When I was little, my dad used to write an annual Christmas letter. It would update everyone on what had been happening in our family that year, but it always had a fun, playful theme. People used to say they enjoyed reading it. I have never written such a letter before, and I didn’t plan to when I started this blog yesterday. But apparently I have. And I want to say upfront, in case anyone feels they want to stop reading, that this letter’s fun and playful theme is … trauma. Sorry.
But it’s Christmas, and there are no harrowing details in this letter. I’ve tried to steer clear of anything that might trigger anyone, myself included. Even so, this letter is unavoidably about trauma, because there is a reason it is the longest thing I have shared publicly for months. And this is not just because I have been suffering from long covid, but because I have also been suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Indeed, it has slowly dawned on me that my long covid and my post-traumatic stress are, to a large extent, one and the same – and this realisation is what has made it possible for me to write this letter at all. In November, I began processing my trauma by turning it into a story, and as I did this, my long covid symptoms miraculously lifted. I would not say that I wrote that story, exactly; it was not something I decided to do. It was just something that happened to me.
This is not the story of my trauma. That story has yet to be shared with the world, and no doubt parts of it never will be. (For those who I’m friends with on Facebook, I did share something about my birth trauma there in May – and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of rageful solidarity from friends with similar experiences.) This is the story of how I have begun to heal from my trauma. This is a story about light, and about the joy and peace that become possible when we are able to put some of our heavy burdens down. This is a Christmas story.
This is also our family’s Christmas card. At the bottom – and I would forgive you for skipping to the end, because this letter is longer than I ever intended it to be – you’ll find a cover version of River by Joni Mitchell. When I first told my husband Mark that I wanted to share this in lieu of sending out Christmas cards (because God knows we did not have the wherewithal for that) he objected that it was too “miserable.” I retorted that this was real life. But I do want to say, again in case anyone wishes to stop reading, that because I am writing about this song and the context that produced it, this letter also contains references to adoption/child loss.
Light is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I am a Buddhist, and, while the past five months have included some of the most profoundly challenging experiences of my life, they have also included some of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. In some ways, long covid has felt like an enforced three month retreat, and the past two months – the time I have spent processing my trauma – have felt like an experience of enlightenment.
I’d always assumed that the ‘light’ in ‘enlightenment’ was the opposite of ‘dark’. This is, of course, a theme in a lot of Christmas stories and songs. I discovered the other day that it is a theme of one of my dad’s favourites, the carol Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance? – which I’ve always loved playing on the piano, but had never actually sung until this year. When I did, I found that the second verse goes like this:
What is that light so brilliant, breaking
Here in the night across our eyes?
Never so bright the day-star waking
Started to climb the morning skies!
I can’t say quite why I loved these words as much as I did, but they feel appropriate to share on the day after the winter solstice, the day the light begins to return. I’m daring to hope that the darkest days are behind me for the time being, and that the light is beginning to return for me and my family. I hope that the same may be true for you – although I fear it may not be true for our country or our world, or for so many of those desperately trying to survive in it.
But I now wonder if the ‘light’ in ‘enlightenment’ is also the opposite of ‘heavy’. A month or so ago, as I began to tell myself and others the story of my trauma, I felt a weight physically lift from my shoulders and from my heart. When I told it to my therapist, something opened up in my throat, and I found that suddenly I had a whole new singing voice. For a few days afterwards, I felt lighter than air. I felt like I could do almost anything.
On one of these days, my four-year-old son Rory asked me to pick him up. I began to say no – I hadn’t been able to do this for months, and my physiotherapist had advised me to build up to it only gradually – but something in me stopped. I lifted him off the floor and carried him down the stairs. He, too, felt suddenly lighter, now that I was no longer carrying so much other heavy shit around. “You can!” he exclaimed delightedly. When my husband came downstairs for breakfast, the first thing my son said, full of excitement, was “Mummy carried me!” I began to wonder if maybe enlightenment is what we could all experience, if only we were not carrying so much heavy shit around.
I am a Buddhist, and the week I finally began to process and release my trauma was the same week I finally managed to “go for refuge” at the local Tibetan Buddhist centre. Going for refuge is roughly analogous to a baptism: it is a commitment to put Buddhism at the centre of your life. What you are taking refuge in is the “three jewels”: the buddha (or “buddha nature”, the potential we all have to become enlightened and to act from our highest selves), the dharma (or teachings) and the sangha (or spiritual community).
On the cold November day I went for refuge, I was in the middle of a crashing relapse and had barely managed to drag myself to the centre. (Actually, my husband had given me a lift, because there was no way I was dragging myself there under my own steam.) The people running things were incredibly kind, making sure I had a chair to sit on when I could not sit on the floor, fetching me herbal tea. After the ceremony, I had to go and sit alone in a quiet room for a while, because my head was pounding and the noise of friendly chatter was too much for me.
When you take refuge, you are given a Tibetan name. Mine was Karma Dechen Lhamo, which apparently translates as “Goddess of Great Bliss”. I found this very funny. I told my friend Judy – a phenomenal woman who I liked the instant I met her – that I wasn’t feeling much great bliss today. “It’s aspirational!” she reassured me. “True,” I replied. “Well, I made it here, and today that’s enough.”
I am a Buddhist, but I was raised a Methodist. I’ll be honest that I have never felt much affinity with this tradition, with the notable exception of the writings of Donald Eadie – a wonderful man who was friends with my mother and in whose words I have found a bridge between Methodism and Buddhism. But this is one of many ways in which the past few months have changed me, and I think this has given me a new relationship to Christmas too.
Tara Brach, my favourite Buddhist teacher, refers to the three jewels as truth, love and awareness. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and I wonder now if this is really just another way of saying the same thing. Maybe the way is really the path we tread together, the injunction to love one another. Maybe the life is really the life in all our souls, the light of awareness we see in one another’s eyes. Maybe the truth is the same truth, regardless of where we find it or which words we use to describe it.
A few years ago, my choir added River to our Christmas repertoire. Introducing it, one of the choir members said it was actually about Joni Mitchell’s experience of having to give her baby girl up for adoption – that this was the “baby” referred to in the lyrics. We all duly broke down as we learned it. As it happens, I’m not sure if this is strictly true. Elsewhere, I’ve read that the song is about what it sounds like: a romantic separation.
But it’s certainly true that Joni Mitchell had to give up her daughter. Talking about this experience, she said: “I was dirt poor. An unhappy mother does not raise a happy child. It was difficult parting with the child, but I had to let her go.” As a mother, I literally cannot imagine what this must have been like. Honestly, the sufferings I have experienced pale in comparison to something like this. I cannot put myself in Joni Mitchell’s shoes. But in the past five months I have had to learn to let a lot of things go.
I’ve had to let go of a lot of heavy things that I’d been carrying for a long time. I’ve also had to let go of a lot of ideas about how my life should turn out; of my efforts to try and fix or control things that I simply cannot control. Most recently, I’ve had to do this with at least two relationships that are deeply important to me – relationships which I briefly thought had been healed because my trauma was healed, before I realised life is not that simple. I think that letting go of the people we love is the hardest thing of all. No parent should have to let go of their child.
It’s also true that River was written and recorded – along with the rest of the Blue album – in the wake of this traumatic experience. Its echoes colour the whole record. When I looked this up yesterday, I found an interview with Joni Mitchell in which she says this: “The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”
I am not in this acutely vulnerable place right now, although I certainly was a couple of months ago. Most of the time, I do feel strong, and – even on my worst days – I often feel happy. And I’m learning that sometimes “personal defences” are necessary and wise, especially when we’ve been traumatised. I am not sharing the full story of my birth trauma today. I’m not ready to do that just yet, and I don’t think it would be helpful for many people reading this just now.
I don’t feel “like a cellophane wrapper on a packet of cigarettes”. But I do feel raw. I’ve just been through something pretty cataclysmic, and I’m still making sense of it. While I’ve released a lot of trauma, I’ve also opened some old wounds, and they are still bleeding. I’m having to learn to tend to those wounds. The process of writing my story has been far from painless, and has left me with some new shit to process. I’m slowly realising that this is perhaps the beginning rather than the end of my trauma recovery journey.
Maggie Ross says, “our physical wounds never entirely heal, though they may seem to, and we may for a time forget them.” When I first read these words, I thought that the physical wounds I was carrying from my birth experience were the heaviest burden I was carrying. I now know that this was not true. But I think these words may be just as true of our emotional wounds.
The recording I’m sharing is pretty raw, too. It is certainly not the best possible showcase of my shiny new singing voice. But this feels like the right thing to do, because it is honest: this is my truth right now. When I recorded this song on Tuesday, I certainly wasn’t feeling lighter than air, nor was I feeling much “joy and peace”. That day, despite my best efforts to avoid it, my PTSD got retriggered. That day, I was acutely anxious. Recording this song was one of the things I did to find my way back to myself. I also did quite a lot of crying – good crying, necessary crying – and quite a lot of meditation.
The old me, the person I was before getting long covid, would never have had the courage to share this recording with you. She would have thought it hubristic to the point of ludicrousness for her first real foray into solo singing to be a song that took her from pretty much the top to the bottom of her vocal range, by one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. She certainly would not have shared a version of that song with the world until she was satisfied that it was note-perfect, word-perfect, until she’d practised with the recording equipment and was happy with the levels and the way her voice sounded.
This recording is none of those things. I recorded this with my husband in less than half an hour. It is not the first take – that was not quite good enough to share. Nor is it the second – we had to abandon that halfway through because he was standing over me turning the pages of my sheet music, and I was finding this unnerving and distracting and had to ask him to sit down. This is the third take.
We’ve left in our between-takes chat at the beginning, where I told him he was “looming”, and at the end, where I wondered if this take was “good enough”. It feels right that he should be in the recording, since I could not have done any of this without him. I’ve asked him to layer over some photos of Rye Bank Fields looking gorgeous in the frost, which I took a couple of weeks ago, when I managed to go for a walk there for the first time in many months. This is our family’s Christmas card to you.
A lot of times in the past few years, people have told me I was “brave” for being open about what was happening to me. I was told this a lot after going public about my burnout; I was told it when I shared my struggles with long covid. I’m sure at least one person will tell me that I’m brave for sharing this. As it happens, I don’t feel that sharing my truth is particularly brave on my part. It is just something I do, like breathing.
I do it because writing words is the way I make sense of my experience, and sharing those words helps me to feel less alone, and I hope helps others who share my experiences to feel less alone too. I do it because I feel that perhaps if more of us were able to share our truth, fewer of us would be walking around feeling like miserable failures, like we are the only ones not coping. Perhaps if more of us were able to feel heard, more of us would be able to sing.
That, ultimately, is why I’m sharing these words and this song this Christmas, even though they may feel dark and inappropriately unfestive. It’s because I know I’m not the only one who has been having a dark and unfestive time. These are dark days, and we all need to find our light where we can.
One of the fundamental truths at the heart of Buddhism is that we are all interconnected. And one of the most important things I’ve learned in recent months is that the antidote to trauma is loving connection: to ourselves, to other people, to the natural world. This is why self-compassion practices can be so helpful for people who’ve experienced trauma, and have been so helpful for me. This is why dunking myself in the lake twice a week helped me recover from my burnout, and why doing this as often as I could helped me recover from long covid. This is why we need each other. We need to feel that we belong. We need to feel that our pain can be held by something larger.
Indeed, knowing what I now know about the way trauma works, I wonder if River really is about Joni Mitchell’s baby girl after all, even if she didn’t know it herself when she wrote it. I wonder if trauma and separation are really one and the same. I wonder if the pain of separation from her partner compounded the trauma of her separation from her daughter. I wonder if she felt as unsafe in the world in the aftermath of this separation as I have sometimes felt; if that’s why she needed a river to skate away on, just like I’ve sometimes needed to immerse myself in the lake to feel whole again. I wonder if writing and singing this song was one of the things she did to find her way back to herself.
Of course, I don’t know. Either way, this is a song by a phenomenal woman who went through something unimaginably awful, then took her pain and turned it into something beautiful. Looking into this yesterday, I found an article that quoted Jimmy Page as saying: “The main thing with Joni is that she’s able to look at something that’s happened to her, draw back and crystalize the whole situation, then write about it.” I realised that this is what I had been doing for the past month or so. I realised that this is, in fact, exactly the song I want to share with you all this Christmas.
To my own surprise, even on Tuesday, I did in the end find moments of great joy and deep peace, of a kind I just don’t think I was capable of before getting long covid. In those moments, the words of this letter started to appear in my mind, demanding to be written. Another story was happening to me.
The next day was the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. That morning I threw up. I spent most of the morning under a duvet, although I did manage to make it to my meditation class on Zoom. With the help of my incredible husband, I also made it to Chorlton Water Park, where I dunked myself in the lake and felt new. (And yes, it was very fucking cold, and it was extremely bloody brilliant.) I came home, had a little rest, and started writing this, the way I write most things these days, in a Keep Note on my phone.
That evening, we lit a fire in the garden. I had planned to write down a list of all my anxieties and burn it, to try and purge myself of them before stepping into Christmas and the New Year. But in the end, I realised I did not want or need to do this. I am done with going to war on myself. I am learning, in the words of a friend of Donald Eadie’s, to “embrace the wounds in such a way that they become part of our greater wholeness.” I burned some sage and inhaled the goodly fragrance. I looked up at the stars. We made smores. We laughed until our sides hurt. Who knows – maybe I really am becoming a Goddess of Great Bliss after all.
Before signing off, I need to say a bit about the person who is sharing this letter with you. The other day, whilst watching the film Nativity! for a bit of light relief, I noticed the little icon in the corner telling us that I was logged into my Netflix account. ‘Connected as Chrissy’, it said.
Chrissy is the name my family have always called me by, ever since I was tiny. (Autocorrect tried to change this to Tony; just to confirm, I have never been called Tony.) Accordingly, the collection of people who know me as Chrissy today is a slightly random assortment of family friends, school and uni friends, my husband and his family and friends. Most of the friends I’ve met in my adult life do not know me as Chrissy, and it is certainly not a name I ever go by at work.
I’m reaching a stage of my career where increasingly people have Heard Of Me, which I still find weird. When a friend of my brother-in-law’s realised I was the same person he followed on Twitter, he exclaimed, “You didn’t tell me that “Mark’s wife Chrissy” and “left wing economist Christine Berry” were the same person!”
Well, this letter is not from Left Wing Economist Christine Berry – although I’m sure it will be read by some people who only know me in that capacity. For much of the past five months, I have not felt like that person – although she’s had her moments, and I now hope she’ll be back in business soon. Left Wing Economist Christine Berry tried to start writing another version of this letter, about why I think we are living in a deeply traumatised country and what I think we can do about it. But then I realised that story was for another day.
This letter is also not from Karma Dechen Lhamo. For much of the past few weeks I have not felt like that person either, although she’s also had her moments. She tried to start writing her own version of this letter, too. She wanted to tell you all why she thinks the songs of Joni Mitchell are dharma, actually, as are the artworks that helped pull me through my burnout and long covid – films like Encanto, Soul and Everything Everywhere All At Once; books like The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. But then I realised that, too, was a story for another day.
This letter is not from either of these people. This letter is from Chrissy, because that is who I am right now – and because I have realised that, more than anything, what I need in order to heal from my trauma is to feel ‘connected as Chrissy’. As a child I was always made to write thank you letters at Christmas to everyone who had given me gifts, and I think that, as much as anything else, this is a thank you letter.
It is a thank you letter to my husband, who has done so much for me these past five months and without whom I am not sure I would have survived. It is a thank you letter to my therapist, a phenomenal woman without whose help it would not have been possible. It is a thank you letter to the friends and family who have been there for me when I’ve really needed them; I think you know who you are. It is a thank you letter to everyone with whom I’ve shared conversations that have helped me understand myself and life a bit better. It is a thank you letter to everyone who has been part of my sangha, my community. I want to say thank you for the gifts I’ve been given by all of these people.
In a way, I suppose it is also a thank you letter to long covid, because without it I would almost certainly never have taken the space to absorb these insights and process my trauma. Quite simply, I would never have felt entitled to. This is just one of the many gifts long covid has given me.
This letter is not perfect. It is probably too long; I did not have time to write a shorter one. There is still a longer version inside me, clamouring to get out. But there is time for that. I promised myself I would put a lid on this letter today, so that I could skate away on my river into Christmas and get some proper rest. I think this story is good enough to do the job it needs to do. Among other things, you can all look forward to hearing my very clever thoughts on Why Encanto Is A Very Buddhist Movie another day.
We are spending Christmas at Mark’s parents’ house, with his two brothers and my sister-in-law. The last time we were all together here at Christmas time was three years ago. The last time I was here, in August, I was having another crashing relapse. When we arrived, I collapsed onto the sofa, barely able to eat. I spent most of the next few days in bed. Today I arrived, had a cup of tea and a mince pie, did some meditation, and finished this letter. As I write these final words, my heart is full of gratitude.
I hope that you find joy and peace and loving connection this Christmas. I hope that you find the space to breathe. And if you are going into the holidays carrying burdens that feel too heavy, I hope that 2023 may be the year that brings you enlightenment, the year you are able to put some of your heavy burdens down.