How To Cope With Family and The Holidays (as a Sexual Abuse Survivor)

Although the Holidays are what people say should be a merry time spent with family, there are many children, adolescent, and adult survivors out there right now feeling overwhelmed, broken, lonely, or finding themselves saying “yes” to gatherings they really want to say “no” to. (Many of us would rather feel the resentment after saying yes, than the guilt after saying no, but that is another topic for another day.) There are so many messy family situations and dilemmas that survivors of sexual assault are going through right now. IF this is you, I want you to know, that even though it really may feel like you are alone, you are not. Maybe it’s been difficult for you to put your own needs before others, (been there, sometimes, I’m still there ha), but just this time I want you to go with yourself. Listen to what you want, and then go with that. You’ve been through enough and to go through another emotionally exhausting and possibly even dangerous situation is not worth it. If no one is telling you, I will: You deserve better than that.

Now this year, obviously many of us are not getting together because of Covid. But if there are still ways that family and the holidays are causing problems, here are options about what you can do. Unfortunately, none of them are perfect, and I wish they were, but these are what worked for me.

Strands Beach, it is a beautiful place to cry.

1.Don’t go. Ok, easier said than done. You could have a lot of texts, “Why aren’t you here?” or “That’s so inconsiderate…” Although hearing the sounds of those texts coming through can send your anxiety through the roof, your safety from emotional or physical abuse is worth all those texts. Depending on your situation, maybe send one simple text out, saying that you are not coming, and then leave it at that. Don’t give into the back and forth thing. It sucks being alone if you have nowhere else to go. I remember when my family moved back to California three years ago and my mother’s extended side of the family came over for Thanksgiving, (the side the abuser was on) and I left. I spent Thanksgiving driving up and down PCH until I parked at Strands Beach, called my friend from back in Philly, and then cried for an hour. Not a fun night, but it was better than having to deal with that situation back home, I’ll tell you that. Don’t go, find a safe, sacred, and special place if you have nowhere else to go. You are allowed to protect yourself and say no. **PS: try to come up with a plan if you do decide to stay alone. That Thanksgiving I just basically cried, but there were many other moments later on where I’d stay alone and drink, smoke, or other stuff that caused more anxiety in the long run. This time should be spent on healing, and being gentle with yourself, which is why it’s a good idea to come up with a plan before diving into any self-destructive options.

2. If you decide to go, make sure there is a relative around that knows and that supports you. You could even come up with a code word with them for when things get too intense, or a good exist strategy.

3. Grieve. “Yep, be alone and grieve, great advice Fiona.” It’s depressing, and not how you probably want to spend your holiday. But the thing is if you had to deal with having to see the abuser at family reunions as a kid, you know how much of a toll it takes on your body and mind. For years, you were not given an option to not go and out of self-protection, you’d avoid the feelings of grief and brokenness for years. Because, in a sense, you were still in the midst of it. You are finally free. This also means, it may be the calm after the storm, but you’re realizing the grief didn’t go away. Many of us haven’t grieved the loss of our childhood and innocence. If this is the case, I strongly suggest you read my post Grief and Loss. Once you grieve, it clears the way for new memories. This leads me to the last point…

4. Create new memories with new people. I started this blog, Breaking Agreements, to help aid survivors break free from fears, dynamics, beliefs, and other limitations that the abuse may have caused. When you learn and practice breaking free from those beliefs and cycles, it’s like you’re living in a new world. This is the time to create new memories. These new holidays can be 100% yours! If you decided to not go to your family gathering and don’t want to be alone, you’d be surprised at how many people would be more than happy to have you come to their family gathering (ok, maybe not this year, but you get the point). I’ve spent multiple holidays with my roommate’s parents who were very generous to have me over. It may take a few years, but I promise, you will find your tribe.

Guys, I know how hard it is. It’s scary. You don’t deserve, nor ever deserved, to have to see your abuser or even have to hear about them or their whereabouts. You deserve to be and feel respected. Your own company alone is more healing than being around someone that hurt you. I’m sending you so much love guys. Here is a short IGTV video I made where I talk about coping with anxiety, PTSD, and resorting back to your angsty 13 year old self during family gatherings. ha

-Fiona

Grief ANd Loss

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog post contains the subjects of sexual assault and rape. These posts include excerpts from my non-fiction essays and memoirs written for past college courses that tell my story and experiences. My work is intended to help others understand, cultivate awareness, and heal from trauma. 

“I walked into the light. The spring sun rays, gleaming through the window, warmed my freckled cheeks, as the sound of the creaking floorboards rose from underneath. The entire world was still, soothing my trembling frame. I quietly closed the door, leaving the corpse of my childlike body in the damp, concrete basement, downstairs with him.

I tiptoed barefoot across the kitchen floor and entered out onto the patio, with the rest of the world. Laughter and ease filled the air, but it seemed too foreign to be able to console me. My two brothers were playing in the garden with their trucks and baseball bats. I would have joined, but those games didn’t interest me anymore. For the world was altered, it was no longer a child’s place” 

-excerpt from “Bloom”  by Fiona McHugh

A lot of the time I’ve heard people discuss whether rape takes away one’s virginity. Personally, I believe that the argument is pointless because the true loss isn’t the socially constructed label of purity but rather the loss of one’s childhood. After sexual assault happens to a child, the world is no longer a safe place for them. Their perspective of the world is tainted, in fact, the opposite of rose-colored glasses. 

Commonly, children who have been abused are always on high alert. If the abuse happened within their own home, there is no safe place to turn to. Young trauma survivors are often misdiagnosed with ADD or even OCD because of the constant need to escape or control their current environment. Instead, what these children are experiencing is PTSD. Outbursts of anger, excessive daydreaming, lack of attention, extreme emotional responses are all symptoms of a child not knowing how to understand and cope with discomfort and fear of the abuse. Oftentimes, if the root of these symptoms is not addressed, these “coping” tools are replaced with addictive patterns and behaviors when one moves towards adulthood. 

Personally, I was six years old when it happened and didn’t know what rape was at the time. It was very difficult for me to put into words what happened. However, I did notice that I felt different from many of my friends and siblings. I knew I was more anxious, that I cried more, noises and sudden movements startled me than most of the other kids. There are many areas of one’s life that trauma impacts and the grief of the loss of one’s childhood are one of them. 

As I said, I noticed that I was more on edge than most kids. Later on, when I understood what rape was and went to therapy, I felt a deep sense of grief. I was frustrated for not being as carefree as my friends, worrying about sleeping over at friend’s houses, and spending after school hours in therapy instead of playing outside. I felt frustrated and misunderstood when I’d cry in school and no one could understand why. I never sought out affection or hugs from anyone because of the PTSD. 

One of the things childhood sexual abuse does is that it robs one’s experience. It wounds that inner child, and most people don’t give that part of the compassion and love until they are in adulthood. Many survivors carry the weight of the trauma as well as the concern of how it affects their loved ones around them. For example, if the abuser was a family member or someone in the community, it’s common that the survivor carries shame and fear about “ruining” the dynamics of the home or group. My mother didn’t let me tell my brothers or other relatives for years because she was worried about how it would make her extended family look (the abuser was a relative on her side of the family.) For years, I felt like I was the problem, and that I would ruin people’s relationships if I told anyone. 

This situation is probably the most common, and sadly, is not often discussed. I had to learn to comfort myself because I couldn’t receive that from my mother. Many children survivors have to step into this adult role with themselves because they don’t have anyone to turn too. Luckily, although it was not allowed to be talked about in the home, my parents did send me to therapy, where I was allowed to talk about it. Many children don’t get that, and I am very grateful that I had some form of support. 

If you can relate to the loss and grief of your childhood, I want you to know that you are not alone. You may not know anyone personally, but I can promise there are many other people out there who feel the same way. The first step to riding the waves of grief is acceptance. It’s difficult, but one must learn to accept that they did not have the carefree childhood that everyone deserves. Some children may not have been abused, but they may have had addicted parents who were unable to care for them, leaving the child to have to step up and parent themselves as well as their guardian. Knowing that you are not alone in this experience sometimes helps you to accept it. 

It’s pretty common for adult survivors to want to rush through this grieving process because “it happened so long ago.” But that only delays healing. When one comes to the acceptance of reality and processes it, the path forward becomes more clear. 

After accepting the loss of your childhood, it’s important to listen to your inner child and what it needs. Think for a moment- What did you need as a child that you didn’t receive? Oftentimes, our actions in the present subconsciously mirror that need that wasn’t met. It could’ve been protection, trust, or boundaries. Or maybe your inner child is still seeking for fun and play because you couldn’t live in the present at the time back then. In that case, it’s important to do something you look forward to every day. It could be paddle boarding, playing with your dog, taking pictures of the sunset, laughing, singing, or dancing. The main points to consider when healing through grief is to accept, protect, and listen to your inner self. Don’t listen to the voices of what you “should be doing” to heal. Everyone has their path when it comes to healing. There is never a finish line, but rather an accumulation of personal accomplishments and the opportunity to hold other’s hands while guiding each other as we continue to heal along the way.