Surviving the holidays
CW: festive season, christmas, family
The Holiday period can be a beautiful time of year. It can be filled with friends and family, amazing food and comfort. It can also be very stressful time of year. With fights and tensions, expectations and pressure. What I want to discuss is that it can also be an especially triggering time of year for survivors of sexual trauma (as well as many other people). Sometimes, the holidays may a safe haven of warmth in their recovery. But it’s important to be mindful that there are a multitude of reasons why the holidays may be specifically hard for a survivor. It may be the case that someone experienced trauma around that time of year in a specific place, for example whilst visiting hometowns, which may be very triggering. It may be that a survivor experienced sexual trauma from a friend of family member that they still have to interact with at home or at gatherings. It may be that the holidays often entail a lot of physical contact between people – hugging, ‘kissing under the mistletoe’, being crammed in a dining room together… this physical contact may be too much for survivors (and anyone for that matter).
What I want to tell survivors is that they should be the ones who decide what they do, where they go and who they spend time with at this time of year. If you don’t want to go to a party – don’t! If you need to take a break from the crowd and spend some time alone – do! If you get upset and react in ways that some may see as ‘not very Christmassy’ – that’s okay, and they are wrong! The pressure of this time of year is high, and it can often feel like you’re going to explode. If you do explode (emotionally, I mean) that’s okay – trust your body. But, you’re going to make it through. You’re going to be okay. If it all begins to feel too much, that you won’t be able to get through the next day, the next hour, the next minute; go for a walk, go play with a pet, go write all your thoughts and tension in your journal, go call someone you trust, go watch stupid YouTube clips, go have a shower – just GO. You will make it through all of those moments, I promise.
What I want to tell supporters/allies of survivors is that if you know a survivor who may be struggling through the holidays, please reach out to them. A text or a call to see how they’re generally doing could go a long way in giving them the strength to get through these potentially hard times. If you’re at a party or event and you notice someone is struggling, ask them if they’re okay and if they need you to step outside or find some quiet with them – if they want to go alone, and they seem safe, let them go. Be respectful or their needs and acknowledge that they may not want any attention at all. Please just don’t relegate someone to being ‘awkward’ if they don’t want to be around people or ‘too drunk’ if they’re using alcohol to get through a difficult party atmosphere. Be with them, talk to them, and let them know that they are valid in anything and everything they may be feeling over those intense few days. You may need to be super patient, showing your loved survivors that you acknowledge their trauma and will be there no matter (or not be there) no matter their needs.
I myself have had a very tumultuous relationship with Christmas throughout my life. Christmas dinners are objectively the best meals ever (especially with my Mum’s sage and onion stuffing), but in periods when my eating disorder has flared up, the prospect of sitting down with people to overfeed has been overwhelmingly terrifying. I love mulled wine and special beers my Dad gets me as a present, but drinking too much can trigger my PTSD, and can lead to my quiet breakdowns. I love the warmth of my favourite hometown spaces, but bad things have also happened in some of those spaces.
I am, for the first time in my adult life, truly excited for this Christmas. Excited to relax, to eat, to drink, to laugh and to hug my sister on Christmas morning. I am excited to eat turkey (I am a bad vegetarian), I am excited for competitive family board games, I am excited for a friend’s birthday, I am excited to see old friends. I am excited for peace.
If you are reading this and you are struggling to cope during these holidays, I want you to know that it will not always be like this. Situations change, people change, traditions change. Things will be hard, they may always have elements of hardness, but it will get better. You will find people who love you and allow you to spend your festive season however you wish. I’m so sorry if you are scared or anxious for big days, such as Christmas day, but you are valid, and you are allowed to keep yourself safe in any way you see fit.
illustration used: Ailie Banks @ailiebanks