An Adult Child Abuse Survivor's Guide to the Holidays
This is a post from 'State of Grace', a blog I maintained from 2004 to 2009. I wrote frequently and candidly about my perspectives and experiences as a survivor of child sexual, physical and psychological abuse and neglect. This was a piece with a list of how I manage the profound difficulties of celebrating holidays with abusive members of my family. For Christmas, 2013, I humbly present this to the BlogHer readership, most espcially for my sister and brother abuse survivors and their allies.
(Edited from original post, November 26, 2009)
This blog post is for adult abuse survivors who are looking for strategies in dealing with their abusive families during the holidays. Family gatherings are meant to be lovely and fortifying, but for those of us who have been abused by family and/or adults close to us when we were young, holidays are a nightmare. We need to remember that we made it this far and we can go further. The way to do that is to get some help. I'd like to think this list of my own coping mechanisms will be helpful.
First, and most importantly, this is the primary principle to follow when you're in the presence of perpetrators and their allies:
Remember this always -
DO NOT ABANDON YOURSELF.
I can't say this enough - do not abandon yourself.
You were abandoned as a child. You did not deserve this. No child deserves this. So, as adults, we take care of ourselves as if we are our own precious child. Imagine taking your child-self gently but firmly by their lovely, grubby little hand and getting them out of harm's way. There are many ways to do this whether you are in the presence of perpetrators and their allies (like your own dismissive and scornful siblings who get angry whenever you mention the legacy and source of your pain) or if you're in a place where you may be triggered.
The following suggestions are listed in no particular order of importance because it's all important. Some of these ideas may work for you, some may not. As long as you keep that one, all-encompassing guidance "Do not abandon yourself" in mind, you can take it from there.
Here we go:
Remember who you are TODAY. You are no longer a child. Indeed, there is a hurt child within you. But, now you're an adult who can make your own choices and have power over your life.
One of the choices you can make is not go to your abusive family's house. You don't have to go! Say you're sick rather than telling them the actual reason for your absence. It's okay to "lie" in this situation if fear and anxiety prevents you from telling the truth. It's not really a lie, though. The abuse is responsible for the illnesses that you may be suffering - depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders.
If you do "call in sick", don't answer the phone if you know your abusive family members are trying to call you. Thank you, technology, for caller ID! They may call incessantly or not at all. Take a break - don't answer the calls from your abusive family members for a week. Then, if you must, call and say you're feeling better. And, when I say "better", I mean that you're probably doing better because you didn't spend time with people who were not good to you and continue to be bad to you.
If you have to be with abusive family members, do whatever you need to do to stay centered as you cannot abandon yourself and you need to remember who you are today.
Here are some tips and tools:
Go to your abuser's house with your real family - your husband, your kids, your chosen family of dear friends. If you need support and active reminders of who you are now, take your supportive people with you. They are your true family members who love you, won't abandon you and remind you of who you are today.
This is a big one - STAY SOBER. I cannot emphasize that enough. If you get drunk or high, you will lose that centered spot. You will relax, that's true, but it's a false sense of ease leaving you vulnerable. Do take Xanax if prescribed by your doctor, but stick to your prescribed dose. Try not to drink at all. Be aware and alert.
Help in the kitchen. Be involved with the preparation. Participate in the cooking and cleaning only if such activities are not triggering. This is how I deal - I put my head down and set the table, do the dishes, cook, chop wood, carry water. I put my head down and work it like a mindful Zen monk in silent meditation.
Sit by a window for a view of the outdoors. When you look to the outside world as you sit in the presence of your dysfunctional family, gazing out to the outdoors know there's light out there, beyond the dark cave of the abuser's house.
Go beyond looking out the window and get out there in that bigger world.Expand your universe. The abuser's house or the house with the abusers in it is not the core of the world. The world is beyond that house. In this world there are people who believe in you and love you unconditionally. That world contains your working life where you are valued or perhaps your university studies where you excel. So, go outside for a few minutes and take a walk in the bigger world.
Put your therapist's number on fast dial. Call anytime. Even if you reach their voice mail, leave a message. Don't fret if they don't call back right away. Instead, revel in the knowledge that you were wise enough to reach out. You pursued help and that action alone is therapeutic.
Keeping your therapist in mind, remember techniques they have suggested to help you through these tough times. For example, I like to use what all of my therapists have taught me - the classic self-hypnosis exercise of sitting comfortably and mentally going to my inner place of refuge. FYI - it's a beach on the Big Island of Hawaii where I snorkel to my heart's delight.
Minimize conversation with the perpetrator and anyone who has been abusive to you. Say you're not feeling well, you have a headache, thus you need to be quiet. Again, you are not lying here. That person makes you feel unwell and your head probably hurts when you're around them.
If you cannot avoid conversations with those people, keep something in your pocket to hold and remind yourself of the strong adult you are today. I use a little plastic monkey from the Barrel of Monkeys toy game. Small and with a defined shape, the monkey reminds me of the humor and light heartedness of my life away from the abusers. Also, a monkey is not to be messed with and you can pretend the monkey is throwing feces all around the abuser's home.
Keep your cell phone on to Twitter, Facebook or whatever you use for social media interactions. Set it to buzz everytime you get an update. Another reminder of the bigger world out there and that you're part of it.
Okay, get ready for this big one, survivors:
Remembering you are an adult of legal age, Walk out the door the second things get gnarly. Just go.
Everyone, no matter how badaas and brave they seem to be, is scared shitless to do this. I was scared to do this. But, I've done it and I'll do it again.
If you find yourself in an escalating conflict or charged moment, and you've been fighting and yelling, leave. Get out. But don't drive away. Take a walk, cry, yell some more or laugh maniacally at the absurdity of it all in order to release what is an emotional atomic bomb. Do not drive home in an intense emotional state as you are not centered. Respect your anger and anguish and give it time to release and subside.
Once you're back home, take a long, hot shower or bath. Put on clean sweats or pajamas, pour yourself a glass of juice, rev up the laptop and watch the best new thing on Netflix. You are treating your inner abandoned child like royality. She/he richly deserves the coziest, safest place on the planet