Have you ever gone to counseling and it was very enlightening – you felt like you came to talk some things through and make some decisions and you did. Your counselor helped guide you to figure out what you wanted most, helped you weigh the different options and paths before you, and helped you pinpoint exact problems. You leave feeling sad, because you did still explore problems, but somehow rejuvenated. Like you did it, you found it. Whatever the it was – a solution, an answer, a sense of control or pride, encouragement towards yourself or the situation. It’s almost as if you’ve found for the time being, an ounce of victory.
I’ve had many productive stories from counseling. This isn’t one of them.
Today I write on a note of frustration. All week leading up to Christmas and the New Year I have had a racing mind, because I have a ton more questions than answers right now. I voiced a few thoughts, but mostly tried to tame them. Because I knew, all I had to do was make it through Christmas and then I would attend my counseling appointment on the 27th and I’d be able to sort through the landfill in my head. I started off hopeful. We talked about normal holiday things all the while I was itching to get to the core of my thoughts: what’s next for me?
I did it. I survived Christmas time.
On Christmas Eve we were supposed to just relax and enjoy our morning then go to a Christmas Eve service at a church with my in-laws. I attended personal training in the morning, would go home and relax and eat a great lunch with my husband. But when I was at the gym I got a text from my mother-in-law asking me to call her. To help the innocent and the guilty, I’ll spare the details, but we basically had to do my mother-in-law a favor and finish some last minute shopping. I had been done with my shopping for a month; I avoided crazy crowds, didn’t have to plan a whole lot more right before the big day. I purposely even bought groceries far out so I could avoid the bustle. But, my mother-in-law asked for the favor and I said yes. She was, after all, graciously providing all of the food for the family and allowing us to get together at her apartment. I tried to stay positive and I was at first. But if you’ve suffered through trauma you might understand that the holidays particularly increase stress levels. What was normal stressed out became on the verge of crying stressed out. While standing in a checkout line I had overwhelming stress and tears. My husband who was also stressed said something in his own frustration and stress that started tears when I walked out of the store:
Expect the worst.
Three simple words mixed into a longer sentence. My husband didn’t mean anything ill, but it struck something inside of me. Why would he say that, knowing this Christmas is different? Knowing that I do have catastrophic thinking, often. Knowing that expecting the worst for me means a whole lot different for him. It hit me so hard because I expected the worst for years.
Expecting the worst kept in silence and hushed any voice I had left.
Expecting the worst kept me believing no one could love me and that I could never forgive myself.
Expecting the worst kept me in fear of everything.
Expecting the worst meant I was all alone and no one would believe me or believe in me.
Expecting the worst meant I couldn’t face my trauma or my family or the people who wouldn’t support me.
Expecting the worst was crippling for a survivor of sexual trauma. For so long, all I could do was expect the worst – in others, in myself, in circumstances and in life.
Here my husband was, reminding me of what expecting the worst has meant in my life. I was eerie quiet on the car ride home and had tears streaming down my face.
I tried to use some of the techniques for coping from my guide; particularly breathing and the I am okay exercise. I know he really didn’t mean it in his frustration and we talked things through. We both apologized. Our communication has always been first aid to my soul.
Christmas Eve was spent at my mother-in-laws surrounded by his family: his brother and his fiancé, his mother and her boyfriend, his cousin and her boyfriend. It was intimate, it was fun, it was support. We played games and ate good food and opened gifts. While the first half of the day was emotionally catastrophic, the second half was a time of joy and peace.
When we got home well after midnight, there was a giant box in front of our door, with our address written on it. Immediately I knew that handwriting; it was from my mom. We pulled the box inside along with our other gifts and then debated when the right time to open it would be. I had ended the night on a pretty good note. I felt happy. I didn’t want to stir up emotions so late after having had a good time, so we put the box aside and decided I would open it in the morning.
We went to sleep, excited to spend this Christmas day together as husband and wife. The excitement woke us up early. We tried to fall back asleep to take advantage of the opportunity to do so in the first place, but we couldn’t. Finally, around 6:30am we decided to open each other’s gifts in bed. There were lots of exchanged smiles and warmed hearts. Knowing we were unable to fall back asleep, we decided to find a Christmas movie on television – and when there wasn’t one, on Netflix. Then I saw that box again.
I had texted my mom that I wasn’t going to do Christmas or holidays this year. I said I knew she wouldn’t understand but I had thought a lot about it and I needed some space from the family. I needed to do this for me. I wouldn’t be answering anyone’s texts or phone calls and would reassess after the new year. That was back before Halloween. She texted back that I was right she doesn’t understand but that she loves me. She respected my wish, and didn’t try to contact me. When I received my wedding photos back on the 13th, I felt the need to send them to her. Like she deserved to have access to them as my mom since she was there. But I didn’t want to send the wrong signals: I was still not going to participate in Christmas. So I emailed her and two others the same plain message about how to access the photos one day later. She replied Thank you so much! I love and miss you. But I was holding strong to my decision. I received a package in the mail that wasn’t addressed: it was a beautiful plush photo blanket with wedding pictures of Dave and I. My mother-in-law hadn’t sent it, which meant it was from my mom.
I opened the box and inside were a bunch of wrapped presents. And so we opened them. I felt this pull all week to thank my mom for the photo blanket and then I felt the need to thank her for the presents. So I sent her a text saying thank you and Merry Christmas and that I’d talk to her after the new year. I even said Love you, because against everything, I do. And that was that. I enjoyed the rest of my Christmas relatively happy and unscathed.
The week I received the wedding photos, my husband also received a message from my brothers asking what we were doing for Christmas this year. I had always been the point person to arrange gifts for everyone. Christmas was my holiday particularly. Every year I was the one who made everyone get up super early to open gifts and tried to keep the Santa traditions as long as I could get away with pretending still. My husband messaged back something along the lines of hey, sorry me and Brea aren’t doing Christmas this year. And something or another. My mother must not have spread the message around, so just like that I wasn’t participating to them. My brother then texted me asking why I wasn’t doing Christmas. It felt emotionally charged. So my husband took my phone and blocked their numbers; and I supported the choice. I wasn’t ready to confront everyone before I was able to make it through the holidays. To reduce my stress, my pain, and to choose how I heal.
One brother also sent me a message, If you want to exclude us from your life you could be decent enough to actually talk to us about your problems or say something about it. No one knows what’s going on with you unless you share that information.
I felt conflicted. He was right, I didn’t tell them myself that I wasn’t part of the holidays. I didn’t offer justification or an explanation. I thought about when I had told them my dad wasn’t going to be part of the wedding because he sexually abused me as a child. I received responses such as I guess if you feel that way, you do what you feel you have to do. It’s your personal business though, no one else needs to know why. We can say he’s sick or something. Similar to my mom’s response, their responses weren’t supportive. They wanted me to stay pretending and move on with my life as if nothing was different. It was like they were saying, nothing has to change because of this information. Sure, they respected that I didn’t have a relationship with my dad. But what they asked of me, written in between the words of their response, was costly: to stay in silence and disguised and pretending. So he was right. I didn’t talk about my trauma much. All they knew was that I had gone and needed counseling because of past sexual trauma and that I couldn’t stand to have a relationship with my dad. I wondered if they had ever heard my breakdowns or the effects of PTSD. Maybe not. But they should have had an inkling as to why I wouldn’t.
The problem is how do you explain trauma to people who just don’t get it. My mom saw the effects of trauma on me after being triggered. I tried talking to her about the pain. Yet she didn’t understand. How could I expect my brothers to when they haven’t been witness to my trauma. I allowed their numbers to stay blocked and ignored their messages.
What I knew was this: In the months that I didn’t have contact with my family, I didn’t have to pretend or hide. I didn’t have to listen to how great of a mother and father my parents had been to my brothers. I didn’t have to worry if I would run into my father or be second choice to him. I didn’t have to act like nothing had changed in the last 5 years since I’ve told my mom and nothing changed unless I made it change. I didn’t have to worry about being triggered from a multitude of things, places, and people. I wasn’t without pain, but it was a freeing type of pain. My sadness came from wishing things could be different, from missing having family. Some days it feels like reflecting on a lost friend. Other days it feels like a broken heart. But I stick with my decision and have been 100% confident in my decision to exclude my family from my life for the past months. What I’ve discovered is that I am okay, I can survive without them. What I can’t do is continue living a lie. I mourn what trauma took from me but have found peace and even happiness in this new life. I’m still sad but I had the most real last few months than I’ve ever had. I was safe and comfortable.
My hiatus was an important one. During it I was supposed to figure things out so I knew the next steps in the new year. Could I forgive my mom for not believing? Could I have relationships with people who want(ed) to keep me hushed and pretending? Could I have healthy relationships without trust and belief? Could I accept anything but full support in my life, even if they were neutral?
I feel so strongly that I need some closure either way. I need to be able to face my family and to tell them how they’ve failed me. I need to tell them a decision. I just don’t know what that decision is right now. Does it have to be all or nothing with them? Can I have them in my life somewhat – like normal families that have normal problems and only see each other or talk to each other on holidays? Which would be easiest, which would be freeing? Is there anything they could do to change things? Can I provide justifications that are good enough for them? How do I explain what I know they won’t understand? Would they attack me and make me feel horrible? If I talk to them face to face am I even going to be able to say what I need to say? Would they listen? I feel like I need closure which creates a pull in me to talk to them in person but if they make things worse or don’t understand is there any point? What if I allow them in my life and then we have kids – I cannot let them be part of my kids life, I can’t let the cycle of abuse that runs deep in my family filter into my new life and new family with Dave. Is there a way to have everything I want, to not lose so much? There isn’t.
When I saw my counselor and hoped she could help me figure things out, it didn’t go as planned. I said “I don’t know” more times in that one session to myself than all of the combined sessions I’ve ever been to. There were silent pauses and I feel just as confused. I have more questions and more frustrations than before. I left feeling unproductive and alone in my head. I hoped the session would ease my thoughts. I have felt trapped inside my head, claustrophobic. My head is filled to the brim and it’s hard to sift through the mess. It’s how I feel when I go into stores that are unorganized and purposely make it difficult for you to find things so you have to look through the whole store. It’s like I’m on a train that’s moving too fast, leaving each platform blurred. I don't know where I'm going; I feel trapped in my mind without any idea on how to navigate my way out.
I wish I had the answers. I guess there would be something wrong if I provided hard questions with easy answers; hard questions shouldn’t have easy answers.
One thing is clear:
A confrontation is coming.