Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Anti-Christmas Outfit: Bah Humbug, Only Prettier

I hate Christmas. The season is very stressful and emotional for me because I was horrifically, sadistically, sexually abused on Christmases past. Everything about the season reminds me of pain and terror, not comfort and joy. I won't go into detail about the abuse in this post but I did a year ago in a post entitled When Christmas is a Trigger: Enduring the Holidays with PTSD. It went a bit viral and is one of my most read posts to date.

I'm glad I wrote it. Friends who thought they knew how bad it had been for me, but really didn't, are now kinder and gentler with me during the holiday season. They go out of their way to ask how I'm doing, and how I feel about the barrage of decorations, songs, advertisements, well wishes, movies, etc., that constantly remind me of some of the worst moments of my life.

I'm also glad I wrote it because the response I got to that post let me know that I'm not the only one who feels this way about Christmas. I'm not the only one who struggles just to survive it. I'm not the only one more liable to throw up on Christmas Eve than to celebrate it. I know that I'm not alone, and those who feel the same way can now know that they're not alone either. 

Not only was I badly abused at Christmas time, but many of my abusers, in an effort to justify their abuse, perverted Christian holidays and iconography, including those of Christmas (and Easter). Many of them not only claimed to be good Christians, but told me that they were abusing me in the name of their Christianity. The season reminds me more of cruel depravity and my abusers' efforts to destroy my spirit than of good cheer and the salvation of souls. 

It is partly for this reason that I ask well intentioned readers of Sublime Mercies to please stop trying to convert me to Christianity and to help me find Jesus. It happens a lot! For the record, I do have faith -- the very name of my blog, Sublime Mercies, is a testament to that fact -- but it's mine: private, strong, and sustaining. I do not need to be rescued into someone else's manifestation of faith.

Plus, I'm more than half Jewish. I have, in my own, not very observant way, been a self-identified Jew for most of my adult life. Moving away from Christian holidays, language, and iconography has been very healing for me, as it has given me a way to express my faith without being constantly triggered and reminded of the abuse I endured. 

Take Hanukkah, for example. While it feels like the whole world is putting up Christmas trees, I'm lighting the Hannukah candles, brighter and prettier each night, beautiful and festive, and not in any way related to my abuse.  

But it's impossible to ignore Christmas, at least in Western culture. I was a bit of a wreck throughout December. I was cranky, I was grumpy, I was liable to pick fights with Beau or start crying "for no reason." Beau had to keep reminding me, "It's Christmas. You do have a reason." 

It's not easy to like myself much when the person I love most is bearing the brunt of my negative emotions about something that happened long before I even met him. As is common for me all year round, I've been plagued by self-loathing.

I had panic attacks this month, that terrifying rush of adrenaline that my brain sends through my body when it incorrectly senses danger. The danger? Christmas itself. 

My body didn't fair well either. My headaches were far more frequent and intense. I got two cold sores in a row, the second one infecting so badly, the side of my face was pink and puffy and I had to go to the doctor. An exacerbation of the symptoms of PTSD affects the body as well as the soul, and I was depleted to my core. I still am.

The day of Christmas Eve is the worst for me. My "inner children," those parts of me frozen in childhood moments of inescapable danger and terror, were in a panic. The rational mind can do little to explain, "It's okay. The danger is long gone." 

Comfort must come in less cerebral forms, like toys that help remind those childlike parts of me that childhood was not unceasingly horrific. There were good things too, like Fisher Price toys! Remember them?

But I still hate Christmas Eve. 

Boots, cape, earrings, sunglasses, rings (except engagement ring), bracelet, and cane: vintage; Skirt: ModCloth; Tights, top, gloves, and sweater: Reitman's
That's why I was so excited when my very first Mod Cloth order arrived on the day of Christmas Eve. The timing could not have been better. It felt like an anti-Christmas present. I mean, can you imagine a skirt that is less Christmas-y -- while still being so incredibly festive

I didn't even take the time to iron my new skirt. I had to create an outfit around it immediately, my only concession to the season being my rather dun boots. Christmas? What's Christmas? It's Spring

It felt like a form of rebellion. It was a form of rebellion. 

I was still in a bad mood, mind you, but I was diverted and sometimes diversion is a very welcome gift. (I was also diverted by the redundancy in that sign. "Roe" is fish eggs, so the sign essentially says, "Herring fish eggs eggs.")

Plus, after days and days of heavy rain, the sun was out.

I've always wanted a full circle skirt to twirl in. Now I have one.

Of course, I can't twirl anymore. Beau asked me to try but I was nervous and it hurt.

It hurt because, as a child, I was repeatedly sold to men who sexually abused me so badly that they permanently injured my back. It was my family who sold me. 

All the talk of family at Christmas is like salt in my wounds. It's family-this, and family-that, and if I dare suggest that not all families are ones with whom any sane person would want to celebrate anything ever ... well, then I'm assumed to be some peevish, immature daughter, holding a petty grudge. This year, on the 26th, when I told a woman that I am glad that Christmas is over, she looked at me as if I'd said I like to kill kittens (an act I also witnessed in my home, by the way). 

People won't let themselves imagine how bad a family can be. I wish they would.

Because of my "family," I am in significant and constant pain. The cane not just a fashion statement.

I have every right to be all "bah humbug" at this time of year, and I did do a fair amount of that. But, on December 24th, I opted to rebel against the day by wearing bright yellow, and turquoise, and pink, not a Christmas colour in the mix. 

It was my anti-Christmas outfit, and it felt a bit like going to an abuser's funeral dressed in red. In other words, it felt good.

If I've got to use mobility aids, at least I can look good doing so.

I got the cane second hand and this was my first time using it. Doesn't it go well with the skirt?

But why do they put those damned stickers on them? Do you know how hard they are to get off, even for an able-bodied person, let alone for someone whose weak back makes scrubbing painful? I'm sure Beau will help me eventually. I hate having to ask him for so much. But I digress.

My outfit was my own way of saying, "So there!" to my abusers.

They say that living well is the best revenge. I really can't say I feel I'm living well. I feel too deeply affected by the abuse to claim that I'm living well. But some abuse is so extreme that simply living at all is an act of defiance -- and I'm still here. So there!

Is dressing well an act of revenge? Even if it isn't, it brings me some cheer and that's a good thing.

My skirt felt like it was its own sunshine on a dark day of my soul. It seemed to glow.

It made me feel mischievous and sly, like I was playing a trick on the day. I wasn't dressed for Christmas; I was dressed against it.

I made sure to look sunshiny in every detail. I love my vintage brooches. I almost never leave the house without picking one for the day. A day this hard called for three brooches!

I try, in my way, to carry the sun with me, and maybe even generate a bit of sunshine from within.

Doing this is not "laughing in the face of adversity," though I do have a pretty keen sense of gallows humour. I am not a cheerful cripple, ignoring my pain, and not talking about my reality -- so other people feel more comfortable around me. That's not me at all.

I cry. I rage. I get cranky. I curse. I complain. I hate myself. I ask for help. I rant. And, let's not forget, I write a little, in your face blog called Sublime Mercies.

I stare adversity in the face, acknowledge it, talk about it, agitate for others to acknowledge it too.

And, at the same time, I try to go on, to go forward, even as the past tugs and pulls, not just at my heart, but at my very body, which was so misused in adversity.

So I can't twirl in my skirt. I can mourn that loss, and I can swish my skirt and have genuine fun doing so. 

I try to be the one noticing the flowers -- even if I have to wear them because they can't be found anywhere else.

It brightens my days and maybe brightens other people's days too. You see three shadows here; two are Beau and his cousin. The other is a complete stranger walking his dog, stopping and smiling while Beau took photos. That's me noticing him and saying he shouldn't let us impede his walk. Was he amused by our little photo shoot? I hope so.

So, whether it's an act of revenge, an act of self-preservation, or an act of generosity, I wore "flowers" in my hair on Christmas Eve ...

... even when the barren trees and winter sky mutely proclaimed that there were no flowers.

There are always flowers, literal and metaphorical. You just have to look for them -- hard.

And the trees are never really barren of life. These ones were alive with the sound of excited crows.

I can't literally lay down my physical and emotional burdens, as much as dearly wish I could.

So I just do what I can: walking in pain ...

... having fun in pain ...

... playfully decorating my home for that fun ...

... taking the time to notice the details that somehow make my life a little easier ...

... doing what I can for my children within (aka, "the littles") ...

... carrying whatever sunshine I can with me.

This has been my sly secret, my odd rebellion, since childhood. I saw beauty where others didn't. I kept my secret so it couldn't be taken away from me.

It doesn't need to be a secret anymore.

I never want to turn my back on pain or be in denial, but I'm also trying to never turn my back on goodness either. That's what kills the spirit.

When one learns to see clouds as landscape, the sky is never barren, even on the darkest days. 

Yes, that's a metaphor. 

And so it goes: I try to move forward, my face toward the sun, and carrying my own sunshine with me. 

And I am SO glad Christmas is over! I do not look forward to its return.

Bah humbug! in a pretty way.

I'd like to dedicate this post to my friend, "Joe," who can't see any of the beautiful photos in the post. His mother's abuse blinded him when he was a baby. He endured years more abuse before, like me, he was able to leave "home" in his mid teens.

(I'm sharing this with Spy Girl, Hat Attack on The Style Crone, and Visible Mondays at Not Dead Yet.)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When Christmas Was Hell: 'Tis the Season for Triggers

(Note: I wrote this a year ago, but I'm reposting it because I think the issue is very important. Please feel free to share it widely. Child abuse needs to end and only we adults can end it.)

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 sort of "party" or "ceremony" in which children, including me, were horribly gang raped. That 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. 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.