by Victoria Gehman, Safe Communities Social Work Intern
With the holidays quickly approaching, a vast variety of emotions can surface. For some, this time of year evokes excitement. For others, it may be mostly happiness mixed with some stress - stress because of trying to prepare a meal and get the house clean on time. Or maybe it's stress due to the struggle to be kind to that one in-law. For still others, the holidays can be one of the most lonely and difficult times of the year. Maybe it's the husband whose wife died a couple years ago, and, without her, he has no family left and just can't seem to get in the holiday spirit anymore. Maybe it's the sick woman who is bedridden in a hospital and neglected by family. Perhaps it's the foster child who has aged out of the foster care system and isn't sure if she has a place to call home where she could go for the holidays. Or perhaps it's the survivor of child sexual abuse who dreads the holidays for a myriad of reasons.
These are all people whom we should be considerate of during the holidays, but today I'd like to take a few moment to focus specifically on the survivor. The holiday season can be very triggering for many survivors. Often, the abuser was someone close to the survivor - many times a family member. The survivor may dread holiday gatherings as it forces her to see her abuser, yet she may feel as if she is compelled to attend. Or maybe she has chosen to avoid the unhealthy relationships, but then where would she go? Who would she spend the holidays with? Even if one does not have to see his abuser, he could still be triggered by certain smells, songs, or activities that occur around the holidays. Maybe a certain song played in the background during a particularly traumatic encounter. Maybe the survivor has even come to hate a particular food because it's what she was eating on the day she was first molested. Perhaps making gingerbread houses causes anxiety because he remembers what happened after the gingerbread houses were made and he was alone with his uncle while everyone else was admiring the cousins' gingerbread creations.
Many survivors will experience some kind of trigger or increased anxiety at some point during the holiday season. Even if the abuse occurred years ago, don't assume they are okay. Often, these triggers will occur at unexpected times, and they may be different from year to year. Just because they appear okay on the outside and just because they haven't said anything to you doesn't meant they're doing fine. They could be very lonely inside - but are just too afraid to tell you. Or they don't want to bother you, as they feel they would be interrupting your festivities with your family. They truly are happy that you are having a good time. But sometimes that increases their loneliness - especially throughout the holiday season as their friends may become busier and preoccupied with their own family celebrations.
Often, the holidays are the time of year when survivors most need support, yet it is also the time of year when they are often the most lacking in support. Trusted friends travel to another state, the friends that do stay in the area are too busy to meet up or even call, counselors and therapists go on vacation... At times, this causes survivors to feel forgotten.
So, what can you do to help?
Here are a few practical suggestions:
1) Check in on them from time to time. Even just a simple text saying, "Hey, I know this time of year can be really tough for you, and I just wanted to let you know that I haven't forgotten about you. I love you" can go a long way.
2) If you're baking cookies and wouldn't mind some extra company, invite them. They may or may not take you up on the offer, but either way they will likely appreciate that you thought of them and cared enough to ask.
3) Even if you're just cleaning the house or preparing for a meal, but could use some help, ask them if they want to come help you clean or play with your kids while you clean. Depending on the person, this can be a welcome invitation as it helps them to forget the loneliness and memories for a time and allows them to instead do something meaningful for someone else, while also benefiting from time spent with safe people.
4) Even if you are away or don't have much time to talk with them, ask them how they are doing. Remind them that they are safe, but that their pain is valid. Allow them to share it with you when they need to, and be honored that they have chosen to trust you with some of their deepest hurts.
Throughout this holiday season - whether you're at a family gathering, a work party, a friend's house, or getting your shopping done at the mall - just be sensitive. Remember that there may be a lot more going on underneath the surface than what someone presents on the outside. Just a little bit of kindness goes a long way and could even make someone's unhappy holiday just a tad bit happier.