With Christmas just around the corner, there are scenes of happy families on TV, family gatherings in restaurants and pictures of togetherness everywhere. But for as many as one in five people who survived abuse in childhood, including myself, the festive season is marred by reunions with child abusers, family estrangement, or returning to the place where the abuse happened. Simply put, the holidays are hard for us survivors.
At least 80% of all types of abuse occurs within the family, so for many it is a season to be feared. At NAPAC, a charity that supports adult survivors of child abuse, we often hear people talking about the difficulties of Christmas on our telephone support line and in our support groups. Here are my tips for how survivors can keep themselves safe and sane this festive season.
1. Get out and meet new people
Many survivors have limited contact, or are estranged from family members, or their entire family. So it’s important to connect with others and build a strong support network.
You can get out and about at Christmas through various social apps like Meetup.com, with some groups meeting around Christmas and on Christmas day.
The holidays can be hard for survivors, and the emotional turmoil can take its toll, so it’s a good idea to increase your self-care.
This doesn’t always mean doing fun things; self-care is about building a life you don’t feel you want to escape from. For you that could mean taking care of your diet, making a spreadsheet of how you’ll repay your debts in 2018, or introducing a better bedtime routine. Some people make a list of enjoyable self-care activities that soothe them when they’re feeling out of sorts; whether that’s painting Santa by numbers, a walk in nature, or salt baths.
Good self-care also includes saying ‘no’ when you want to, because you’re too tired, because you want some ‘you’ time, or to protect yourself.
3. Use boundaries
You are entitled to say no to family gatherings, and you do not have to see your abusers if you don’t want to. It is important to put your (and your children’s) safety first, and if you’re in any doubt about that, consider saying no or using other boundaries (e.g. no contact).
It’s not uncommon for survivors of child abuse to have a fear of saying ‘no’, especially when it comes to family and / or abusers. Some may react angrily to boundaries, but it’s important to do what feels right for you. This is especially important if you have your own children, and you need to think carefully if they might come into contact with your abuser.
4. Think things through
Don’t let the nostalgia of Christmas make you feel like you must reconnect with family/abusers. Think things through carefully first, and perhaps discuss it with a trusted friend or counsellor, before making a decision.
If you do decide to reconnect, it’s probably safer to meet in a public place, rather than a family home, as alcohol-fuelled arguments could escalate more quickly in home environments.
5. Go on holiday
Reinvent your Christmas and plan a holiday. Perhaps there’s somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, or an old friend you’ve been meaning to visit? Or you could try a spiritual retreat. This works just as well if there’s a group of you (i.e. you and your partner / children), or if you’re estranged and were planning to spend Christmas on your own.
Helping others by volunteering has been shown to improve your health, and even your mortality rate. It’s also a great way to meet new people and expand your support network.
At Christmas, there are lots of opportunities to help charities. You could also contact your local Church, as they often put on a Christmas day lunch for elderly people who would otherwise have spent Christmas alone, and need helpers.
Last year I arranged to visit local nursing home residents and day care centres with my dog Lola, dressed up as a Christmas elf! (pictured). See do-it.org and, if you’re in London, check out the Christmas volunteering guide on Londonist.com
7. Take a break from social media
It can be upsetting to see so many seemingly happy families on your timeline. Remember that social media can be a smokescreen – every family has its problems, and millions of people are in a similar position to you. Although social media can be a way to feel connected to others, consider taking a break from it and instead focusing on connecting to people in real life.
8. Reach out
If you’re struggling with your emotions this festive season, reach out for support.
• NAPAC’s telephone support line for adult survivors of child abuse – 0808 801 0331 (confidential and free from landlines and all mobile networks). The NAPAC support line is open until 6pm on Christmas Eve. It re-opens at 10am on Tuesday 2 January 2019.
• Samaritans 116123 (freephone) – open 24 hours a day, all year round.