Sunday, December 22, 2013

When Christmas is a Trigger: Enduring the Holidays with PTSD


(Note: This post contains some graphic descriptions of child sexual abuse and may be triggering. If you were sexually abused, you might want to read Healing from Sexual Abuse: 26 Things that Work for Me.)

I was severely and horrifically sexually abused throughout my entire childhood. I cannot remember a time without sexual abuse in my life. And I can remember being under two years old.

With sexual abuse so early and so constant, I cannot give many specific dates for specific incidences of abuse. But I can give you one.


 

Christmas.


I'm five in this photo. I remember that flannel nightgown with the little creatures on it. It was very warm and cozy and my doll had a nightgown to match.

This teddy bear was a gift that Christmas and, as you can see, I loved him. But, to the confusion of some of those around me, I never took to sleeping with him.

That night, the family member who gave me this bear came up to "say goodnight." He molested me instead.

That word, "molest", sounds almost benign, like "bother" or "annoy" and so I tend not to use it to refer to the nasty sexual things adults do to children. To me, it's all rape.

What does "molest" mean in this case? He penetrated me with his fingers so deeply that, after he left, I lost control of my bowels. I was so ashamed of what I had done, I cleaned it up myself and never told anyone.

Who would I tell? Almost everyone around me was sexually abusive, and those who weren't were useless. That same year, I went to my doctor with what was then called venereal disease. He didn't report it. He didn't ask me if anything was wrong. He just told me to keep myself cleaner "down there."

I was five.

Smother told me to lie and tell people I had a bladder infection because "they wouldn't understand" the truth.

So who would I tell?



After that Christmas, I became very prone to getting sick on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. In this photo, I'm about eight. I can still remember how bad my headache was that day, like a spike into my eye. I've been getting bad headaches since I was about three. Stress will do that, though, like the word "molest," "stress" seems a mere euphemism for what I endured.

I cannot count the number of Christmas Eves that I've spent sweating, shaking, and throwing up, not just as a child, but right on through my adulthood. Wouldn't you?

The affects of abuse do not end when the abuse does.

Want to hear an added irony? This was the first and only Barbie I ever owned. I had not been allowed to own a Barbie because, get this, they over-sexualized women! The little girl being repeatedly raped is protected from the sexualization of women and girls by being forbidden to have a Barbie. Holy hypocrisy, Batman! It's not really funny, but one must develop a morbid humour to survive a life like mine.



Look at wee little me in that little pink nightie. Yes, I really am eight here. I was a very small child, so small that the rapes eventually injured my back so severely that I am now, in early middle age, disabled and in chronic pain.

That nightie was synthetic, as so many things were in the 70s. I had it with me when I was taken up to a remote location in the mountains for a sort of "party" or "ceremony" in which children, including me, were horribly gang raped. At night, I was freezing cold and huddled close to the wood stove in this nightie. The stove melted a hole in it.

I was so ashamed of having stood too close to the stove, that I tried not to let anyone know how those that hole got into my nightie.

I felt a lot of shame. Those who hurt me did not.



Ah, now here's a nice flannel nightgown again, with little pink flowers. Very pretty. We always got to open our stockings before breakfast, while still in our sleepwear. These little family traditions are bitter to me now. How could they be otherwise?



By now, I'm about ten, and being sold to gangs of mostly men to satisfy their depraved sexual desires. Many of the rapes I endured, both by strangers and family members, occurred on this blue carpet, the one you see above. To this day, I cannot bear this colour blue. It makes me feel sick and frightened. Wouldn't you feel the same way?

This Christmas was a particularly horrid one.

You see, there was money not just in the pimping of children, but in child pornography. Right there on that blue carpet, under that very Christmas tree, my primary abuser, a female family member, cut my vagina with a razor blade while someone else took photos. 

Don't ask me why someone would do that. Don't ask me why someone would be turned on by that. I surely don't know. I just know it's evil and it hurt me in my body and in my soul.

Christmas is not my favourite holiday.



And so it went on. The abuse stopped when I was about sixteen. I now had a nice, womanly, hour-glass figure, so I was far too old and unappealing to sell to pedophiles. I was also beginning to be strong-willed enough and old enough to stand up for myself, though I'm sure that if there'd still been a market for me, my resistance would have been futile. 

I stayed home long enough to graduate from high school at seventeen with academic honours and then I took off. But, as with many abused children, all I knew of love was my family, so, for a few years, I did still go home for Christmas.

I remember after the Christmas in this photo thinking and even saying, "I'm tired of buying Christmas presents for my rapists."

Yes, I had been sick the night before this photos was taken.



I'm nineteen here. In a an attempt to make a break from my childhood, I'd cut off all my hair. Did it help? I don't know. A bit, maybe.

But here I am, sick on Christmas day again, with my hot water and dry toast.

Christmas had long since become a trigger for me. A trigger is something that, for whatever reason, brings someone with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) back into that place of trauma, so that she feels as if she is re-experiencing it. Often this is because that trigger somehow reminds her of the traumatic event or events.

Imagine Christmas as a trigger. Really imagine it. Christmas taking you back to the emotions, the smells, the physical sensations of the worst terrors of your life. 

Christmas is everywhere. Everywhere. The songs, the advertisements, the decorations, the radio and television programs, the well-wishes, the cards, the lights... all triggers, everywhere, from the beginning of November.

Notice the colour of the coffee cup? Notice that it's the same colour as the carpet upon which I was so often raped and tortured? It's a trigger for me too. It's also Smother's favourite colour.



Ah, and here I am at twenty, sick on Christmas day, unable to eat any of the goodies my girlfriend and I had gathered in our attempt to be Grownups.



I was so poor then, and so unaware of my own worth, that I took that little blue kitchen table because it was free, despite the fact that it was a trigger. But, kitchen table not withstanding, I really was trying to build my own life, a sense of myself outside of all that had happened to me. I'm still working on it.

I'll be honest: it wasn't until I was about forty that I finally understood that I needn't feel ashamed when something triggers me. Instead, I can just remove that thing from my life. It seems so simple.

Particular shades of blue are in my life as little as humanly possible now. (Though look around some day. How often do you see that colour, like, say, on your computer screen right now?) When Beau and I were first dating, I learned that his bedroom was my trigger blue and I told him so. He painted it for me before I even came for my first visit!
 

But, of course, how do you remove Christmas from your life? I'm half Jewish and, in my twenties, I studied Hebrew and Judaism and do consider myself Jewish now. I certainly didn't do this to avoid Christmas but it is a nice side benefit. 

But in a culture so saturated with Christianity, no matter how corrupted by capitalism, one simply cannot avoid Christmas. So I'm triggered every year, like clockwork. While the whole world seems to celebrate the sanctity of the family, I've got my head in a bucket; it all makes me puke -- literally. 



It has been getting better though. The more aware I become of the whole topic of triggers, the more I value myself, the better I tend to feel around unavoidable triggers.

But, ironically, this year, about a week before Christmas, Beau and I came down with a "real" flu, the viral kind, not the trigger kind. It was a doozy from which I am still recovering. I became so dehydrated that my already compromised back muscles ached unbearably and I ended up in the ER getting three bags of fluid pumped into me.

Oh, and do notice the lovely shade of blue of the hospital gown. I'm telling you: triggers are everywhere.

It all reminded me terribly of Christmases past.

This year, with this blog, I've decided to no longer censor myself so that those around me can remain comfortable. If my past is relevant to a conversation, I am not going to cause myself pain by swallowing the truth. I am not going to preserve others' saccharine views of the world at the expense of my own comfort and my own truth.

On a day that is supposed to be about the birth of a sacred child, I will not protect the world from the fact that some children are treated as anything but sacred.



This year, precisely because I do value the sanctity of childhood, I am trying the Christmas tree thing again. You see, I don't want my horrible childhood to rob Beau's sons of this holiday. Plus, of course, their cat would never forgive me if I deprived him of his annual plaything.

But it isn't easy.

So, if Christmas is a happy time for you, what can you do to help those for whom it is not? Well, for one thing, you can realize how bad it really can be for some. Expand your imagination past the parameters of your own experiences. If someone says her childhood was bad, imagine how bad. Believe her.

My story may be extreme, but I have heard worse, and I am not the only one to find Christmas hard because of genuine and horrible traumas inflicted on me by family. When you blithely ask people if they're spending Christmas with family, don't react with horror if they say no or seem uncomfortable. Don't treat them like selfish, childish pariahs if they say they have no contact with their families. They have their reasons and they're probably damned good ones.

Let their truths be absorbed into your own, not erased by it. 

And, if you're one of those for whom Christmas is hell or is even a trigger, hang in there. You are not alone. 

And this too shall pass.

If you were sexually abused, you might find this post helpful: Healing from Sexual Abuse -- 26 Things that Work for Me.

If you'd like to do something to help end child sexual abuse and child sex trafficking, please read my post, Getting Inspired.
qwerty

34 comments:

  1. Charlotte, as with your other posts about your horrific past, I struggle to respond, but feel compelled to do so. I'd like to just "x" out of this screen, hug my child, and wash away the images and the words you've shared. But I can't.

    Christmas as a trigger is something I have NEVER thought about. I mean it's supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year". It really, really pisses me off that your family, the people you are supposed to trust and depend on, abused you- that should go without saying. It makes me nearly blind with fury. The fact that you weren't even given Christmas off from the abuse... damn it.

    I truly can't see how you move past something like that. The fact that you have thrived (not just survived) is a testament to how bad-ass and strong you are. I would like to share this post but only with your permission (and a trigger warning). I mean I know you wrote it on a public blog, but before I share it with 2,000 people I want to ask!

    I hope that this Christmas season will be a time of healing and rebirth for you. I hope that by sharing this holiday with children and seeing it through their eyes, you will have a chance to see how magical it can be, and maybe, eventually, slowly, it can have happier connotations for you. I also hope you get well soon. Take care of yourself!

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    1. Katie, I think your anger is totally appropriate. I guess part of what I'm hoping in writing about all this is that such anger will prompt people to DO something to notice and end child abuse. So, yes, of course you can share it. I want stories like mine to be told. I want the abused to know they're not alone, and the lucky ones to know that their happy childhoods are not universal.

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    2. I admire your strength. Your story is horrific as it feels. I, too, feel fury and rage about child abuse such as this. You are doing such a great thing by telling your story so others know. You state your experiences as fact and give a face to the abuse by posting your precious pictures. So many people don't give others problems the time of day as if they have no power or cannot be bothered to help change or protect children when these atrocities are happening. I am sure you know how some people will deny the horrific truth because they have chosen to live in denial, PERIOD. I have never been able to wrap my mind around this indifference or lack of empathy and humanity. That is probably one of the most invalidating parts of speaking the uncomfortable truth. I hope this is empowering and relieves you of some of the trauma pent up inside and dilutes the triggers so you may have more peace. It takes unbelievable strength to do what you are doing every day. Thank you!!! (((hugs)))

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    3. There are two types of people in denial: those who say outright, "No, you're lying. This didn't happen," and those who willfully keep their eyes closed to the truth by "focusing on the positive." Both are horrible. I still encounter the latter, but, because I am physically disabled by what happened to me, the former really have no ground to stand on in their denial in my case. But, yes, both groups are very upsetting and very much part of the problem. You're right in seeing that I'm really trying to break through that denial in what I'm doing.

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  2. I work in children's mental health with "system-involved" children. Stories such as your's paint a picture of the atrocities these children may have experienced and you are a model of strength and survival. Thank you for sharing your experience in a way that helps me more fully understand what these children have experienced, while I hold the hope for their futures.

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  3. I want to make it better for you, Charlotte, because that's my first instinct; to fix it. Of course, I can't so I feel like a dolt. As bad as my childhood was my family did not sexually assault me so anything I relate pales in comparison to what you have endured. Christmas - actually, Thanksgiving through New Year's, was a time I dreaded. It took a few Christmases with my better half for me to begin to enjoy it, and even now I don't like spending the holiday with anybody else.

    I suggest that you start a new tradition with Beau, even something as trivial as eating out or sharing a movie together. You need something positive to occupy your mind so the "trigger" will have to compete with new, better memories.

    Alicia

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    1. Yeah, I do have some of my own traditions. I reread Dickens' A Christmas Carol every year. I go for a walk (such as I can now) on Christmas day. I observe Chanukah. But, yes, with Beau in my life, we can make some more, including getting Christmas tree ornaments that are specific to us that can be a part of new memories, not old ones.

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  4. Im speechless, feeling intense anger about those vile monsters who violated you. I work in child welfare and it disgusts me how adults take advantage of helpless children who trust them with their lives. Im so sorry you had to endure such horrific abuse at the hands of "family". Im sorry they took so much away from you BUT Im glad you're trying to reclaim Christmas for yourself. Your post has taught me to look beyond my experience and to embrace others who are having a tough time during this season.

    I hope I don't sound condescending when I say I think you are the bravest person Ive ever known. To have survived such a horrific childhood and continue to grow inspires me. I hope you're recovering from the flu (having the flu sucks!) and know that you are in my thoughts and prayers.

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    1. "Your post has taught me to look beyond my experience..." If there's one thing I want to do, it's teach people just that. Thanks.

      Your comment about my being brave really made me tear up.

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  5. Christmas is a trigger for me also, but not for the same reasons.mine has to do with the last Christmas with my dad. He died in September and I have hated it since. Every Xmas eve I feel the void I have for my dad, the only person in my family who actually loved me. He was my step dad but in my heart he was my real dad. I miss him ever year at this time.

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  6. I have a friend who had a childhood much like yours except her father was her only abuser. He was sadistic as well. I have been a grassroots advicare for women stuck in custody battles with all types of abusers. Nothing shocks me anymore. I am glad you are speaking your truth. If people dont or wont understand, you dont need them in your life. Wishing you a life of new, fresh memories.

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  7. I'm Christian 26yrs old woman and I was raped too during my teenage years by a gang of boy rapists who drug young women and children with drug in the beverage, so that they think they sleep because it's night, but actually they are raped while sleeping. I know how hard it is to believe in God after such horrid memories.
    But my vision is that you'll be blessed by God who never wanted this to happen, I think all the bad actions are evil (Satan)'s fault. I try to understand it that way, because I don't know neither why some human beings could be such monsters. You seem smiling on the pictures now that you are a grown-up woman, and in love with Beau, I'm happy you have a better life, and I do think some human beings deserve love and peace more than others... Because everyone has a human brain, and if we work with it, we obviously know that nobody should rape, kid or grown-up. So there is no excuse for the rapers, and I hope they will go to a thing like hell after death, though I don't know if heaven and hell exist, but sometimes I keep too much anger to those persons, but I know the mainly fact which matters is that you and I are normal brains who understand good and bad, and that is a thing which matters to God too...

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    1. As a person of faith, I too have grappled with these questions. Like you, I in no way way believe that God "let" these things happen to me or wanted them to happen. God was my companion who helped me survive, not the cause of the horrors. I also agree that humans are responsible for their actions. I don't believe in an evil supernatural being. Instead, I believe in evil itself -- in humans themselves. Those of us who have known evil know a part of humanity that others just can't understand. Since the police have been so completely useless and uncaring, I do hope there is some kind of divine justice after death. In other words, I do hope those who perpetrate evil are punished, but I leave that in God's hands, since my own efforts at achieving justice have been futile.

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  8. Charlotte, like so many others who read your story, I could barely see through my tears by the end. The horrors you have endured I cannot even begin to imagine. Kudos to you for not letting it define who you are.

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    1. Thanks so much. I'll be honest: there are days when I feel that it does define me. Sometimes my loved ones have to remind me of all the ways I am so much more than what happened to me.

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  9. Angry, angry tears. Let me at these evil people who hurt you....

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  10. I am furious. Let me at these evil creatures who hurt this little girl......

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  11. I am SO SO sorry. Words can never be enough. I wish I could teak all of it away form that little girl. And so I will strive to protect kids of this generation so they NEVER have to live through your horror x

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    1. Jayneen, that is exactly why I write about this stuff in my blog: so people will work to try to prevent it from happening again. Of course, I also do it so people are more understanding of those of us who have gone through it already.

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  12. I'm so sorry these things happened to you. Thank you for your bravery in writing this post. I hope it will help others who have experienced similar things and that it will help to effect positive changes in our society. As a fellow survivor, I need to tell you that this post absolutely requires a trigger warning. Some people will not be able to read it and be safe due to its graphic nature. I'm sure you did not intend this. I'm saying this because your blog is such an amazing resource and I hope it can be accessible to everyone. Some of us are not far enough along in our healing process to be able to read this post, and reading this post or something like it will be damaging and unsafe. Fortunately, this is easily fixed, especially with something like what you write about here, which is easily identifiable as a serious and common trigger. A clear trigger warning of some sort would allow me and others to stay safe and protect our mental and physical health.

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    1. I did think about giving it a trigger warning but assumed that the word "trigger" in the title was, in essence, the warning itself. I'll give some more thought to it though, and to other posts that deal with similar material.

      Thanks for the compliments on the piece though.

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    2. I think u are supper right this is a very delicate case and I got very sick when I read it. I am so sorry this is still happening in so many homes now and the family is ignoring the signs. I recommend to all children s to not be afraid to accuse immediately anyone who touch then if they don't want or don't like to be touch. I say it like this because even a hug or a kiss from family need to be approved by the child. Parents don't need to impost in children affection that would grow with love and confidence.

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  13. I sympathise with you Charlotte, and share in every one's comments above. I too "...want to make it better for you, Charlotte..." but not only because it's my first instinct too, to fix it, but because IT CAN be helped. Cheers. Raymond

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  14. Why you didn't get help? told a teacher? even the same doctor? why?

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    1. I tried. Nobody believed me. For instance, I had an STD when I was five. How did the doctor "help" me? He told me to do a better job of "keeping clean." I was also so terrorized, I was afraid to tell. It's important not to blame a child for not having the skills to rescue herself. It's not possible.

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  15. We do tell them Anonymous...everyone I have ever met with a childhood like mine did. Again and again until we all gave up hope.Most people feel bad these things happen to children...but I've never met anyone who did anything helpful once they knew. Its easier to pretend we're liars or we don't exist. Its easier to go on your rosy way and pretend you never saw or heard us. We are inconvenient.

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    1. Amen to that! People still react to me like that. I've talked to many people who, as adults meeting me as a child, "knew something was very wrong," and saw "terrible pain" in my eyes. Not one of them did anything about it. Not one.

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  16. Charlotte, I came here by way of fashion but now I just need to say:
    I hold you, hold your pain and your pain in love and in gratitude for your kind of strength that I can't begin to imagine.

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    1. Thanks Heidi. I often don't feel strong but people keep telling me I am strong. Maybe they see something in me that I don't.

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  17. People that I'm close to know that I can't bear to hear Christmas carols and that I avoid anything having to do with Christmas because the rapist that my mother picked up in a bar, turned up Christmas music to drown out noise from when he savagely raped me at the age of 12, about a week before Christmas. If people in your life really care about you, they understand the torture that triggers cause for you and they respect your need to take care of yourself. The only way that I can avoid depression and horrible anxiety during the period between Thanksgiving is to do the following: I don't go into stores, I carry my MP3 player with me to listen to my music instead of Christmas music when I ride the shuttle for work. I have shared with my supervisor and friends at work that I was raped to Christmas music and that I need to avoid holiday parties, etc. in order to be OK. I don't watch Christmas shows on TV and my husband and I mute Christmas ads on TV. Most importantly, my loving husband and friends are more concerned with helping me cope with my PTSD than with coercing me into uncomfortable situations. People with PTSD need support and understanding because even with therapy some PTSD triggers never go away. From research that I've done on PTSD, the brain undergoes physical brain chemistry changes that are "burned" into your brain's hard wiring. It's the body's survival instincts that are there to protect a person from future trauma. For anyone reading this, please exercise compassion for those of us who have been victimized either by sexual assault, war, etc.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your thoughts on the topic. You say it all so clearly. When I wrote this, I knew I couldn't possibly be the only one. Since, people have let me know privately or in comments that they too have been through this sort of thing.

      You're right about PTSD too. It's a kind of brain injury, though I'm told that the brain can "fix itself" with hard work. I suppose this is true. I am triggered by fewer things now than I was in the past, but I'll always have PTSD.

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  18. I want to feature this story on my blog tho..but I'll need you to add how God helped you in the recovery process

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    1. What's your blog? I'm extremely private and unconventional in my faith and will not allow any of my material to be used to promote conservative Christianity in any way.

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  19. Thank You for writing this article.

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