Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

An Often Missed Self-Diagnosis

It’s holiday time and that means feasting and family. Of course, for some of us, Thanksgiving dinner comes with a side of tension so thick the turkey knife can’t cut it.

Family: the people we belong to even if we don’t fit in. The people who know our history because they’ve lived it with us.

There’s a saying, “Every family has their stuff.” (That’s the PG version.) And it’s true. I attribute this to the fact that people just can’t be on their best behavior their entire lives – stuff happens, things get said, feelings get hurt and then we eat our resentment, swallow hard and keep on keepin’ on.

But if you follow my blog you know that I suffer from overshareatosis and heart-on-my-sleeve. I also have a bad case of foot-in-my-mouth.

A long time ago, I had a mild case of head up my a**, but marriage cures that for most people – including me. Anyway – foot-in-mouth people don’t do well with elephants in the room. It’s like everyone else knows not to talk about it and we just say,

“Hey! Did y’all know there’s an ELEPHANT here?!”

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We are hard family members to have.

This is why at Thanksgiving last year I sat down at the dinner table and asked someone about why someone else had been left out of some family gatherings. Some people shifted in their seats, others slowed the clearing of dishes, and some cupped their coffee mugs with both hands and leaned in.

Her answer was well-reasoned. The divide didn’t form over one or two disagreements, but really over a lifetime of repeated hurts. She said she realized she didn’t have to force herself to get hurt again and again. She decided it was better to just stop giving the family member opportunities. And so they stopped talking. It made sense.

But her words stayed with me. I spent a lot of mental energy thinking about how I could mend their relationship. I kept asking myself, “How do two really good people let their relationship get so damaged?” I wondered how sisters could grow so far apart.

I thought and thought and thought about them.

I’ve always thought highly of my own family. Oh – I knew we had our fair share of “stuff” – the usual shotgun weddings and messy divorces. And we did have a family split over…well…over things I can’t say because they’re not my stories to tell. BUT, I can say without a doubt that I inherited the “HEY! There’s an ELEPHANT!” gene from my mother. In spite of all of this, I still felt like my little insular family was remarkably normal and fun and loving.

Did I ever tell you my brother married my best friend from high school? 

He did!

When they first started dating, I loved it…and then it was a little weird…and then, they got married and I was super happy for them.

And somehow, at some point in time, she transitioned from friend to family. I found my friend saying things like,

“You know, you really hurt your mom’s feelings about such and such.”

But I had always wanted a sister, and honestly, I don’t think you can get much more sisterly than things like that.

With family – stuff happens. There are disappointments and misunderstandings. There are missed wedding and baby showers. There are questions like, “Why does every holiday have to revolve around when they can be here?” And then you find yourself doing things like counting pictures…

My mom’s fridge is covered with photos. Mickey “made the fridge” early in our relationship – a sure stamp of approval. One day while scanning the collage on a visit home, something seemed ‘off.’ So I counted…there was one picture of me and like ELEVEN of my sister-in-law. A really big person wouldn’t have noticed. A big person would have noticed and not said anything. I said,

“Yo, Mom! What’s up with all of the pictures of Jesse?”

But things weren’t bad with my sister-in-law…just different. Definitely different from our days in high school when we hugged each other so much people asked if we were a couple. Different from when we had sleepovers and laid awake laughing until it hurt.

Then in the summer of 2012, Mickey and I rented a huge cottage on a lake in Michigan and invited our families to each stay for part of the week. I imagined swimming, s’mores and board games. I imagined the best kind of family fun. But the water was frigid, my brother couldn’t make it, and my niece and nephew were stir-crazy.

Sand got in the hot tub and sloshed water burned out a fuse. Standing in knee-deep lake water, my nephew pulled down his shorts and did his best rotary sprinkler impression for the neighbors while urinating. Someone drew on the wall. Stuff happened. Annoyance showed. And I may have put BOTH feet in my mouth…a few times.

That autumn I got a call from my sister-in-law saying they weren’t going to make it to Tennessee for the holidays. I asked why. I listened. I said I understood. I really did ‘get it.’ And some part of me was relieved.

But that was before I got angry.

I got really, really angry. I called my parents and ranted. Mickey heard enough ranting to fill twenty sets of ears. I wrapped myself in self-righteousness and decided I wasn’t going to move an inch. In my head, it was about right and wrong and there was absolutely no reason to budge if you’re right. Right?

Time passed.

Family holidays came and went and came and went. We saw each other a few times and it was fine.

Absolutely, totally and completely fine.

And then at some point when I was mulling over the sadness of someone else’s family split because of two sisters who couldn’t put aside their hurt for the sake of family – it hit me. “Holy smoly!” I thought,

“I have an ailment I didn’t even know I had…I have PLANK IN MY EYE!

Oh yes, friends. I seriously spent months reflecting on the speck in someone else’s eye when I had a plank in my own. It’s an often missed self-diagnosis. But once I knew it was there, I couldn’t live with it.

I called my sister-in-law. I told her the story of those two sisters. And then I took a deep breath and said:

“…and I realized that I don’t want that to be us.”

Tears. Lot of tears. And apologies. And promises to be better. And because my sister-in-law still has all of the qualities that made her my friend in the first place – we found our way to a better place.

Once I got that plank out of my eye – I could see clearly all of the ways I had been wrong. And honestly “rightness” quit mattering to me anyway.

This Thanksgiving will be my first opportunity to hug my sister-in-law since that conversation. Our whole family is going to be together. And this post is proof that all elephants have been uninvited!

I have been given a generous serving of forgiveness. And I hope to serve my family heaping platters of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Because God has given me this family and I am so thankful for them.

P.S. – Take it from me. It can be hard to see a plank in your eye if you’re not looking for it. So before the holidays this year – check for planks. And remember that love is better than rightness – that’s how it covers a multitude of sins.

This holiday season may we see ourselves as clearly as we see others, may we measure out grace in the quantity we desire it for ourselves, may our mouths be as full of kind words are they are of mashed potatoes, may our hearts be as full of love as our stomachs are of Thanksgiving dinner. 

Happy Holidays!

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NOTE: In an effort to avoid putting my foot in my mouth, I sent this to everyone mentioned for pre-publication approval. I am thankful for their gracious consent.

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Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Author of the viral post: 10 Things to Know Before Your Next Visit to the Emergency Department. Board certified emergency medicine physician, wife, mother, aspiring novelist.
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