The Ghosts of Christmas Past

A guest blogger talks about dealing with Christmas as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. (NB This post is not graphic, but for some it may be triggering)

So, it’s that time of year again. Compulsory happiness and lots and lots of family time. For some, the happiness comes naturally and the family time is cherished. But for some who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the Christmas season can be agonising.

For me, though the abuse happened all year round, it always happened on Christmas Day. Because we always spent Christmas Day with them.

While most of the family was laughing and joking, I was taken elsewhere in the house by one or both of my abusers. The fact that it was Christmas day made it more memorable somehow. It could be that it always happened on August the 8th or April the 27th too, but why would I remember that date?

I dreaded Christmas every year. I was supposed to smile and be happy and enjoy the time we all spent together, but I loathed it. As an adult this continued, until I realised I did not have to do it any more.

The first year I didn’t spend Christmas with the family was awful. I felt so guilty, I felt like everyone thought I was being ‘difficult’ (the rest of the family do not know about the abuse), and I felt like even though I wasn’t there, with them, this crap was still haunting my every thought. I took a big overdose, and was dismayed to wake up. While getting away from that environment was good, the abuse was still so present in my mind. I could not get rid of it just by being somewhere geographically different, though this was definitely a start. And it made me more safe.

But the following year was better. I had already taken my stand, and dealt with the family reaction to me not spending Christmas with them, and rather than spending the whole time in a crisis, I felt like I was taking positive steps to make Christmas into something I wanted it to be, rather than something I had to do.

There is an awful lot of societal pressure to ‘do’ Christmas. Even now, after years of doing it my own way, I have learned that you can never tell people you are doing NOTHING on Christmas day. They look horrified! They invite you to their home, they suggest alternatives. They can’t imagine that anyone would want to opt out of the celebrations altogether. Thankfully though, I do do something, but it is so much on my own terms, and so far removed from the traditional family day that I feel more in control, and more like I’m making it my own.

But it does not remove the memories.

Even if I can avoid the actual abusers, it is harder still to avoid those around them who were complicit in what was happening, by not doing the things that should be done to protect a child. I can cope better with those people now, but would always rather have no contact with them.

Even if your abuse wasn’t directly related to Christmas, that does not mean that it has to be an easy time of year for you! If the abuse was in the family, then family gatherings and strange nostalgia can make you feel as isolated as ever. If they knew about the abuse, and the abuser is still involved in celebrations I can only imagine how devalued you can feel. And if, like me, they don’t know about it, then ‘innocent’ mentions of the men involved feel like a punch in the stomach, but I do feel I have to smile and nod when I hear their news.

And if the abuser was a stranger, or family friend, a trusted adult, or anyone at all, enforced cheer can be so hard. Of course we are sometimes happy, and sometimes sad. But the pressure to be on top form, when you might be having a difficult period of flashbacks and nightmares and memories, is so painful. Spending time with children, be they relatives; or friends’ kids, can bring you face to face with a tiny person the age you were once, and the realisation that however much you might blame yourself at times, when you look into that 4 year old, or 8 year old, or 12 year old’s eyes, you know without a shred of doubt that there is no way that anyone that age – including yourself – could EVER be responsible for the bad things that happened to you. And that is both reassuring and shocking. Personally, I give myself a hard time with, ‘Well, I was a very grown-up 10. I wouldn’t expect most 10 year olds to be able to find a way out of that situation, but surely *I* should have done’. Then I see a 10 year old and realise that no, 10 years old is (while disputed by 10 year olds!) really, really young. And in any case, if I was a ‘grown-up’ 10, that was almost certainly due to the abuse that had occurred before, which had also groomed me to ‘accept’ the further abuse as normal.

Being with children at Christmas makes me scared too. Scared for them. When you are a survivor, there can be times when every child you see seems to be at risk. You get overwhelmed by the dangers we all face.

But in the context of coping with Christmas, trying to relate to children in terms of how sweet and lovely and childish they are, can put into perspective not just how little power you had, no matter how much you have told yourself otherwise, but also how, while you may not have done it consciously, chances are you have hated your child self at some point, for having been abused. Spending time with kids will also show you that there is no way that you could have been such a hateful child, because, as a rule, children aren’t hateful. They are trusting and loving and kind and funny and mischievous and always full of surprises. And when they’re naughty, even that doesn’t make them deserving of hate, it makes them normal children.

This can help you to see that the child you were was not hateful, evil, dirty and responsible. She actually was a little child, doing little child things.

Other things to bear in mind when facing Christmas as an abuse survivor are where you are and what you do. Some people with the right jobs choose to work on Christmas day. It’s a legitimate reason to not participate in all the celebrations, and it gives people who want the day off more of a chance to get that. Many people volunteer at homeless shelters and crisis centres, serving up Christmas dinner, offering health care or providing entertainment or a friendly chat. If you have funds, you could go away somewhere, perhaps somewhere where Christmas isn’t even acknowledged, never mind celebrated.

You can also start to create your own rituals. If you want to celebrate Christmas, but not in a way that’s inherently linked to a difficult childhood, then imagine what you would really like to do to celebrate, while trying to remove all society’s pressures about the season from your mind. The day might start with an early morning stroll. You might write and illustrate a cartoon. You might clear out the clutter from the attic! You could also look at how other societies, cultures and religions celebrate special days, and get some alternative ideas.

Those also work if you opt out of Christmas altogether. Once you get used to people fretting about your lack of plans, then it’s all yours. You can get on with it as if it’s no different from any other day, perhaps using some self-made rituals if you find yourself feeling left out of the loop.

You may want to be with family too, and coming out of it unscathed is all about working out how best that happens for you. If your abuser/s was a family member, your plans might involve seeing the rest of the family but not them. If no-one in the family was involved in the abuse it may be easier to negotiate creating your own terms around what you do, and don’t, want to do in the mad few holiday days.

But that’s just the day itself. The lead-up to Christmas can be tough in different ways. I find that it is a time when my flashbacks will increase, both in frequency and intensity, and that I think a lot more about the abuse too (chicken? egg?). Sometimes this makes me angry, other times upset, most times I feel very vulnerable and fragile. This, on top of the usual stress and angst of the build-up to the dreaded day, can mean that the weeks beforehand can feel unbearable.

During the most difficult periods of coping as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, some of the things women can really benefit from are firstly, being really gentle with yourself. You are feeling bad enough already, without increasing that by beating yourself up for feeling so bad!

Secondly, make a conscious effort to place the blame where it should be – on the abuser, not yourself.

Thirdly, look after yourself as best you can, or let those around you who may offer to. Eating as well as you are able, not drinking too much alcohol, trying to maintain a sleep routine, can all help to strengthen your physical and emotional defenses against onslaughts of awfulness. You know yourself what helps you and what harms you, so follow your own self-knowledge and do whatever you need to, to cope.

If you’ve been affected by issues like these, you may wish to contact Rape Crisis

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