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.
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. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.