Facing your abuser, your perpetrator during the holidays…..
How do I go home for Christmas?
- This article is for survivors to validate that you are not crazy if you are choosing to go home for the holidays.The choice is yours!
- This article is for service providers, advocates, social workers and front liners working with survivors to understand why they go home for the holidays and stop using your own bias to judge that decision.
- Family and friends of survivors so you can be an ally and support their emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual state of being.
A couple of years ago, I went back to the Dominican Republic to find my biological mother. And without thinking about it, almost instinctual, the first person that I thought about who could possibly know where I should start looking for her and would also go with me to find her was my uncle Viengo. My uncle was not the first man who had ever touched me by age 9 but it is the one I remember the most. It happened on one of my many summer trips to the Dominican Republic as a child. One day on one of our trips to my aunts house, my dad, my mom, her sister (my aunt) and him(my aunts husband) were in their backyard talking and I had to go inside the house to go to the bathroom. It happened real quick, I was coming out the bathroom and he was coming out of his room. He cornered me and with his weight he pushed me against the wall and stuck his tongue down my throat while his other hand cupped my breast. It lasted for what seemed like forever but it was the worst few seconds of my life. I think I froze in time, my heart stopped and I lost my breathe. I didn’t really have words for what was going on but my body knew that it was not okay. He must have thought he got away with it because I remember his hot breath in my ear telling me not to tell anyone. He slipped out of the house before anyone noticed he was gone.
The tears were stuck in my throat and I must have turned white, cause when I went back outside my mother screamed and asked me what had happened. It was her high pitched voice like I had been shot and was standing there covered in blood about to die if she didn’t do something quick that shook me back into my body and I instantly started to cry.
It was her reaction that also gave me the strength, courage and safe space for me to talk. I knew that even though he had told me not to tell that my mother would protect me. She shook me several times and demanded an answer. I finally told, my aunt fainted, my mother kept screaming and crying and my dad well, he said it as my fault. With mixed reactions from all the adults present my mother took me home and I would never see my uncle again until I was 25 years old.
Fourteen years later, like clock work I went back into the routine of summer in DR and found myself packing for the weekend trip to my aunts house again. Except this time I was bringing my two children and part of the packing included not just disclosing to my children what happened to me but preparing them to protect themselves from an uncle they had grown to love very much. Surviving my uncle for the summer in DR went something like this, 1. do not hug him too long. 2. Take turns standing outside each others bathroom like a guard when you have to go. 3. Never, ever leave the children or be alone with him 4. Do not go to the store with him or into his car. 5. Do not sit in his lap. and 5. No matter what do not go into his room.
These were the cardinal rules me and my mother created for my 4 year old son and my 9 year old daughter including the stress and anxiety this would put on us both in while we watched them and tried to be present like nothing was happening. It never occurred to me in a million years that I could just not go and stay in his house because my aunt lived there and we loved her so much that it was a given that we would go visit and that meant that we were staying.
Spending the summer in the Dominican Republic was a holiday for us and for my whole family. It was a family affair to gather and celebrate birthday, grieve deaths, share food, drink and dance at the reunion of the entire family. It was also tradition for the women to gather and talk about life, their past and reminisce. It was at this inter-generational gathering that I learned about how my uncle had not just done this to me but also to my mother and all her sisters , their cousins, some of my cousins and practically all the women in my family. In the night, they would have a slumber party in my aunts house and would share stories about how he would sneak into their bed at night while they slept and how something would always happen or they would stop breathing or have something under their pillow to hit him if it went to far. As more and more girls where born into my family the more me and my cousins would have the same conversation of protecting the girls from this man, we would all be in high vigilance when he was around. We figured we now were old enough to protect ourselves but we needed to band together to protect our children.
However, it never occurred to anyone of us to never go to his house or not invite him to our events if we did it somewhere else. No matter what he did he was still a part of the family and as long as we all had a plan in place we were fine.
I would go back every summer after that, same rules, same survival strategies and while he never tried anything else with me again till this day I can still feel the weight of his 50 year old tongue searching my mouth. Till this day if I get in the car with him my heart skips a beat at the thought that maybe he will lock all the doors or take me to some random place and rape me or something. But why did that not stop me from thinking of him as the first person I would go on this journey with to find my mother?.
Its the same reason, women stay after domestic violence. It doesn’t matter if it happened last night you will still get up the next day and cook thanksgiving dinner. You will still see that little girl get up to open her christmas gifts even though she is thinking how she will make it through the night without him coming to her room. Or the partner who waits for the holidays to get some love cause things are only safe because its the holidays. It’s the same reason we love our mothers even though she knew our dad was molesting us. Its the same reason, the abuser will be at the family holiday dinner and will get asked before the survivor is invited. It is because when the abuser is our family member we love them anyway. See before they crossed that line, we loved them, they took care of us, fed us, loved us, hugged us, protected us. Abusers are regular family members, they are uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins, nieces and nephews. You have pictures of them on your wall and in your family album. There were great times and great memories that you shared. They weren’t always the abuser/perpetrator. Actually, they use to be your best friend, you gave them the best dad award, the best uncle, brother,cousin, aunt or sister certificate. You loved them way before the abuse happened and that does not go away because you get abused. It actually make the abuse much more worse, it hurts more and it complicates the choices, the decision and the story you create about yourself and them from that moment on forward. And it makes the holidays that much more difficult.
For example if you are an incest survivor and you know your abuser will be there or you thought you were healing from the abuse or got past it but you get triggered from a smell or something they say or a story that is told.
Sometimes you are not coming face to face with your abuser during the holidays, you are actually coming face to face with a family or mother or father that didn’t believe you. How do you handle that? Or a mother who keeps talking about your dad or boyfriend as if he never did anything?. Maybe you are going back to the home you grew up in that holds another story today and also holds the memories of the abuse you experienced and witnessed when you were growing up. Maybe there is no holiday dinner and that is the trigger itself, for that is when you came out to your family. So now every time you gather you have to change the essence of your gender expression or condemn yourself to a conversation about god and your sin.
Its the little things that no one ever sees or hears or smells. It’s a touch or color. A way a picture hangs or a shirt someone is wearing. Its the way people are gathered or not around a table that trigger victims. No one ever talks about the little things, the not so obvious things that a survivor has to manage that no one sees. Its those instant decisions and reactions, the roller coaster ride of emotions that no one sees survivors make in a moments time. Sometimes your abuser is old or sick and there is no real physical stress but you will still get triggered by them or your still holding onto resentment and disappointment cause no one protected you. Maybe your abuser is dead and you are grappling with incompletion, regret that you never forgave, grief for the parts you lost of yourself in the process while you hold that you still loved them for who they where in the family structure and in your life.
For the surviver its the knowing and not being able to tell. Its the stares and glare that you have to manage because people are upset you disclosed. Its the disapproval of your dad who thinks you deserved it or your mom asking what did you do? You are too radical or feminist and that’s why it happened. Maybe, you are now an American and this wouldn’t have happened if you stayed within your culture. Maybe, its that your just going to witness someone else’s violent behavior, their addiction, their depression, their anger, their powerlessness. Its all of it, the things the social worker, advocate and provider don’t see or hear that survivors don’t have words for.
For survivors the holidays can be very traumatic. Even with a plan in place, it takes everything you have to sit in front of your abuser and pretend that nothing happened. You put a smile on your face so that everyone doesn’t know your scared, that your stomach isn’t tight, that your breathing is short and fast, the your not numb at the thought that you might find yourself alone with them or when they pass you by you don’t jump. People might even blame your emotional state, your mood swings and ask you if your on your period but the reality is that if you are in an emotionally triggering and charged state then you will become sick, or depressed, angry or all of them at the same time. At the cost of belonging to a family, of being loved by our parents and of not loosing home, we will show up anyway during the holidays. Our bodies will loose sleep, we will be stressed, you will get sick because its not about the abuse or facing the abuser its about what will happen and what will you loose, what traditions will you and your children loose out on and what will it ultimately cost you if you don’t go? It is that fear of loosing more than you already lost that keeps us going back. It is also the illusion of or the holding onto what family can be if we continue to show up and shut up. The facade of a happy family for a couple of days will cost less than the punishment and continued abuse that will happen if you don’t go.
It easy for the people looking in from the outside, the social workers, the caseworkers, the providers, police, judges, etc to say leave or don’t go, create a safety plan, tell, and don’t take your kids. But that is not the way it works for the holidays. Abuse is about power and control. The victim is always felt to think that they are crazy for not showing up for family events or for being the one putting on the event with the abusive partner. As a victim you are victimized no matter what choice you make, so its important to choose for yourself and no one else. In addition to your own guilt and shame you also have to put up with people telling you, you should be able to put it aside for this one day and show up anyway. You also have to deal with the scrutiny of family and friends who create you as the trouble maker if you don’t show up. These are all breeding grounds for abusers to continue to be manipulative, isolate you and make you and others think your crazy. They will say things like everyone was there, you could have been there too but you chose not to.
Lastly, the holidays for survivors can be exhausting, between preparing and surviving, the event can be a blur. It will however, show up in your body long after its over as a cold, the flu or depression where your body will ask you to sleep or do nothing so it has time to recover. Safety plans are great but they put all the responsibility on the survivor and that is a lot to ask of someone who 20 years later may still be in shock. People expect victims to be rational, determined, responsible, accountable, prepared, make “right choices” , move on and never look back and then be successful people who will never let this happen to their children. That is the biggest set up for survivors. Remember, we are only little girls and boys that something happened to that has changed our lives forever!
SELF CARE/SELF DEFENSE techniques if you choose to go home for the HOLIDAYS!
- Stop pleasing people and choose not to go. You cannot loose that which you have already lost!
- Create a healing pouch. Some lavender, peppermint and rose water to spray on yourself if you get triggered.
- Find a safe space to cry, shake and scream if your body needs to release.
- Have friends that can support you in emotional release or processing on speed dial. Tell them in advance where you are going and that you will need support.
- Love yourself by going outside and taking a long walk to release tension.
- Stop apologizing for being who you are and be compassionate when you show up self expressed. There is nothing you can do differently.
- Surround yourself with the allies in your family, make sure you are never alone with your thoughts.
- Bring a journal or list with affirmations you can sneak into the bathroom and say to yourself in the mirror.
- Always know you have choice to say no and leave. Put your hands on your throat and stick out your tongue, do a silent scream, make sounds and give yourself permission to speak.
- Create an herb packet with anxiety and stress relief tea and vitamins.
- When the tension builds, check to see if you are clenching your jaws or your shoulders are tight. Pour some oil on your hand and massage your hands, feet and scalp.
- Check in with your body and see were you are holding powerlessness or stress. Place your hand in your heart and belly and breathe repeating I am safe, I have a choice, I am powerful.
- Set personal limits and boundaries before you arrive about what you can do and what you will not do. How far can you lean into the uncomfortable?
- Light a candle in your home before the event and ask your spirit guides and ancestors to protect you and be with you on this journey home. Know that you are not alone.
- CRY, LAUGH, EAT, PRAY , HEAL and do it all over again.
Molestation, incest, rape, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault among other sex crimes against women is a global reality. There are official holidays and then there are the ones that you create with your own families and the ones you are born into because of your culture. Often times, there is more than one survivor in the family. Violence is almost always intergenerational and passed down. So, there is a probabiity that the majority of the women that attend holidays and events in your family may also be making a choice to go whether they have disclosed abuse or not. In people of color families violence against women is a taboo subject but we know, our spirit knows that whether you are the only one or one of many the impact of abuse in our homes runs deeper than blood.