New Year – Releasing, Banishing and Blessing

Yesterday I did a ritual of blessing and letting go with one of my friends. We both practice the same religion but hadn’t done any ceremony together before. It was her idea to burn things we wanted to let go of before we go into the new year, and to eat a dinner of black eyed peas and greens ( a southern US prosperity blessing practice).

I burnt three things. The first was a shield I’d made of paper, early into my healing journey. At the time, I was living alone and having night fears and flashbacks almost nightly. At the time I called them monsters. Come evening time, it was like I was haunted by anxiety and the sense that something was stalking me over my shoulder. I would be afraid to look around or to focus much attention on it, for fear the ‘monster’ would come closer.  Because most of my abuse happened at night in my bedroom, going to bed was particularly hard for me, and, although I didn’t know it, I was having memory fragments of the fear I experienced as a child and teen, waiting to see if my abuser would come down the hall to my bedroom and enter to abuse me or if he would pass my room by and go to bed. Since before he would abuse me he would usually use the bathroom across the hall from my room, I had come to associate bathrooms with bad things happening as well. However, I hadn’t had enough time and support to put all this together yet at that point, so all I knew was the fear.

I had created the shield with all of the sacred elements pictured on it, and posted it on my door as a warding to keep the monsters out. That, combined with some other ritual I did at the time, like writing down my fears in bed before sleeping, keeping a jar by my bed in case I was too scared to get up and go into the bathroom at night, and bringing a candle with me to bed so I didn’t have to walk across a dark bedroom, helped keep the monsters manageable until I could process more of the memory fragments. When I moved, that shield came down and didn’t go back up again in my new place, but I’ve kept if for the 20 some years since.

I burned it yesterday because there are no longer monsters waiting for me outside my bedroom door, and if fear fragments from my past emerge, I can name them and deal with them directly. I thanked the shield for protecting me and let that energy go.

The second thing I  burned was a journal from 2003. At that time, I was living with a roommate who bullied me. She had been asked to leave the house, but in the two weeks before she would actually leave, I stayed with a friend because I no longer felt safe at home. This woman, I’ve realized recently, was very similar to both my father and my recent other partner, so it felt fitting to burn my account of freeing myself of her at the same time I am freeing my self of my ex. I do not have to be connected with people who enjoy hurting others.

Also in the journal at the time my father/abuser was in the hospital after a serious car accident, and while there he had been diagnosed with cancer, which they were treating. My family rallied around to nurse him back to help, which felt like such a betrayal, and lessened my ability to deal with the abusive roommate. I now have no contact with my family and have many more people in my life who know my story.

Flipping through the pages, I came across a description I wrote after waking at 5 am to cry over the fact that my girlfriend (now wife), who I had been with three years at this point, was losing her sex driving in menopause, something she thought was only temporary and I should be patient with. Ten years later, we’ve resolved this issue, although in a completely unexpected way, by me having additional partners, something that has completely transformed and blessed our relationship.

I wrote at the time about feeling politically alienated from the queer community, because as a survivor of misogynist violence, my needs are different, and the most  important (only) gender issue for me is expanding power and equality for women for the purpose of protecting ourselves and children from misogynous sociopaths like my father.  When people wish to do away with the concept of ‘woman’ completely, it feels like they are trying not to create equality, but to make women and our struggles invisible.  This issue had come up for me that day in a queer poly group I have been dipping my toe into, that I was concerned would have a rigidly lockstep political stance on these issues.  Instead of being silenced, I spoke out, and got reassurance that my perspective would not be shut down from one of the moderators. Afterward, I re-read yesterday on my blog  a post where I had a wonderful comment exchange with Michelliana ( a woman of trans experience) about the conflict of trans needs and survivor needs. I realized how healing this simple, thoughtful, vulnerable exchange had been for me. All of these things have been ongoing issues in my life, and in the past ten years, all have transformed. It’s good to let that energy burn off and be released.

The last thing I have some mixed feelings about. I burned a bunch of nitrile gloves. As a Pagan, doing something so polluting was a dumb idea in sacred space (or anywhere) and I thought afterward that I could have just cut them to bits with scissors and put them in the garbage. The gloves had been purchased as safe sex supplies by an ex-girlfriend, and barely used. I had requested that she wear gloves, which provide a smoother surface and prevent fingernails and rough hands from irritating my skin, and so make it less likely that I’ll have a flare-up of the inflammatory skin condition I have around my vulva resulting from the assaults. She didn’t like the gloves that I preferred for this purpose and had bought her own, in a rough material and size so large it was wrinkly, causing more discomfort than the ungloved hand would have. They represented that selfishness and lack of empathy and caring that I don’t want to see again in a partner. This was the only thing I burned that was a true banishing, a releasing of something that disgusted me to see and which  I was glad to see the back of. The smoke clung to me afterward, and today I find myself with a headache. I would like to find a way to think about that toxic smoke amid my relief to have them truly gone, to have her truly gone from inside me as well. Perhaps it is reminding me that getting rid of something toxic leaves a residue, and it’s best to avoid those things completely in future, and not rely on my strength to withstand and clean up the damage later. When we are very hungry, it is tempting to take the food that is offered, despite the toxins in contains. It is important to ensure I never get that hungry again.

I think today, I will focus on blessing myself, my life and the people I love, on nourishing myself. Going forward, I will pay attention to my hunger, and figure out a strategy for meeting my needs without accepting toxic people into my life or at least removing them immediately.

May your 2014 be blessed. As my friend Kate says, “Good and Healing Thoughts to You.”

Holidays for Incest Survivors

Yule CandlesTonight is Christmas Eve. I am grateful to be spending it with my spouse and  my dog, in a warm, safe house full of light and love. I am happy. I’d like to share some holiday coping tips and recommendations as I’ve learned them over the past 20+ years for myself and from other survivors of incest I know. May your winter and new year be blessed and full of love, peace and gentle healing.

The first recommendation is to stop spending holidays with your abusive or complicit family members. Make up an excuse if you have to. If you haven’t confronted them about the abuse or don’t plan to, then tell them you can’t make it this year and unplug your phone. Go on a road trip somewhere, anywhere if they live in your town. To paraphrase an old pop song, there are 50 ways to leave your abuser.

The step of putting yourself first, of expressing loyalty and demonstrating solidarity with the child inside you that was assaulted, by taking her needs seriously, is one of the most healing things you can do. I know it’s tempting to say to yourself that your abuser won’t be there, or will be easy to avoid and you’re an adult now, and that you can handle it. This is of course probably true, but it’s kind of like hanging out in a smoky bar or breathing exhaust fumes for hours, it’s not good for you and you’ll pay for it in toxic aftereffects.

I realize often survivors get manipulated by their families to be silent through financial or other types of blackmail, or through bribes. I encourage you to live simply if you have to, but get free of their control. It will give you space you never realized was there to heal.

I don’t have this but several of my survivor friends have triggers around specific holidays. I know that avoidance just reinforces triggers, but that has to be done under the survivors control and at her/his own pace. Reducing exposure can make space to gradually unpack and desensitize.  If you are new to healing, then going on vacation (if you can afford it) to somewhere they don’t celebrate that particular holiday can be very restful. For example, Canadians don’t celebrate American thanksgiving and vice versa, Buddhist countries don’t celebrate Christmas, and even places that celebrate familiar holidays in unfamiliar ways might be enough of a difference to be a rest.

Create holiday rituals for yourself. When I first decided I was never going home for Christmas again, I started holding Winter Solstice candle-making parties for my friends. I bought wax and wicking (at a craft store) and used old candle ends for colour, and then melted the wax in jars in a water bath and spent an enjoyable time making candles with nice people, friends, sometimes other survivors.

Organize or attend ‘orphan Christmas’ or ‘orphan Thanksgiving’ parties or dinners or organize celebrations with your heart-family or family of choice – friends and other people who love you and have nothing to do with your abusers.

Cultivate friendships with people who are also estranged from their families or have difficult relationships with them, who won’t pressure you to ‘forgive for the holidays‘ .

Cultivate ways to state the situation succinctly. Some of my favourites are:

  • “I spend [insert holiday here] at home.” or “I prefer to spend the holidays here with my spouse.”
  • “I don’t have family to spend the holidays with.” (Strictly true, even if they are still alive. Real family doesn’t abuse you and protects you from abuse.) Generally people will think they are dead and not question you further.
  • “My family doesn’t get together for the holidays.”
  • “I am estranged from my family.  I’m happy right here.” – With people you think may get it, or who you don’t care if they don’t, this is a good way to open your life to allies. I’ve often had people disclose difficult family relationships here, and then we all feel a lot more genuine. However, it does run the risk of someone saying something stupid. I had someone respond “Why, you seem like a nice person.” when I told them this. I told them I am a nice person…
  • “I’d rather not talk about that.” or “Let’s talk about something else.” – Clear, to the point and avoids lying.
  • “I lost my family in a tragedy. Let’s change the subject.” – Also true, and effective, if a bit heavy handed, but good for the clueless or insensitive.

 If for some reason you really have to be around complicit family members or worse, your abuser, if at all possible sleep somewhere that is completely under your control, like a hotel room. You could claim allergies, erratic sleeping habits, or offer no excuse at all. It will make a difference to have a place where you can be an adult and can escape from any drama to. Your inner child will appreciate having a place to get away to where she/he/they are safe. In addition, bring a friend or spouse. Having a  non-family member present will do a lot to shift abusive, intrusive or complicit behaviour and force your relatives to treat you like an adult. Make sure this is someone who knows about the abuse and is supportive, and is willing to leave or go for a walk with you if things get rough. 

If the abuser is still potentially active, document any access he/she has to potential victims, and any abuse you witness. Report it to the child protection authorities, or if you can’t do that, report it to your therapist (with names and locations) who will have to report it to the authorities. Report even if you think nothing will be done. It provides a paper trail in case things are investigated later. You can report anonymously.

Prepare  a list of safe conversation topics you can pull out to change the subject. Re-read this information on forgiveness and why it’s not necessary that you forgive your abuser or complicit relatives.

What are your holiday coping strategies? I’d love to hear them in the comments…