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.
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.