So… it’s that time of the year again. Even the most advanced survivor dissociation powers fail at denying it, as the world around us has officially transformed into Christmas wonderland. There seems to be a common understanding that ‘the holidays’ can be a stressful time for many people, for many reasons, and I guess most of us don’t genuinely believe that anyone’s Christmas experience really matches up with the TV adverts. But for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, Christmas can be much more than just stressful: it can be a massive trigger.
Personally, I have all the normal and nice Christmas memories, all the things that I liked about it when I was a child: The cosy atmosphere, the candles, the scents, the food, the excitement, the presents, the exceptionalness about these holidays where you put on your favourite dress and are allowed to stay up longer and eat as many sweets as you like. As children do, I liked the rituals and the traditions – this unique blend of the culture around you and your own take on it that make up each family’s individual Christmas routine. Except that in my case, sexual abuse was a part of this very Christmas routine, just like decorating the tree, lighting the candles, and opening the presents.
Now, it’s not like Christmas was the only time of the year I experienced sexual abuse, but it somehow stands out. It is the most salient and widely celebrated family event of the year, and as my abuser was a relative, ‘the whole family getting together’ for me was synonymous with ‘I will be sexually abused’. And this is what I still remember when the Christmas experience is being recreated in a big collective ritual every year, with the same songs, the same images, the same smells, and the same food. The month-long run-up to Christmas takes me back into a childhood where this was a time of contemplating strategies to avoid my abuser on Christmas day (even though none of them ever worked).
Around two thirds of all child sexual abuse happens within the family, which means that for a lot of us survivors, sexual abuse used to be part of our Christmas experience. It means that we might be estranged from family as a result of the abuse. And it means that we might be facing our abusers when we ‘go home for Christmas’. It means that ‘this time of the year’ can feel like walking through constant fireworks of trauma triggers for a month. And for most of us it also means that we do this while pretending that everything’s fine – which in itself is a mirror of our childhood experience when we did our best to hide the abuse from everyone around us.
We might engage in the Christmas conversations, smiling and politely declining invitations to Christmas parties, trying our best to answer the well-meaning questions when people ask about our plans and if we are looking forward to going home. Because, what can we say?
Here I am, looking back at a year filled with survivor activism and speaking-out, and yet in this time where I am struggling most with the complicated mess of being a survivor, even I feel out of words. Yet again, I realise how ‘out of normal’ my experience feels, how alienating, how uncommunicable to the people around me. Yet again, I wish I had more ‘normal problems’, you know, those you can share because they’re part of a commonly accepted human experience. Where you can say “hey I’m struggling and could need some support”. But how do I explain the complexity of struggling with something that happened so long ago?
I feel like I am tired of pretending, tired of hiding how I feel, tired of smiling when I actually wanna cry, and tired of cutting myself off from the very possibility that the people around me could give me some support during a difficult time – something so human and natural that I see all the time around me and do it so readily for others. And I know that there are so many of us survivors out there, who feel similar, and are similarly invisible while similarly in need of support.
It is scary for me to say these things out loud, to openly admit that I’m struggling with Christmas. It somehow carries all the fear and all the stigma, and all the sense of ‘not belonging into this world’ that I have ever felt. But hey, we gotta start somewhere and if I learned one thing this year, it is that speaking is the start of change.
Luckily the range of things we can openly talk about – and the general ability and acceptedness of sharing our struggles and feelings – seems to have expanded quite a lot in recent years. Thanks to a lot of campaigning the stigma around mental health is slowly decreasing, and we do talk more openly about issues like bereavement, illness, and even depression.
So, can it be my wish for Christmas this year, that we include childhood sexual abuse into the things that are commonly accepted as human experience and that can be openly talked about? Can we all be aware that there are a lot of survivors out there (= in your friends group, family, team,… ) who might be struggling and in need of support?
It doesn’t take much. It is the little things – awareness, listening, understanding, a hug, a text, the occasional “how are you doing”, the same stuff that helps everyone though a rough time – that can make a world of a difference.