Ah, the holidays. ’Tis the season for frantic shopping, endless baking, present-wrapping and hellish traffic. Holiday stress can overcome the best of us, but more often than not the holidays carry an extra weight for those who have been affected by sexual abuse. That’s why I’m here to remind you (and myself) that the most important gift you can give is self-care.
For many victims, the abuse is close to home. According to RAINN, three out of four rapes are committed by someone the victim knows; 93% of reported juvenile sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by people close to the victim; and 34% of those people are family members. These are just the reported cases—two out of three incidents go unreported. Sexual abuse is a cycle that is repeated and perpetuated by silence, often a dark family secret. And returning home for what should be a joyous family function can quickly turn toxic. So here are a few reminders to keep you grounded and safe:
Surround yourself with support.
Bring a friend to the family holiday party. Make plans to meet up with someone after a stressful day of shopping. Have a lifeline on hand so you can step out and make a phone call or text if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s easy to let your emotions get the best of you, but having someone to talk to can help you to get you out of your head and feel less alone. When my lifelines are wrapped up in their own holiday chaos, I also find support through certain books, music and movies. Keeping these things within arm’s reach provides a much-needed reminder that you are not alone and your feelings are valid. Flipping through the pages of The Courage to Heal or screaming the lyrics along with my favorite album always helps to lift me up. Reading the stories and comments on this site gives me a sense of support and community when I can’t find it elsewhere. There are plenty of crisis call centers active during the holidays as well. (Here are a few.)
Pay attention to your feelings.
Even if the abuser is not present, familiar sights, smells, places, even traditions can trigger a memory or a feeling. Paying attention to my feelings and what is causing them is the most valuable tool I’ve learned in dealing with these triggers. Abuse victims often learn to ignore or suppress these emotions in order to survive, which makes it all the more difficult to stay in touch with yourself. Be attentive to what your mind and body are saying. It might be a good idea to avoid alcohol or drugs that interfere with your ability to remain aware. H.A.L.T. (Hungry. Angry. Lonely. Tired.) is a great basic checklist for identifying needs that you may be neglecting. If you feel yourself slipping during the holiday season, take a moment to ask yourself, Do I need food? A nap? Someone to talk to?
Remove yourself when necessary.
Make plans for after the family dinner so you have a set time to leave. Take a moment to step outside and breathe when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Even a five minute escape to the bathroom can help. Keeping yourself in an uncomfortable situation to make other people happy can quickly turn explosive. If you find yourself in the dangerous position of sacrificing your needs for someone else’s, find a way to excuse yourself. Politeness is completely optional! Minimizing confrontation is sometimes necessary, especially in an abusive home, but don’t spare someone else’s feelings at the expense of your own. On that note: you absolutely do not have to go anywhere you don’t feel safe. The holidays can be rife with family obligations, but give yourself permission to stay home and celebrate in your own way.
Don’t feel guilty!
It took me a long time to realize the difference between selfishness and self-care, and I still struggle sometimes. On a plane you are advised to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting anyone else. The concept behind self-care is the same: You cannot help anyone if you are not capable of helping yourself. Minimizing and delaying your own needs is a common trait among those who have been affected by sexual abuse. If you were not treated as a priority, if your abuse was not taken seriously, if you were not believed—a message is sent that you are not important or that it was all your fault. These distorted messages program us to bear the burden of our own sexual abuse, and can lead to a tremendous amount of guilt. And while ridding yourself of this guilt seems like an impossible task, you need to remember that what happened to you is not your fault. The reactions of your family and friends are not your fault. Do not feel guilty for taking care of yourself. It will make you a better person to those around you and, most importantly, a better person to yourself.