Holiday season is a difficult time for many abuse survivors, especially if their abusers are family members. Even survivors who have gone No Contact can be quickly overwhelmed by the social pressures of the holidays. They are surrounded by advertisements of happy families in sweaters, beaming at each other while they pass the gravy, and serving as a too-painful reminder of what the survivor never had. Everyday small talk turns to whether they are going home for the holidays, which almost always guarantees an awkward conversation. The constant reminder of what a family “should” be causes many, including me, to re-process through the stages of grief this time every year.
For those who have not gone No Contact with toxic family members, there is the added tension and anxiety of having to manage the inevitable confrontations. The pressure to “be nice” around toxic people during the holidays becomes magnified as many abuse survivors are trained to absorb the toxic environment around them rather than point it out. Toxic guilt and shame that they might “ruin” the holiday by refusing to go along with the abusive program is often what keeps victims quiet year after year, with their hands clenched and their stomach tied in knots.
All of the residual fallout a victim of abuse experiences is symptomatic of the fact that abusers are weird about holidays. As mentioned before, the common denominator of abuse is control. The holidays are the perfect storm for an abuser to exact their control over the victim because there are so many elements of everyday control already involved. It’s a one-stop opportunity to control gifts, food, spending (or not spending), decorations, relationships, and anything else that can be robbed of enjoyment.
Some abusers declare they don’t like certain holidays, and then set out to deny anyone else of experiencing or enjoying them. Abusers see others as extensions of themselves, so whatever the abuser likes or dislikes is prescribed to every one else around them.
For many survivors, the second wound of having to be around family members that make excuses for the abusers or who fail to support the victim causes a major anxiety spiral and is enough to avoid family functions altogether.
If gifts are involved, an abuser will use them as from of control. It might be the excessive control of what kind of gift it can be, or when or how it may be opened. When opened, there is control over how that gift may be used. Some abusers refuse to give gifts, but are miffed when they don’t receive any.
Gifts given by an abuser are often grossly inappropriate. Some give extravagant gifts which are intended to guilt a victim into doing whatever the abuser wants, i.e. “He bought me this diamond necklace, now I can’t leave him.” Many abusers give What The Hell gifts, meaning there was little to no thought as to how the item is something the receiver would ever want or need. Some abusers give underhanded gifts intended to hurt. One year, in spite of my mother’s grumblings that we couldn’t afford gifts that year, my father bought me an expensive keyboard for Christmas. I didn’t want one, and I didn’t play, but my brother did. He got clothes. Guess what I wanted? Of course, the inevitable tantrum followed when we weren’t grateful enough for our father’s gifts.
There are so many potholes of expectation, guilt, and shame that surround the holidays for abuse survivors. It’s important for survivors to remember, first and foremost, to take care of themselves first. If they decline the invite to Thanksgiving dinner in favor of their own mental health, will they inevitably let Aunt Edna down? Yes, probably, but they may gain their own voice and power. If they enforce a new boundary (or any boundary) to a toxic family member, will they be misunderstood, ridiculed and judged? Yes, most likely. Is it important to do it anyway? Absolutely. For many, including me, avoiding toxic people around holidays is life and death stakes.