Survivors Surviving the Holidays
By Melanie Blow
There is one inevitability in my life during the holidays- by the Monday after Thanksgiving, a certain friend of mine will ask “why aren’t you more festive around Christmas?” To her, the fact that I don’t get doe-eyed when I hear “Jingle Bells” is an affront to God and country, kittens and sunshine. One year, she bought me a tiny tree. My dog promptly ate it -with no prompting from me.
This annual exchange between me and my friend doesn’t bother me, per se, but it reminds me of the gap between survivors and non-survivors. That gap becomes a chasm around the holidays, and some of us fall in.
Euphemisms aside, in our very commercial society, the holiday season is about children, family and money. Three things I don’t have, and three things survivors predictably have complex relationships with.
Those of us who have survived abuse, neglect and household dysfunction, are the group of people most frequently coping with loss or relinquishment of children. Women with high ACE scores are more likely to find themselves in abusive relationships as adults. An unfortunate fact of abusive relationships is that leaving often means losing custody of your child, or spending Christmas wondering how your child is doing, as a judge made them spend it with the man who has proven himself so dangerous. Survivors of either sex with high ACE scores are also more likely to have relinquished a child, either voluntarily (placing them up for adoption), or through action of the state. If a parent voluntarily relinquishes a child, they are still likely to grieve for them, as will a parent whose child is removed by the state. So all the commercials featuring bright-eyed children are a dagger in the heart for many survivors, and most of them are too ashamed of their situation to acknowledge it.
No one is more likely to abuse a child than their family. We like to think that when a child is abused by a family member, a non-offending member does the right thing, the child is immediately protected, and the rest of the family sides with the child. Sadly, this is rare. Disclosures of sexual or non-sexual abuse tend to tear families along generational or matrimonial lines. Particularly with sexual abuse, the child who discloses often becomes a pariah in the family and is blamed for “breaking the family up”. Survivors, whether abused inside or outside of their family, often develop problems with drugs and mental illness, and these things can cause rifts in families. Many families force victims to choose between spending time with someone who hurt them greatly, or not spending time with the family. Many families push a victim towards reconciliation, forgiveness, or otherwise express great insensitivity. And some survivors struggle to spend time in the physical house where they were abused- this can be a very strong trigger for panic attacks or PTSD.
The ACE study proves that surviving childhood trauma increases the odds of someone suffering a range of physical and mental illnesses throughout their life. It’s hard to obtain an education or hold a steady job when you’re struggling with your physical and mental health. Add an abusive relationship into the mix, add an arrest for drug addiction into the mix, or add a background where you didn’t learn life-skills involving money, and you start to see why survivors are more likely to struggle with poverty and even homelessness than their non-abused peers. Indeed, the ACE study found a positive correlation between ACE scores, financial difficulty and even homelessness.
So now we’ve established that a big chunk of Americans are likely to have all sorts of negative feelings around this time of year, and feel those feelings are forbidden by the rest of the world. Now what?
There are lots of things you can do to be a good friend, a good relative, and a generally decent and sensitive person to survivors over the holiday season. And if you think you don’t know any survivors, think again- 67% of Americans have ACE scores of at least one, and 22% survived sexual abuse as a child. You may not know any survivors who introduce themselves as such, but you know survivors.
If you have a friend who withdraws, who complains of being “down”, who has lots of weird, hard-to-explain health issues, etc,. during the holiday season, your job isn’t to convince them to love the holidays.
Listen to them attentively and without judgment. Do not try to influence them into making a particular decision with their family. Never invalidate another survivor’s story- don’t do this any time of the year in front of anyone, but especially don’t do it in front of a struggling survivor. Keep the lines of communication open, even if little communication happens. Spend time with them, even if you’re not doing something “festive”. If your friend talks about their abuse with you, listen. Don’t ask them for details or interpretations. If you can accommodate your friend at your annual holiday celebration, if they would fit in and be comfortable, invite them. If you’ve invited them before, and they’ve always said no, continue to invite them. Sometimes that simple act can mean the world to someone.
When I use the term “struggling”, I’m using it loosely to mean anything from people being a bit more withdrawn, more sad, more angry, more vulnerable, to sinking badly into depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
It’s good to know signs of serious depression. If you’re worried about your friend, tell them so. Offer to help them connect with mental-health resources in your community. Offer to take them to a doctor’s appointment. Once again, even making the offer can be very significant.
All of these tips apply to a relative of yours who’s a survivor, too. But there’s a particular misery unintentionally bestowed upon survivors by their families every year. I doubt many people will read this thinking “I have a sex offender in my family and I want to understand the etiquette involved from a survivor’s point of view”. But here’s the trick- researchers estimate as many as 10% of men and between 1-3% of women are sex offenders. They have families, too. Only 10% of those who sexually offend against a child will ever see a day behind bars. Most children don’t disclose their sexual abuse before adulthood. So there are many, many families in which one member alleges that another did something unspeakable to them, and yet the police and courts aren’t involved. The person making the accusation probably isn’t the most stable limb of their family tree- they’ve likely got a history of mental illness, substance abuse and bad relationships. And it is ever so easy to assume the accusations (which must be false, right?) are a result of that dysfunction. Realistically, it’s much more likely that the abuse really happened, and it’s the cause of the dysfunction.
It is not the intent of this article to tell anyone what to do within their family. But I do want to explain, from a survivor’s point of view, what it is like to be told something like “all I want is one day for the whole family to be together” or “if you were a good ___, you would do this for me”.
Child abuse is not something that someone “just gets over”. The ACE study proves this. The CDC estimated the actual cost of surviving any form of child abuse- sexual or non-sexual, is about $240,000. That figure only includes increased health expenses and decreased lifetime productivity- pain and suffering don’t enter the equation. Victims of abuse can forgive their abusers. Many do, and many find the experience beneficial. But forgiving them does not re-wire their brain. It does not change their immune system, their endocrine system, the way their DNA has been expressed in myriad tissues in their body. It does not cure their PTSD or anxiety disorder. So expecting a victim of abuse to “just get over” the abuse for one day is like asking someone with cancer to “get over it” for a day.
Another thing to remember about child abuse victims is this- it is never their fault. When a victim and an abuser are expected to be equally responsible for maintaining family harmony, you are saying that someone who chose to do something enormously harmful to an innocent victim is bearing the same responsibility as someone who was an innocent victim. As much as families often come up with interesting ways of understanding abuse within their midst, a child can never be blamed for their own abuse. If you can wrap your mind around that, you are taking a huge step towards building a stronger family and becoming a better person.
If someone in your family has abused a child, there is nothing wrong with loving them. You do not need to banish them from your family. But if you want to maintain family integrity, don’t do things that unintentionally banish their victim, either. Do not be offended if a victim doesn’t want to spend time with their abuser. Do not be offended if a victim wants to avoid meeting at a certain place. Do not be offended if a victim says they have no interest in forgiving their abuser. And don’t blame their natural responses to their abuse for causing family disharmony. If there is any way you can arrange family functions so that both victim and abuser get to socialize with family, but not at the same time, you’re doing something truly good.
Perhaps the biggest reason I don’t love the holiday season is because it makes so many people feel inadequate. Rather than cling to an ideal most people can never achieve, I wish more people would celebrate what they have and what they’ve accomplished in life. Be proud of the survivors in your family. Believe them. And by doing so, you’re giving them a gift that is truly precious.
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