Holiday Triggers of Abuse

Nov 23rd, 2011 | By | Category: All Posts, Family Rejection

by Christina Enevoldsen

In the first few years of healing from childhood sexual abuse and separating from my abusive parents, I approached each holiday feeling a little anxious. Holidays used to be times for gathering with family but they became reminders of the loss. Even though I worked through so much of my grief, I never knew when another layer might surface. It was especially hard to be grieving when it seemed that everyone else was celebrating.

Part of healing required me to make adjustments to traditions. A few years ago, we had Thanksgiving with some very good friends and laughed and ate all day. Even though we lost some family members, we found excellent friends who have become our new family-of-choice.

As Thanksgiving approached the following year, something felt off. I was annoyed when I read Facebook statuses that listed the many things my friends were thankful for or when I saw the many blog titles enumerating the benefits of being grateful. At first, I thought I was reacting to the “rule” to be thankful during this season. Then I remembered something that happened several years before my parents and I became estranged.

I’d just separated from my abusive husband the month before so it was my first holiday on my own. I hadn’t put too much thought into how the divorce would affect the way we celebrated. I was just relieved that twenty-one years of hell were finally over.

My parents lived a few minutes away and though they thought I was making a big mistake in ending my marriage, I thought my relationship with them would continue as it had. It was a surprise to me when they told me they planned to spend Thanksgiving with my soon-to-be ex-husband and his new girlfriend. I didn’t know how to react.

I struggled to adjust my feelings to how I was supposed to feel. I chided myself for feeling hurt and I told myself that I should be glad that everybody loved each other and that my family continued to be on friendly terms with my ex. I told myself I was selfish for wanting my own parents with me and reminded myself that they were free to choose where they wanted to go. I tried to be glad that my children hardly had much of an adjustment to make since all the “usual” people would be in one place and, except for my absence, the traditions would carry on the same way they had for years.

A few weeks later, my mom called me. Her pastor’s wife told her it was wrong that she had treated me that way and that she needed to apologize. She explained their reasons for spending Thanksgiving with her ex-son-in-law instead of her own daughter. Afterwards, I felt worse, but what else was left? My mom told me she was sorry, so I tried to put it behind me and move on with creating a new life.

As many times as I repeated that story, I’d never paid attention to it. Most of the history I talked about was just an account of events that I’d healed from and I didn’t have any emotions still attached to them. But I still felt something around this event.

When that happened, I absorbed the shock of it by adjusting the way I thought of it instead of calling it rejection. I never acknowledged the depth of my pain or anger. I did the same thing with my mother’s “apology”, which was almost as painful as the event itself.

When my mom apologized, I was already feeling as though I was thrown out, so I was tender. She made it clear that it was her pastor’s wife who told her she owed me an apology. I was like spiritual homework, which created even more of a feeling of distance. She didn’t come to reconnect with me; she was sent to “make things right”. She wasn’t interested in easing my pain; she wanted to ease her conscience.

In my mom’s explanation of why they chose my ex-husband over me, she told me he was special to them, especially to my dad. But why wasn’t I special to them? That man had abused me for years and yet he was their favorite. My parents had joked that they adopted him when I brought him into the family.

Knowing that they preferred him to me, I had a sick feeling I had found my own replacement. It’s as though they were saying that it was my fault that they loved him more since I was the one who introduced them; I had no right to complain. So the apology served the purpose of telling me that he held a special place in their hearts and that he was staying there.

It was a few years later that I saw how my parents strengthened my husband’s control over me all those years. When I cried to my dad that I didn’t like how my husband treated me, my dad assured me that my husband loved me. He asked me where I’d find another one like him.

Whenever my parents invited us to their house, my husband would pick on me so by the time we arrived, I was upset. He would continue his verbal attacks and if I reacted at all, he’d tell me I couldn’t take a joke. My parents blamed me for overreacting and for ruining the nice family gathering. Whatever my husband did, it was my fault and I was making a big deal out of nothing.

“Making a big deal out of nothing” rang in my ears. My parents and husband minimized the abuse. I was to blame for calling attention to it or for feeling it was bad in the first place. I misunderstood or interpreted wrong or was feeling wrong about it. Those were the voices I heard all those years and I told myself the same things.

When my parents told me they were spending the holiday with my ex, I was “wrong” to see it as betrayal and I was “wrong” to feel hurt. So I reasoned it away the same way the other abuses were reasoned away.

That Thanksgiving was the first glimpse of all of that and it was another Thanksgiving that surfaced a lot of pain. In spite of the pain, I was glad the wounds were healing and I was able to affirm those feelings for the first time.

Once I did, I finally looked forward to the holiday. I committed to myself that if more emotions came up, I wouldn’t dismiss them the way I used to do. From that Thanksgiving on, I became grateful for having a little less pain to carry around.

Have you ever experienced grieve when everyone around you seemed to be celebrating? Do you associate joy or pain with family gatherings? I’d love to hear your feelings and experiences about the holidays. Please share your thoughts with me below and remember to subscribe to the comments so you don’t miss any of the discussion.

Related Posts:
I’m Re-gifting Christmas
5 Dangers of a Positive Attitude and Gratitude

Christina Enevoldsen

I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. My passion is exploring new ways to express my empowered new life. I’ve recently discovered the joy of waterslides, the delightful scented lotion from Bath & Body Works, “Dark Kiss” and hosting princess tea parties for my granddaughters. My husband and I live in Scottsdale, Arizona and share three children and six grandchildren.

[read Christina’s story here]

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  1. Thank you for sharing this Christina. I feel a little off myself. This is the first Thanksgiving since I stopped communication with my mother…..the strange thing is, is that past holidays were never special. As a child my family came together to fight and argue. As an adult the holidays seemed a bit robotic….just going through the motions and pretending to be a happy family.
    However, I am determined to stick to my guns. My children will never have the anxiety as I did during the holiday season. They never have to worry if they are protected. They never have to wonder when the next fight might happen. They can simply be children and that I am thankful for.

  2. I was “wrong” to see it as betrayal and I was “wrong” to feel hurt. So I reasoned it away the same way the other abuses were reasoned away.

    This really hit me. How many times I was made to feel wrong about feeling “wronged.” I especially felt this in the church. I wasn’t allowed to be hurt or sad or angry when being mistreated. And even tho I was the one being controlled, and abused, some how it was always turned around to where it was my fault and if I was upset about it, then I was the one with the problem. Go pray, talk to God, ask for forgiveness and put on a happy face and get over it. Hummmmm.

    I’m gonna be pondering on this one!!!! Great blog by the way!!!

  3. This reminds me of the saying of “The quaking duck gets shot.” You reacted to the abuse from your ex husband, and instead of taking a protective role in your life, your parents made you feel bad for defending yourself against him and rejected you for him. How unfair! I can certainly see how the holidays would be an emotional time for you. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Ruth,
    That made me tear up reading that you’re determined to make things better for your children. I wish there were more parents who felt that way. Thank you for sharing that! I hope your first Thanksgiving in this new situation is full of love.

    Oh, I can relate to getting that same kind of treatment at church! The abusive pastors were never accountable for anything they did. Any hurt was the victim’s fault for feeling it. I’m so glad to be out of that church and away from all their lies. BTW, thanks for listening as I talked out my feelings on this post. I had a great breakthrough!
    Hugs, Christina

    Yes, the quacking duck DOES get shot!!!! That’s the way the abusive system works. When we’ve adapted to that system, we not only learn to keep quiet to protect ourselves, but we encourage others to keep quiet, too. I’m glad we are out of that system and using our voices to speak up!
    Hugs, Christina

  5. Ruth good for you! I agree with Christina. I wish more parents were like you. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season with your kids. I know my holidays have been much more peaceful since cutting off contact with half of my family.

  6. Luckily, my wife has a decent family, my children get tradition and love without any risk of harm. Out of my four sisters and one brother, my brother is in prison and all of my sisters constantly make excuses for what my parents did. It’s incredibly damaging to me to hear over and over again how disrespectful I am for not wanting to speak to or spend time with my parents, so I have cut those three sisters out of my life. No Thanksgiving or gratefulness with my family, ever again.

    I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving Christina.

  7. Thank you for sharing this. About 11 months ago I decided it was no longer healthy for me to keep a relationship with my father. This also limited my relationshp with my mother. I just found out yesterday that my siblings are uniting with my father against me in speaking out about the abuse we went through. I’m told they need to protect his reputation. I am deeply hurt that I can not trust my siblings and share my healing journey from abuse with them. Although, along the path of my healing I have been creating a new family. I have a support group of women and councelors that I can turn to in times of pain and joy. So this thanksgiving, eventhough my heart yerns for relationship with my blood relatives, I am extremely thankful for my friends that I have made during my recovery process from sexual abuse.

  8. Jack,
    That’s great that you have your wife’s family. My husband’s family is really great, though we don’t see them often due to distance. But it’s encouraging to know the whole world isn’t screwed up!

    I’ve been accused of dishonoring my parents and all kinds of other things. In the dysfunctional system, the victim is seen as the abuser and the abuser is seen as the victim. Incest is okay, but talking about it is bad. Sick, sick, sick!

    Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

  9. Toni,
    It’s really disturbing that people can think an abuser’s reputation is more important to protect than the victim’s well-being. Your siblings may not be making very wise or healthy choices, but you are. Yay for setting healthy boundaries and finding a good support system!

  10. Hi, great blog : )
    If I could I would print this blog and give it as a Christmas gift, maybe then some one would understand.
    Oh how the holidays can bring back pain. Which I dont feel is a bad thing, because it means I can work on my healing. The problem is getting other people to accept that I cant be cheery all the time. It would be nice if I didnt get told off all the time for not being cheery enough and I tell you I hide my pain very well.
    But last year was bad and a lot of other stuff happened too, so this year it will all be different. This year im going on a holiday to a country that doesnt have Christmas with some friends who also dont care much for the holidays. I think its okay this year to take a timeout from the all the pain, maybe next year ill feel a little strong and ill be able to deal with Christmas better and if im not, then ill find a nice beach and some sunshine. In the end I have to learn that “I” come first in this, not everyone else! And this year though im not leaving before after Christmas Eve, because I didnt dare too. I wont be home for all the extra dinners and the skiing holiday and such. This year its different, this year Christmas if for me!!!

  11. Hi Christina,
    Happy day of giving thanks! I think of it all so differently now! I am so thankful that I got out of the fog I used to live in; the same fog you talk about here in this post!

    One sentence especially jumped out at me in this article! It was the part where you said “As many times as I’ve repeated that story, I’ve never paid attention to it. Most of the history I talk about is just an account of events that I’ve healed from and I don’t have any emotions still attached to them. But I still felt something around this event.”

    I wanted to highlight it because this has been one of the key things in my healing. Looking more closely at the events ~ “stories” that I have repeated over and over, and then looking more deeply at the emotions around them, and the BELIEF system around them and where that belief system came from (in the first place and how it has added itself to events in my adult life) so that these events became like a treasure map full of clues instead of just an account of the events.

    This is a great post and it brought up a few more memories for me, as well as some reminders of some of the more covert ways that abusers prepare the ground in their quest to control and to always be right and to make others look like the bad guy. (how your ex. picked on your before you left for your parents so that you would be upset BEFORE you got there ~ great example of how it’s done!)

    Hugs, Darlene

  12. Resonate, wow! My husband was put on a pedestal and when I tried to leave him when the kids were young and tried to explain he choked me out I was called a liar and that I was only trying to get them to hate him. They sent my brother with him and they went to Florida for fun in the sun. When he partied and got drunk at the bars I was told a man needs his freedom, when he cheated my Dad came over for a one on one with me to tell me the facts of life, that all men cheat.
    Christmas was hell, I should’ve felt joyful, but as you said it was chaos and fighting.
    I left my husband and he begged me to come spend Xmas. I had went out of my way to go to the States to buy my son a clay pidgeon thrower. We were looking at the wrapped gifts under the tree and my son said where is mine? I asked my husband where is his? He said oh I sold it to my Mom, she didn’t have nothing to give him, he can get something boxing day. When i got mad he turned to my son and said “Look what you did!” I lit into him and said no what you did and left and went to a friends Xmas, no way was I staying there.
    Every Xmas same thing, family trying to get me to drag myself there 600 miles away, when all I wanted was home with my loved ones. So I didn’t go, but there was a lot of pressure up until Xmas. Mom died in February and my siblings shunned me altogether due to conflict over her will. She wanted in the end for it to be equal and they didn’t honor that. It wasn’t in the will but in a ledger unfortunately, so they dismissed her final wishes.
    It feels strange not to have the tension and phone calls guilting me into coming and I don’t know what to do with myself! lol It will all work out, but I have to somehow stop relating Xmas to family and grief and pain. I have to seperate from it, but it is not easy. You wish family would come through in the end but when they betray by their own choice and not even prompted by our parents anymore, it is kind of sad. I thought they might get real. They are in alignment making me the scapegoat still and I have no time for that!
    It might feel like going through the motions this year because I still have some grief but it can only get better as I learn how to live without their narciccistic sickeness.

  13. Since PTSD took over my life, I have lost everything, my father’s death was the trigger and two years later, my confidence, self esteem, stamina, my job and consequently my home and my dog on the 15th December are all lost. But amongst the chaos that is currently my life, another uneasy feeling begs my attention. It feels associated with Xmas but with a plethora of memories and experiences to choose from I just can’t remember why I am feeling what I am feeling. It’s just a kind of dread, laced with despair, hurt and disappointment. It’s all a blur and yet it hurts like a knife in the chest. So here’s to the next twenty years of trying to remember and come to terms with the damage caused by forty years of physical and emotional abuse by a narcissist. Just seems like a waste of a life really, i.e. it could have been spent on something better.

  14. Patty,
    I’m sorry to hear about the reaction of your church members to the glaring reality that abuse is abuse no matter who the perpetrator might be. It’s a tragedy that no place is safe from those who would wield their power to subjugate and hurt others. I try hard to separate the sick, weak minded behaviour of people who purport to follow holy teachings, from the truth of G-d. Foolish people band together against those who cry foul because they aren’t strong enough to face down their own demons and detest you for showing them up as cowards. Shame on them for hating your ability to rise above a broken system when they ought to be applauding you for bringing to light the sin within their midst!

    I come from a family with the same twisted ideas about the importance of reputation vs. not protecting a known predator. In the end each of us must learn to live with our choices. I suspect the decisions you’ve made are ones you will be able to live with in the long run, not so your siblings. Kudos to you for moving on with your life.

    Although round about, it seems that your mother’s final gift to you was the freedom to move on and fully separate the holiday from the guilt and pain.

    No life is ever wasted. Your story and your search to come to terms with your abuse is an inspiration to those still in the clutches of this evil. Every moment you spend healing is a slap in the face to predators that minimize their victims.

    Thank you for sharing your story and giving others a forum to share their own. Every stone we throw at their glass houses removes a shovel full of dirt from secrets buried too long and brings to light the strength and courage it takes to survive.

  15. Willow,
    I love your balanced approach to dealing with the pain. That’s how I handle it too. I’m thankful for triggers since they show me areas where I still need healing, yet I allow myself breaks from dealing with the pain. Most of the time, I face the issues as they come, but sometimes it feels like too much or it’s particularly bad timing, so I do something to cope.

    Your Christmas plans sound wonderful. I hope you enjoy it very much!

  16. Darlene,
    What a great way to think of those events: “A treasure map full of clues”. Thank you for sharing how you look for those clues!
    Hugs, Christina

    Note to readers: Darlene has an excellent website where she shares insights from her own recovery process that deals with more of this issue.

  17. Mary,
    I can relate to the struggle to separate the holidays from family, grief and pain. I’ve hated that the abuse issues have taken up so much of the rest of the year and then they seem to get even worse around Christmas. It’s made me mad! But I’ve learned to accept that the holidays may not be the idyllic times I used to imagine, but that they could still be good. The first few years after my family split were the hardest. Hang in there, it gets better.

  18. Kia,
    I’m so sorry for all your loss! Abuse steals our childhood and then it takes so much of our adulthood too.

    I’ve had that same dread, knowing that something happened to me that I can’t remember or not understanding why so much pain is coming up. Out of this whole process, that’s the most frustrating to me. Writing helps me so much at times like those. Even if I can’t connect my feelings to a particular source, I acknowledge my feelings and validate them and express them. Sometimes, in doing that, I remember an event or I suddenly understand the connection. But even if I don’t have an event to connect with my feelings, I connect with my feelings. After a lifetime of suppressing, ignoring, discounting, criticizing and hating my emotions (and myself), it’s healing to listen to and to comfort myself the way I craved for others to do for me all my life.

  19. Ria,
    Thanks for your comments. Let’s keep shedding light in those dark places!

  20. Christina – Thank you for sharing your story here. I, too, have had to deal with years of family members minimizing and ignoring sexual and other abuse done to me. This Thanksgiving was a peaceful one – spent with my partner, Dave. Two nights ago, I awoke once again with a nightmare about the Poison Man – my mother’s friend who molested me and fathered my only child. And once again, Dave held me in his arms and reassured me that the PM could no longer hurt me. It still surprises me that after 40 years, he still sneaks into my dreams to terrorize me. My family will never understand but I no longer care about or need their understanding. Bless you for being brave and strong!

  21. Diana, that’s wonderful that you can rest safely in loving arms now. Thanks for sharing that! Christina

  22. I have never written on a blog before and am just starting my personally journey of revelation, so I have to say with a resounding WOW, I feel as if you are in my mind, Christina. I am amazed at the depth of deception and lack of compassion abusive parents have. I am 39 and am just now coming around to recognize the wealth of control they have. I swear it’s like trying to escape from a cult. It’s taken my loving, supportive, compassionate, sane husband to help me see the ‘light’. I am so glad I found this blog. It is absolutely an eye-opener. I am finally appreciating myself. It is a long journey, as I’m going on 30 plus years of continued abuse. It’s about time we value ourselves, by golly! My ‘family’ does not understand why I am bringing all this ‘crap’ up again and why I am turning away from them. Like I said….denial is a hard pill to swallow and I’m tired of choking..

  23. Dana,
    Yes, the deception is so deep and twisted! The two things that amaze me about it is that it’s such a layered system and so widespread AND that I could be caught up in it so long. I’m glad you’re seeing the truth now, too. I love your comment, “It’s about time we value ourselves, by golly!” It sure is! Welcome to OSA. I’m glad you commented.

  24. I felt a little detached reading this. I first started to ache but that’s gone. In reading this I think one thing is clear. I, myself need to look at my emotions. I’m looking more into my past but I still stay safely on the surface. I can relate to how you felt seeing all the posts on Facebook. I found myself rolling my eyes a lot and saying so what. As Christmas comes I’m feeling beyond Scroogish. See, right now I’m starting to tear. Something inside is screaming. It’ll be okay. I’ll work on following your example and look deeper. I’m not gonna push it though. Missing a holiday won’t kill me. Sigh. Hmmmm

  25. Genesis,
    I love the way you’re talking yourself through your emotions and recognizing your reaction. Good work!

  26. Christmas can hurry up and go as far as I’m concerned. Just another reminder of the family I don’t have. That and negative memories of Xmas past, they were all messed up. My family it was chaos with 10 people, 9 of which were loud and trying to out shout and out do each other and me off in a corner trying to block out the noise. I have a picture where everyone is together and I am sitting off to the side looking numb and vacant. When I married my husband was a real grinch, I tried to make it good for the kids but hard to do when he was just miserable and mean.
    I am no longer with him and NC for the past 2 years with my evil siblings,but find it hard to get excited about Xmas .
    My Dad singing way too loud and in an annoying manner, Mom screaming for him to shut up. The only good memories I do have was when my Dad’s Mom was alive and we sang carols to her. When she died, that died too. Xmas meant hurrying up with the ritual church and parents fighting all the way home and the beer cracking open. After the gifts were open I escaped to my best friends house. Then I could finally breathe.
    I was relieved when Xmas was over so I didn’t feel so suffocated by too many narcissists trying to upstage one another. god they were rude, arrogant, pain in the asses, I can say that now, that is the truth, I was an introvert in an extroverted family, narcissistic extroverts don’t accept or get anyone who is not like them. They pick on quiet people. They try and suck you into their drama all the time.
    I cringe at canned Xmas music playing before November is even done. I tell my husband I can’t get in the mood until a week before maybe. He understands as much as he can, but he likes to get excited and I try not to be a downer. I promise him the cookies will be made, the spirit will come and usually a few days before I make a valiant attempt to make some sort of production. He can tell though my heart isn’t 100% in to it.
    This Xmas will be different, my daughter isn’t going 600 miles away to visit her Dad’s family and my son is coming from out west bringing his new baby. I’ll be happy about that and I will try and forget it is “Xmas” per say and enjoy the visit,
    It’ll be tough in one sense because I know my son is having the hardest time with his Grandma lying to him about the will and my siblings greed not to share when I was left out. I will let him vent because I accepted what they were all about long ago but is is a shock to him still. He will be confronting the one Uncle who he thought was reasonable because he is still pissed off. So he will have a world of emotions to deal with.
    So hopefully we can discuss what needs to be and try and enjoy Xmas in spite!

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