The Ghosts of Christmas Past

// 21 December 2009

A guest blogger talks about dealing with Christmas as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. (NB This post is not graphic, but for some it may be triggering)

So, it’s that time of year again. Compulsory happiness and lots and lots of family time. For some, the happiness comes naturally and the family time is cherished. But for some who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the Christmas season can be agonising.

For me, though the abuse happened all year round, it always happened on Christmas Day. Because we always spent Christmas Day with them.

While most of the family was laughing and joking, I was taken elsewhere in the house by one or both of my abusers. The fact that it was Christmas day made it more memorable somehow. It could be that it always happened on August the 8th or April the 27th too, but why would I remember that date?

I dreaded Christmas every year. I was supposed to smile and be happy and enjoy the time we all spent together, but I loathed it. As an adult this continued, until I realised I did not have to do it any more.

The first year I didn’t spend Christmas with the family was awful. I felt so guilty, I felt like everyone thought I was being ‘difficult’ (the rest of the family do not know about the abuse), and I felt like even though I wasn’t there, with them, this crap was still haunting my every thought. I took a big overdose, and was dismayed to wake up. While getting away from that environment was good, the abuse was still so present in my mind. I could not get rid of it just by being somewhere geographically different, though this was definitely a start. And it made me more safe.

But the following year was better. I had already taken my stand, and dealt with the family reaction to me not spending Christmas with them, and rather than spending the whole time in a crisis, I felt like I was taking positive steps to make Christmas into something I wanted it to be, rather than something I had to do.

There is an awful lot of societal pressure to ‘do’ Christmas. Even now, after years of doing it my own way, I have learned that you can never tell people you are doing NOTHING on Christmas day. They look horrified! They invite you to their home, they suggest alternatives. They can’t imagine that anyone would want to opt out of the celebrations altogether. Thankfully though, I do do something, but it is so much on my own terms, and so far removed from the traditional family day that I feel more in control, and more like I’m making it my own.

But it does not remove the memories.

Even if I can avoid the actual abusers, it is harder still to avoid those around them who were complicit in what was happening, by not doing the things that should be done to protect a child. I can cope better with those people now, but would always rather have no contact with them.

Even if your abuse wasn’t directly related to Christmas, that does not mean that it has to be an easy time of year for you! If the abuse was in the family, then family gatherings and strange nostalgia can make you feel as isolated as ever. If they knew about the abuse, and the abuser is still involved in celebrations I can only imagine how devalued you can feel. And if, like me, they don’t know about it, then ‘innocent’ mentions of the men involved feel like a punch in the stomach, but I do feel I have to smile and nod when I hear their news.

And if the abuser was a stranger, or family friend, a trusted adult, or anyone at all, enforced cheer can be so hard. Of course we are sometimes happy, and sometimes sad. But the pressure to be on top form, when you might be having a difficult period of flashbacks and nightmares and memories, is so painful. Spending time with children, be they relatives; or friends’ kids, can bring you face to face with a tiny person the age you were once, and the realisation that however much you might blame yourself at times, when you look into that 4 year old, or 8 year old, or 12 year old’s eyes, you know without a shred of doubt that there is no way that anyone that age – including yourself – could EVER be responsible for the bad things that happened to you. And that is both reassuring and shocking. Personally, I give myself a hard time with, ‘Well, I was a very grown-up 10. I wouldn’t expect most 10 year olds to be able to find a way out of that situation, but surely *I* should have done’. Then I see a 10 year old and realise that no, 10 years old is (while disputed by 10 year olds!) really, really young. And in any case, if I was a ‘grown-up’ 10, that was almost certainly due to the abuse that had occurred before, which had also groomed me to ‘accept’ the further abuse as normal.

Being with children at Christmas makes me scared too. Scared for them. When you are a survivor, there can be times when every child you see seems to be at risk. You get overwhelmed by the dangers we all face.

But in the context of coping with Christmas, trying to relate to children in terms of how sweet and lovely and childish they are, can put into perspective not just how little power you had, no matter how much you have told yourself otherwise, but also how, while you may not have done it consciously, chances are you have hated your child self at some point, for having been abused. Spending time with kids will also show you that there is no way that you could have been such a hateful child, because, as a rule, children aren’t hateful. They are trusting and loving and kind and funny and mischievous and always full of surprises. And when they’re naughty, even that doesn’t make them deserving of hate, it makes them normal children.

This can help you to see that the child you were was not hateful, evil, dirty and responsible. She actually was a little child, doing little child things.

Other things to bear in mind when facing Christmas as an abuse survivor are where you are and what you do. Some people with the right jobs choose to work on Christmas day. It’s a legitimate reason to not participate in all the celebrations, and it gives people who want the day off more of a chance to get that. Many people volunteer at homeless shelters and crisis centres, serving up Christmas dinner, offering health care or providing entertainment or a friendly chat. If you have funds, you could go away somewhere, perhaps somewhere where Christmas isn’t even acknowledged, never mind celebrated.

You can also start to create your own rituals. If you want to celebrate Christmas, but not in a way that’s inherently linked to a difficult childhood, then imagine what you would really like to do to celebrate, while trying to remove all society’s pressures about the season from your mind. The day might start with an early morning stroll. You might write and illustrate a cartoon. You might clear out the clutter from the attic! You could also look at how other societies, cultures and religions celebrate special days, and get some alternative ideas.

Those also work if you opt out of Christmas altogether. Once you get used to people fretting about your lack of plans, then it’s all yours. You can get on with it as if it’s no different from any other day, perhaps using some self-made rituals if you find yourself feeling left out of the loop.

You may want to be with family too, and coming out of it unscathed is all about working out how best that happens for you. If your abuser/s was a family member, your plans might involve seeing the rest of the family but not them. If no-one in the family was involved in the abuse it may be easier to negotiate creating your own terms around what you do, and don’t, want to do in the mad few holiday days.

But that’s just the day itself. The lead-up to Christmas can be tough in different ways. I find that it is a time when my flashbacks will increase, both in frequency and intensity, and that I think a lot more about the abuse too (chicken? egg?). Sometimes this makes me angry, other times upset, most times I feel very vulnerable and fragile. This, on top of the usual stress and angst of the build-up to the dreaded day, can mean that the weeks beforehand can feel unbearable.

During the most difficult periods of coping as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, some of the things women can really benefit from are firstly, being really gentle with yourself. You are feeling bad enough already, without increasing that by beating yourself up for feeling so bad!

Secondly, make a conscious effort to place the blame where it should be – on the abuser, not yourself.

Thirdly, look after yourself as best you can, or let those around you who may offer to. Eating as well as you are able, not drinking too much alcohol, trying to maintain a sleep routine, can all help to strengthen your physical and emotional defenses against onslaughts of awfulness. You know yourself what helps you and what harms you, so follow your own self-knowledge and do whatever you need to, to cope.

If you’ve been affected by issues like these, you may wish to contact Rape Crisis

Comments From You

gadgetgal // Posted 22 December 2009 at 9:52 am

This was very brave of you to share. And so you know you’re not alone – my bad day is my birthday. I’d be quite happy for it to just drop off the calendar!

HarpyMarx // Posted 22 December 2009 at 10:38 am

That was a brave post and it takes a lot of courage to write about this.

When you say, “While getting away from that environment was good, the abuse was still so present in my mind. I could not get rid of it just by being somewhere geographically different, though this was definitely a start. And it made me more safe.” I defintely relate to that. I left home when I was 16-17 thinking I could get away but the hideous shitty experiences still haunted me no matter the distance/geography I suppose it is about coming to terms with your life and what has happened, and it has taken me years tho’ there’s still the struggle of the injustice and powerlessness that overwhelms me now.

But you are right as well as there’s so much pressure on people to become all family orientated for Xmas even if it means stress, trauma and misery. I never go home for Xmas and it’s hard explaining that to people as you are not sure whether they’ll understand etc. But it is hard and coping strategies are important.

Anyway, thanks again for your post, it made me feel a bit less alone and admire your courage. Take care and solidarity to you.

Louise

sianmarie // Posted 22 December 2009 at 10:57 am

thank you for such a moving and brave post.

xx

Lisa Ansell // Posted 22 December 2009 at 5:16 pm

MY mother had a succession of husbands, who were basically either alcoholics, drug users, violent, or whatever, and I also hated christmas.

Poverty, combined with alcohol, and psychopaths who want to take out their malice on you, does not a happy christmas make.

When I was in my early twenties, I basically avoided christmas, and my friends really didnt get why-again thought I was being difficult.

I had stepkids, and faked a lot of christmasses.

Now I am lucky, I have a 3 year old daughter, and have for the very first time, discovered that christmas can be a very magical time-and I am very happy I can do this.

BUt yes, I completelt get why people dont want to do christmas- I didnt for a long time, and that is a very difficult thing to say, in a society, where everyone is christmas mad from Oct-Jan.

CSA Survivor // Posted 22 December 2009 at 5:37 pm

Thanks for this post. I think there should be more posts about CSA on the F-word. It affects so many of us. Nowadays when I make new friends, I work on the assumption that they have been abused, rather than the opposite. It helps develop real empathy quicker, and it often turns out that they have been.

I had coffee with a woman this morning who hadn’t been abused and didn’t know that I had been. I raised the topic (in terms of wanting to raise some money for charity) and she said it was awful how “damaged” abuse could leave someone. I hate that. I am not “damaged” like some shop soiled goods that can’t get better. So many well meaning people don’t get this. I am whole and real and valid. My perceptions are as good as someone who hasn’t been abused. My take on reality is not damaged. If I want to create my own Christmas, I can. It can be a traditional one with family (on my terms or even on theirs), or on a beach in the Caribbean (which I did a couple of years ago and was brilliant!). People can survive AND thrive after childhood sexual abuse.

I find it is like the worst sort of hidden disability to have been abused. I can’t discuss it without being labelled and often re-victimised. The prejudices and assumptions about the effects of CSA are horrendous. It’s like having your trust breached all over again to try to confide in some people (of both sexes).

The only thing I’d say about this post which was so beautifully written is why did someone suggest Rape Crisis at the foot? Rape Crisis have been no help whatsoever to me. It has been soul destroying how unhelpful they have been. Especially as survivors often seek help in childhood only to find themselves rebuffed, the attitude I encountered at Rape Crisis was worse than a punch in the face. The F-Word shouldn’t recommend a charity without fully understanding the help that the charity can truly offer, which in this case is patchy.

Happy Christmas to all survivors and may you thrive and have a wonderful 2010.

J // Posted 24 December 2009 at 11:06 am

Thank you for this post. I myself was abused as a child, and have only in recent years started to face up to what happened to me. It’s such a relief to finally start realising that I wasn’t to blame for what happened and I’m not the worthless, disgusting person I’ve felt I was for so many years. Your words are very comforting.

Susan Tomlinson // Posted 25 December 2009 at 11:48 pm

i am very glad you all shared these experiences.

i hope that women can become stronger for themselves and their children as a result of people like you sharing your stories

my warmest wishes

susan

earwicga // Posted 27 December 2009 at 6:11 pm

@ CSA Survivor

I’m sorry you got no help from Rape Crisis, but many others have, including myself, so it would be a shame for anyone to read your comment and let it put them off seeking help. It took 24 years for me to phone Rape Crisis for help (after trying to get help on and off from mental health services) and I have been having counselling since June. I can easily say it is the hardest thing I have ever done for myself, and also the most worthwhile I have ever done for myself.

I get what you mean about the ‘damaged’ word. I have always thought of myself as damaged, and that made me very angry. But, with counselling I am recognising that in actual fact I am not damaged – some of the areas of my life have been damaged, but they are areas of my life under my control, and I am able to do something about them.

It’s easy for me to now urge anyone who has been sexually abused and assualted to see help, but it’s taken me 24 years. I wish I could have phoned Rape Crisis sooner.

Anna // Posted 28 December 2009 at 11:50 am

‘I raised the topic (in terms of wanting to raise some money for charity) and she said it was awful how “damaged” abuse could leave someone’

I see why it made you angry, but what you went on to describe pretty much sums me up. My view of reality is totally messed up, I have about twelve different mental health problems, I have yet to have a relationship that doesn’t involve me being hit by my partner (and staying with them for months afterward) and everything that reminds me even vaguely of the assaults sucks, meaning Christmas is crap as the last time I saw the man who abused me at child was around Christmastime.

So, yeah, whilst you may not define yourself as damaged I don’t think there’s anything else I could reasonably consider myself to be. Sorry for the whiny tone of this post also!

Claire // Posted 28 December 2009 at 6:51 pm

Hi

Nothing wrong with you getting help from Rape Crisis or anyone getting help wherever they can. I just wanted to point out that Rape Crisis not a panacea for everyone. Its service is patchy. In fact, there isn’t even a Rape Crisis centre within 40 miles of my house and when I last sought their help, having moved here, I was told they couldn’t/wouldn’t help me as I was too geographically far from them. No, I don’t live in the Outer Hebrides. Rather than putting anyone off seeking help, I’d like people simply to realise that some help is not appropriate at the time and can even be counter-productive. It is a scandal to me that the NHS forks out so much money to stop people smoking who took it up voluntarily, but does next to zilch for CSA survivors.

Sarah // Posted 29 December 2009 at 12:11 pm

Hi

I have been in and out of counselling for the last few years, through the NHS and rape crisis and can honestly say that if it wasn’t for the rape crisis I don’t know how I would have got through the last year. It has taken me a long time though to begin to face my demons and have quit many times feeling that it wasn’t working, it was making things worse, they didn’t understand. I now feel ready to admit that I just wasn’t ready back then and it really took me hitting crisis point before I ran back… tail between my legs.

This is just my experience CSA survivor and I cannot really comment on your therapy or experiences as I quite simply was not there but the rape crisis helps many survivors/victims and I am concerned that your post may place doubts into the minds of those who are already in a very vulnerable place.

Claire, unfortunately the rape crisis just does not have the funding to reach those out of their geographical area and I’m sure they would love to. It is not their fault but that of government who will not finance them. The NHS also plough millions each year into treating alcoholism and yet to look deeper into this issue they would probably find a substantial amount of alcoholics are survivors/victims of sexual abuse when whilst treating the alcoholism is a very long and valuable process and probably needs to be done before any real therapy takes place I thnk treating the root cause of the problem and having the funding available for the rape crisis centre may prevent some going down that path in the first place. Quite simply the funding should be there.

Piscesmoon // Posted 29 December 2009 at 12:15 pm

You should be very proud of yourself and the courage you have shown in writing this article.

Claire // Posted 30 December 2009 at 10:51 am

Dear Anna

I’m sorry if my post before yours was too glib. I won’t say I know how you feel as I have no idea what you have been through and how you are coping with it now. It would be patronising to suggest otherwise. I can only know what I have been through and how I cope, and how it knocks me back if people make assumptions, especially that I am damaged for life. The general assumption that hurts me the most is the assumption that CSA survivors are never going to get better. It’s switching off my hope and condemning me to loneliness, making me part of a race apart, that has been written off and can’t ever be whole or happy. It is revictimising me. I feel I deserve to get better. Whatever happened to you, I feel you deserve to get better too. I feel sad that you don’t seem to have much hope of recovery at the moment. Mind you, I have those days and weeks too when I feel that I will be tainted and sad for the rest of my life – and worse, that I am some miserable black hole that causes other people’s happy denial to be spoilt. Everyone else’s joy in life seems so pure and uncomplicated compared to mine. What I am saying is grim, and I wish there were a high note to end on like recommending the book or helpline that cures everything. But I haven’t found it yet and even if it suited me, it mightn’t suit you. But please keep on looking and trying, with me.

Sophia // Posted 30 January 2010 at 2:48 pm

I work for NAPAC, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, and we were busy over Christmas because it is such a triggering time for so many people. Having to pretend that you’re part of a happy family, having to spend time with the person who abused you (or, even worse, with an abuser who is still a threat to you) is harrowing, and made all the worse by the hype of Christmas, family values etc that goes on in wider society.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but if people do need to talk about CSA with someone who understands the issues, please feel free to contact NAPAC: http://www.napac.org.uk, or 0800 085 3330.

Jo // Posted 18 December 2011 at 5:02 pm

Thank you for posting this, I can relate to a lot of what you said, especially the part where family members talk about the perpetrator. The difference being that I told my family and they still talk about the perpetrator but think it is acceptable to do this as long as they don’t mention his name! There was another perpetrator too and I have seen him ever since the abuse ended, there was no option of me not seeing him as my mum did not want to listen about it. Every Christmas is hard…in fact, every time I go down there (for a birthday or something) I am filled with anxiety.

I find the whole atmosphere so false, especially at Christmas. The false idea that we’re a close, happy family, when in fact I am sat there wishing to get away almost as soon as I get there. It’s like I am holding on tight until it is time to go. I don’t know why I have done it for so many years but I think next year I am going to go away somewhere else.

I am starting therapy again in the new year because a lot of anger is coming up for me now and I hope I can get through Christmas without blowing up…..but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I did – so my family would know that all this silence and falseness wasn’t washing with me anymore.

I’ll be glad when Christmas is over for another year. It’s comforting to hear that others share the same/similar anxieties.

jeanette // Posted 19 December 2011 at 9:30 pm

Im so grateful to you all for your posting. I have just this year made to move to not go to family ‘dos’ anymore where my abusers are present. As one of you said – its all a falsehood – everybody knows, yet everybody pretends its not there. I cant do that anymore. It made me too sick. Im more than ok with finally having made this decision. It doesnt mean – tho – that I wish things were different. I think thats the wounded little girl in me still wishing for a better family makeup than I have. To Jo – I hope you do get to go somewhere else next year. You wont believe how proud of yourself you will feel and how liberated. All the best to you folk.

Frances // Posted 20 December 2011 at 5:52 pm

Thank you for a really brave, smart and thoughtful post.

I’m really glad Sophia mentioned the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. In addition to Rape Crisis, I would definitely look into this.

If you’re under the age of 19 at present then Childline is another great option. You can talk to us online now in addition to on the phone if this feels more comfortable for you.

I hope everyone has the Christmas period that is best for them – and gets in touch with whatever organisation they want to if they need to talk or simply have someone listen.

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