornaments threatening
to drop off and break.
There were a lot of them --
fragile glass balls and woodcuts,
real pinecones and fake feathers,
and some dopey cloth critters
that looked like they were made
by toddlers who should have
been in bed an hour ago.
Underneath it, a pile of
presents glinted in the light.
He knew better than to touch any.
The night before, the Christmas tree
had just been a blob of lights,
much easier to ignore.
Now Shiv couldn't stop
watching it and worrying
about it and wishing that
the holidays were over.
Tolli walked by with
his arms full of firewood.
The Christmas tree shook,
its shiny glass ornaments
bobbing up and down.
Shiv bit his lip and tried
to concentrate on folding
the cloth napkins that
Simon had given him.
Maybe nothing would
actually fall off and break.
Simon rolled past with
a suet cake to hang outside.
The birds scarfed it down
as fast as it went up.
The branches trembled
and things clinked together.
Maybe if Shiv stayed
far enough away, then he
wouldn't get blamed.
Maybe. Just maybe.
He pinched the corners
of the napkins, trying
not to get them sweaty
as he folded them.
Simon came back in,
and just closing the door
made a breeze that set
the fake feathers spinning.
"Shiv, are you okay?" Tolli said.
Shiv jumped to his feet,
napkins flying everywhere.
"Whoa, stand down!" Tolli said,
spreading his hands. "It's all right."
"Can you tell us what's wrong?"
Simon asked quietly.
"Nothing," Shiv said.
"You keep staring at
the Christmas tree, and
not like you want to raid it,"
Tolli said. "Is that it?"
"It's fine," Shiv protested,
shaking his head. "I'm fine!"
"Mmm," Tolli said as he
bent down to pick up a napkin.
He folded it neatly and then
set it on top of the stack.
"Well, if there were anything
wrong, we'd want to know, so we
could try to fix it," Simon said.
"I hate Christmas!" Shiv burst out.
Tolli raised his eyebrows. "Okay,
what about it do you hate?"
"Everything!" Shiv said.
"I hate the noise, the crowds,
everybody else acts so happy
and I have to watch and it sucks
'cause they always forget about me
and I'd rather be alone but they
won't let me and I hate it."
"It sounds like you have had
a lot of shitty holidays," Tolli said.
"Welcome to my life," Shiv said bitterly.
"Let's check the list," Simon said.
"Is it too noisy or crowded for you here?"
Shiv blinked at him. "Dude. I can
hear the clock ticking. It's fine."
"What about the happiness level?"
Tolli said. "I know Simon and I are
a lot more demonstrative at home
than in public. If that bothers you --"
"What? No!" Shiv said. "I may not
want to kiss anyone myself, but I got
no beef with you enjoying your boyfriend."
"If you want to be alone, you can hang out
in your room or go downstairs to the gym
or walk around the yard," Simon said.
"We're trying not to crowd you, but
you seem to follow us around."
He'd been clinging to them
like a needy brat, is what, but
Shiv couldn't seem to help it.
He just felt safer with them,
and how fucked up was that?
He was a big boy now, he
could protect himself.
Mostly. Sort of.
"Should we just skip
Christmas, then?" Tolli said.
Shiv's jaw dropped. "What? Why?"
"Because it makes you uncomfortable,"
Tolli said. "You came here for sanctuary.
If you don't feel safe, that defeats the purpose."
"I never feel safe," Shiv muttered, looking down.
"Especially not after what -- not today."
"Okay, you don't want to skip Christmas
altogether," Simon said. "Can you help us
weed out the things you hate the most?"
Shiv cast a guilty look at the tree,
then looked back down again.
"Shiv, do you want us to take down
the Christmas tree?" Tolli asked.
His heart leaped with hope,
then fell. "We can't. It's not
Christmas yet. Can't take it
down until the day after."
He'd heard that often enough,
and learned not to ask.
"It's our tree, so we can
take it down whenever we
want," Tolli said firmly.
"Wouldn't be the first time,"
Simon said. "A few years ago,
we had a friend staying with us
after a bad fire. Every time a door
opened, the tinsel moved, and it
looked like flames to him. So we
put away the tree, and then
everything was better."
"You really ...?" Shiv said.
"Nobody's ever done ... that."
"Then it's about time somebody did,"
Tolli said. "Do you want to give up
on Christmas trees in general, or
consider some other kind?"
"I dunno." Shiv shrugged.
"Can you pin down what you
don't like about it?" Simon said.
"We might find something different."
"Yeah, there's that one we made
from driftwood, and another year
we build one with books," Tolli said.
"Christmas trees are kinda fragile,"
Shiv said, nibbling his lip. "Sometimes
they ... get broken, and people get mad."
"That's no fun," Simon said.
"There was this one time," Shiv said,
wrapping his arms around himself.
"A girl was teasing a guy, and she
wouldn't quit, no matter what he did.
So he picked up the Christmas tree
and threw it at her. It knocked her
clean off the couch. I think that was at
the Smack House, I was pretty small."
"How awful," Tolli said. "That won't
happen here, Shiv. We don't do
things like that in this family."
"Yeah, where've I heard
that before," Shiv said.
"Have you ever seen
either of us throw anything
in anger?" Tolli said.
"Not really," Shiv admitted.
"You won't, but it's okay if it
takes a while for you to feel
confident about that," Tolli said.
"I guess," Shiv said, his gaze
straying to the tree again. "I just ...
keep seeing that thing hanging over me,
and I feel like something bad will happen."
"Tree of Damocles," Simon muttered.
"What?" Shiv said. "I never heard
of anything like that before."
"There's a story about a man
called Damocles, who wanted power,"
Simon said. "His king traded places
with him for a day, but hung a sword
above the throne to show him how
a potential threat can ruin enjoyment."
"Wow," Shiv said. "I get that. It's
a great way to show what it's like."
"So, we want to help you relax,
not feel like something is hanging
over you," Simon explained.
"Not gonna happen," Shiv said.
"I mean, it's nice of you to try,
but my nerves are shot to hell."
"Hopefully that will change, if you
spend more time with people who
have better holiday manners than
the ones you grew up with," Tolli said.
"Meanwhile, would you feel safer
with a Christmas tree that couldn't
be thrown easily?" Simon said.
"We could make one of paper."
"How?" Shiv said. He couldn't
imagine anything like that.
"Cut out paper in the shape of
a tree and hang it on the wall,"
Simon said. "Plenty of folks
do that in dorm rooms or
apartments to save space."
"Have you ever seen any kind
of alternative Christmas tree?"
Tolli said. "There are lots. We've
used a variety, depending on
the people each year."
"Yeah, somebody was
showing pictures around
the club," Shiv said. "I kinda
made my own because I didn't
like any of the other ones."
"That's wonderful!" Tolli said.
"What does yours look like?"
"It's um ... I can show you on
my phone," Shiv said, pulling it
out of his pocket. "Here, look."
"Are those stone chips?" Tolli said.
"Yeah, I got the idea to stick them
together like that, so it wouldn't look
like a regular tree," Shiv said. He
lowered the phone to show Simon.
"See, there's flint, jasper, obsidian,
some agate -- I dunno all the names."
"It's beautiful," Simon said. "I've
never seen anything quite like it."
"That's the point," Shiv said.
"I guess some other tree
might be all right too."
"How do you feel about
wrapping paper?" Simon said.
"I like it," Shiv said. "It's pretty.
I like the colors. I'm actually
decent at wrapping things."
"Let's try a paper tree,"
Simon said. "If you hate it,
we can always take it down."
"I guess," Shiv said.
"Do you want to help me
break down the other one?"
Tolli asked, waving at it.
"No," Shiv said, backing away.
"I don't want to touch it."
"Okay, you don't have to,"
Tolli said. "Would you like
to help Simon make one
out of wrapping paper?"
"I could try?" Shiv said.
"That's all we ask,"
Simon assured him.
Shiv watched as Simon
rolled to the closet and
took out rolls of paper.
"You, uh, want some help
carrying all that?" Shiv said.
"Sure," Simon said, passing
him some of the supplies.
"Let's go to the dining room."
The table was big enough
for them to spread out
all of the materials.
"You have plain paper?"
Shiv said. "What's the point?"
Simon lay a scrap of plaid ribbon
over the plain green wrapping paper.
"Oh! I get it!" Shiv exclaimed.
"It doesn't clash with patterns."
"Exactly," Simon said. "Also, it's
good for crafts, like when we want
to make paper chains or a tree."
They rolled out green paper
and cut a tree shape from it.
Then Simon added a brown bit
to make the trunk underneath.
"What do you want on top?"
Simon asked, pointing to it.
"A star," Shiv said hastily. It was
that or an angel, and he hated those.
When he was little, he worried one
would fly down and attack him.
He'd gotten over that, but
he still couldn't stand angels.
He'd heard too many horror stories
about them in church when people
dragged him in to the services.
"All clear," Tolli called.
"That's our signal," Simon said,
scooping the tree into his lap.
Shiv followed him into
the family room, where
Simon hung up the tree.
"That looks fantastic,"
Tolli said, grinning.
"Shall we choose
Simon said. "Lights
or tinsel garlands?"
"Yeah, I like those,"
Shiv said. "Maybe
one of each? We don't
want to make it too busy."
"Deal," Simon said.
"I'll get them," Tolli said,
heading out of the room.
Soon he came back with
a string of multicolored lights
and a red tinsel rope that had
gold foil stars attached to it.
"Are these okay, Shiv?"
he asked, holding them out.
"Yeah, they're pretty," Shiv said.
"I like how the light sparkles on
the tinsel, like snowflakes."
"You can help us put them up,
if you want to," Simon invited.
Nobody ever let him do that
before, and Shiv wondered
what it would be like, now he
didn't have the damn tree
looming over him.
"Okay," he said, and
reached for the tinsel.
It was light as a feather,
and it tickled his palms
as he held it up so that
Tolli could fasten it on.
They did the lights next,
which felt sort of prickly
but not actually sharp.
Shiv rubbed his hands
together, thinking about it.
"Now all we need is
some snow," he said,
looking out the window.
"I can fix that," Simon said
as he rolled out of the room.
Soon he came back with
a carton full of cotton balls.
"What are those for?"
Simon took out
a handful of the puffs
and tossed them in the air.
"Look! It's snowing!"
It startled a laugh from Shiv.
"What do we do with them?"
"Stick them on the wall
around the tree so they look
like snow," Simon said.
"Okay," Shiv said. Once he
got started, it was kind of fun
to dot them all over the wall.
"Well done," Tolli declared.
"Let's take a picture." He
pulled out his smartphone
and snapped the tree.
"Can I have a copy?"
"Of course," Tolli said.
"I'm sending this out
to the whole family."
Shiv's phone chimed,
and he took it out to look
at the picture. It was good.
"So, presents under the tree,
yes or no?" Simon asked.
Shiv shrugged. "Not like
it matters to me," he said.
"Based on previous discussions,
we each have one present
for you," Simon reminded him.
"I don't have mine for you guys,
though," Shiv said, frowning.
"Everything's still at my place."
He had freaked out this morning
when he woke up without having
packed anything to use or wear.
Tolli and Simon had gotten him
through that by showing him stuff
he'd left here on earlier visits and
spare things they kept for guests.
"Do you want to go get them?"
Tolli asked. "There's plenty of time."
Shiv shook his head frantically,
fringe flying. "No, no way!" he said.
"I don't want to go back there. Well,
I mean, not yet, instead of never."
"Understood," Tolli said. "Would you
rather I went there myself and picked up
a few things for you? It's no trouble."
"I dunno," Shiv said, trying to recall
how much of a dump he'd left his place.
His head was too scrambled for him
to remember that clearly, though.
"Let's take it piece by piece,"
Tolli said. "Do you have all of
your presents in one place?"
"Yeah, they're in a box in
the living room so's I don't
lose anything," Shiv said.
"Okay, that should be easy
to find." Tolli said. "Is there
anything else you want me
to bring you from home?"
Shiv picked at a hangnail.
"My pillow and blanket?"
he whispered. "They're
both on my bed ..."
"Would it be okay for me
to duck in there and grab those?
Maybe some of your own clothes
or other essentials?" Tolli said.
"Maybe," Shiv said. "But
you gotta swear not to go
into my bathroom."
"Okay," Tolli said. "Is it
near your bedroom?"
"Yeah, it's in the bedroom,
that's why I got that apartment,"
Shiv said. "It's safer there."
"An ensuite," Tolli said.
"Is the bathroom door closed?"
"I can't remember," Shiv groaned.
"Well, even if the door is open,
I can ignore it," Tolli said. "Where
will I find your clothes? What
would you like to wear?"
"Whatever, winter stuff,
or autumn?" Shiv said.
"It's not as cold here as
it is in Omaha. My closet
is at the foot of the bed, and
the dresser's next to that."
"All right, I'll catch a lift
and grab your gift box, then
pack some clothes for you,"
Tolli said. "It shouldn't take me
more than an hour or so, allowing
for unexpected interruptions."
Like say, people in the club wanting
to know what the hell was up with Shiv.
Boy was he glad that he wouldn't
have to answer those questions.
"Sounds good," Shiv said as he
smoothed a hand over the tree.
"Thanks for ... well, everything."
"You're welcome, any time,"
Tolli said. "We're happy to help."
The hell of it was, they were.
Tolli and Simon never seemed
to act like Shiv was a pain in the ass,
even though he knew what he was.
They just did stuff for him,
like it was nothing, but he
knew better. It was a lot.
"Hey, be careful," Shiv said,
brushing against Tolli. "Omaha
gets kinda mean, sometimes."
"Oh, not meaner than me,"
Tolli said with a glint in his eye.
Shiv suddenly realized that
maybe Tolli had some questions
of his own he wanted answered,
and was prepared to shake down
whoever got in his way -- like say,
Luci's crazy bitch of a sister.
* * *
Read about "The Sword of Damocles."
See Tolli and Simon's original Christmas tree.
This is Tolli and Simon's Christmas tree on the wall. Follow the instructions to make it. You can use wrapping paper if you don't want sticky contact paper.
Shiv's Christmas tree is made from sharp chips of stone.
Explore more images and instructions of alternative Christmas trees. This approach works great for people with specific triggers who do not wish to give up on Christmas trees, or the whole holiday. Just think about what bothers you, what you like about Christmas trees, and design something you like. You don't have to
(This link contains graphic violence.)
Things like this are why Shiv hates Christmas.
(These links are sad.)
Foster kids and abuse survivors often hate Christmas for sadly valid reasons. There are holiday guides for abuse survivors and for families with special needs. Tolli and Simon are used to making accommodations for family and friends, but they need at least a little help from Shiv to figure out what to change and how.
(These links are harsh.)
Childhood abuse leads to distorted thinking patterns such as catastrophizing. The mental health industry basically considers this a type of delusion. However, it is vital to assess the accuracy of a belief before condemning it as delusion. Previously, Shiv had correct distrust; his problem now is that he is under-trusting, because his environment has changed so much that his old model no longer generates reliable predictions. He believes that horrendous things will happen because they have happened to him, that people will abandon him because most folks did that. This isn't delusion; it's an ugly couple decades of lived experience. It is, however, now out of date due to major improvements in Shiv's circumstances. He needs to stop catastrophizing and recalibrate to the current probabilities, which are better. It is possible for abused children to learn how to trust adults, if they join a healthy family. Here are some helpful reminders for abuse survivors.
(Some of these are touchy too.)
Attachment describes the relationship between parents and children. The less-secure versions can be described as attachment disorders, and the more severe form as reactive attachment disorder. These carry into adult relationships. More accurately, attachment disorder is framed as connection disruption. Until recently, Shiv had very few opportunities for healthy connection and a great many people mistreating him. That kind of abuse tends to mangle attachment. As a result, he pushes people away to minimize his chances of getting hurt even more. There are ways to heal from attachment damage and help someone with disordered attachment.
(These links are difficult.)
Abandonment issues produce a vast array of symptoms that can cluster in quite different ways. This can lead to "outer child" issues with behavioral problems. Shiv waffles between withdrawing and acting out. Foster children and abuse survivors often end up with PTSD of abandonment, which has its own laundry list of problems. They may develop emotional anorexia, where they cannot take in affection. Tolli and Simon work to help Shiv feel welcome but not smothered. They are making slow progress in teaching him that his wants and needs will be respected. Know how to heal abandonment issues or support a friend with them. Foster children and abuse survivors often need extra help to form healthy bonds with a family, and their are programs to support this process.
(Some of these are intense.)
Trust has multiple aspects and stages. Shiv has a lot of trust issues from past trauma, but he is slowly learning to trust again. Learn how to recognize a trustworthy person, become trustworthy yourself, and build trust with other people. Here are some ways to help an abused child learn to trust adults, which can prove quite effective.
(These links are sad.)
Low self-esteem may come from various causes, particularly child abuse or other trauma. Understand how to cope with low esteem or help a friend who has it.
Fear of angels is called angelophobia. In the Bible, angels commonly say "fear not," which indicates that they typically scare humans. Christianity itself can frighten and even harm children, and forcing religion on children is a form of child abuse. As a foster child, Shiv survived enough religious abuse to make him hate religion. Learn to recognize and cope with spiritual abuse.