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…