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Dealing With Trauma Related to the Holidays

It’s that time of year again. The time when sleigh bells ring, carolers sing, and Santa creepily breaks into your house in the middle of the night to leave you presents under a tree. Yep, it’s the holiday season all right, and everyone is all giddy like little kids. Well, not every one.

There are those Scrooge’s out there, but they aren’t just crabby old men that hate Christmas just because they can. In fact, you may not even be able to recognize the Scrooge’s in your life or around you. You might even know a child who secretly or even not so secretly despises it.

Everyone recognizes that the holidays are rough for some, maybe it’s their first Christmas without a loved one, or maybe they can’t participate because of an illness or hospitalization. But, there are many people who have none of those problems to deal with, what they deal with is something completely different. Trauma. Dealing with domestic violence, mental and verbal abuse, or any other type of traumatic experience during this time can ruin the holiday season for anyone.

There is a very set mood during this time of year. We hear the same songs, do the same traditions, and see the same things decorating every house. It is the same every year. If you have been through trauma, the fact that it is, all the same, every year only makes it that much harder to deal with. You experience the same things you did when your trauma happened, and we all know that it is basically impossible to escape the Christmas spirit. People start playing Christmas music in October! We all see Christmas up way before it is even close. Every one LOVES Christmas and can’t wait for it to come. 

When you have dealt with a terrifying experience, your senses remember everything. They remember the song on the radio, the smell of the air, the taste of food, the types of things you see around you. Hearing that same song again can literally make you feel as if it is happening all over again. You have associated those emotions with certain things. It’s called muscle memory. Your body remembers it and brings it all back to the surface with just one similar sensory experience.

The holidays are a hectic time. People practically kill each other to get that ideal gift for someone, decorating is a lot of work, and planning a family get together with a meal that took weeks of preparation and days of cooking, dealing with family members you don’t really like, and all the chaos that the world seems to be in. There are massive crazy parties, and usually, a whole lot of alcohol consumption. Trauma can swoop in out of nowhere because someone “celebrated” a little too much, and that my friends, is the key to this story. Take me for example.

My Dad was one of those people that alcohol did not mix well with, then you add in Alzheimer’s and you just walked into a minefield that is impossible to walk through without setting off an explosion. We would already have him calling us lazy, ungrateful, disrespectful, and selfish children before he even said the words to go do the dishes or whatever he was was complaining about that day. Then there was his weird possessive attitude towards food, that was always a good way to have him storm off during dinner. I remember the year I gave up on Christmas being a holiday to appreciate and love your family.

My job was usually to set the table for holiday meals. I loved to pick out a theme and make the tablecloth, the plates, cloth napkins, and candles all match and look nice. I knew how to properly arrange the silverware and that was always my favorite part of Christmas. My mom would be in the kitchen cooking, and I would be right there making the table look amazing. It was my thing, I got to use my ridiculous amount of creative energy and artsy-ness to prepare for a nice dinner as a family.

We never really had nice dinners very much because everyone was always off doing their own thing, or like me, hiding from my dad. Basically, I was very proud of how it had turned out that year and we had had a bit of a rough year so family dinners where we all sat and ate together were a rare occasion.

The time for our Christmas eve dinner of wild rice soup, sparkling grape juice, and delicious bread came. I dressed up, lit the candles and we all sat down to eat. Everything started off okay. We enjoyed our soup and bread, the conversation was decent for a while.

Then my sister started talking about some plus size clothing line or body positivity lady. I don’t remember how it all went down, but my dad was being, well…dad, and started to say some stupid stuff about how it was a bad thing or something. Basically reigning all over my sister’s parade and basically started body shaming or something like that. It escalated, and my dad stood up, picked up his plate, and stormed downstairs to watch some intense, violent action movie. I was used to that happening. He would storm off from the table all the time. This time though, it was Christmas eve, and me being naive thought that things would be different because of that, even if it was only for a day or so. I still had hope that things would be different just because it was Christmas.

My sister ended up leaving the table too, and, my two younger brothers, and my mom, and I just sat there in this horrible shocked silence. I stopped eating, sat there and stared at my plate, and tried not to cry. That was when I realized that we weren’t going to ever have a decent meal together without conflict, suicide threats from my dad or the never-ending whining about how if we took a normal serving of food, or seconds, that my dad was not going to get any in his classic passive-aggressive manner.

When something like that happens, when you finally feel like things might be okay for once, and then it is just slammed into the ground, your heart breaks and you can’t ever let yourself feel excited again because you are too afraid that you will just get hurt. So for a long time, I hated, despised, and dreaded every second of the holidays. After Halloween was over, that was it. I shut down to avoid being disappointed and heartbroken like I was that night after getting my hopes up.

I know I’m not the only one who has had to deal with a similar situation, even if it isn’t related to the holidays. It has taken a long time, a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of reliving through some really difficult memories for me to not completely shut down during this time of year.

This is the first year I’ve actually been somewhat excited about the holidays. I mean I even bought a Christmas tree and everything. I’ve been one of those scrooge’s for the past five years. I’ve dreaded, loathed, and feared this season for such a long time now, and some of my cousins that I now live closer to in Arizona after moving from Minnesota had a hard time understanding that. My youngest cousin is like a Hallmark Christmas movie kid, counting down the seconds to Christmas. It’s so sweet and I remember being that way too. That’s not me anymore, I tried my darnedest to avoid thinking about it all together.

This year though I have gone through so much change and I am slowly letting myself relax a little bit and not worry so much about it. I’m more neutral about it this year. Somedays I’m more excited to do Christmassy things like setting up my very own magical unicorn tree that looks like it was inspired by Disney’s Frozen, though I wasn’t really going for that it’s kind of perfect since I am freaking obsessed with that movie. I’m looking forward to making and decorating sugar cookies, and I definitely am going to build a  gingerbread house and make gingerbread men. That’s pretty big progress for me.

If you are someone dealing with trauma, or really any other thing that is making it difficult to enjoy this season I have some advice that has really helped me. That is to just relax. Let yourself be angry, sad, heartbroken, or afraid, and tell yourself that IT’S OKAY to feel those emotions whatever they are. If they are negative, feel those negative emotions. Trying to force yourself to be excited is going to set you up for failure. If something goes wrong you will completely crumble if you are trying to be happy. You can’t try to push them aside and put on a face. The best thing you can do is just ride those emotions. If they want to crash into a meltdown, let them. If you need to cry for an hour because you can’t find your shoes to go anywhere, cry. If you need to vent, grab a journal and write so hard you rip the pages from being so angry if you need to. Trust me, letting them out id the best way to handle them. Obviously, if you or someone else is in real danger, or you might hurt yourself, do what you need to do to stay safe. If that means checking into a mental hospital on new years eve, then do that. You do what you need to do. Ride that roller coaster all the way to the end if you have to. Don’t force anything, that will only cause more conflict inside of you and make things worse.

So whatever is going on in your life, whatever has happened in the past that keeps you from being all giddy like everyone else right now. Know that you are NOT alone in it. You are not required to be happy or excited because that’s what everyone else is doing.  However, you want to celebrate, or not celebrate is completely up to you. You are in control of you, so let go of all that pressure you are putting on yourself this year. You are not required to act like everyone else, so don’t if that is too hard to do.

So in the words of the Queen of winter herself, “Let it Go! Let the storm rage on.”

May the holidays be how you want them to be,

Kerilyn Rose

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