Five Tips For Surviving Holiday Gatherings

Let’s face it, for many people the holiday season is a reminder of past and current emotional and/or physical abuse, missing family members, the gathering together of dysfunctional family, even abusers, alcohol consumption and more.

So, how does one get through a day which may possibly have to be spent surrounded by dysfunctional behaviors?

1. Remember that other people’s behaviors are not yours. If it becomes projected toward you, you get to get up and walk away. You get to gather your brood and keys, respectfully say your goodbyes and simply leave. On this day, and every day, you have the right to self preserve and exit from toxic environments. If you feel you may end up in an abusive encounter, arrange a way to be able to leave as soon as you can.

2. We live in an age of pressure. We worry over judgment and backlash. Not attending a family function can create an arena of hurt. We don’t want the family to be upset at us. We don’t want to have to rehash grudges still being held against us. We don’t want to experience any new wounds. Remember that your peace of mind belongs to you. If you feel it is safer for you not to attend, then you don’t have to. If you do decide to attend gatherings though, for yourself, focus on any moments of positive laughter and conversation.  Focus on the familial connections which feel positive for you.

3. If you encounter triggers such as passive aggressive comments made toward you, skewed stories told that are meant to make you feel bad or humiliated or other audio invasions such as high noise levels, remember to use some grounding tools. Have headphones with you to temporarily block out the noise and negative conversation. Not only does it silently make the statement that you are unwilling to participate in toxicity, it also allows you a temporary mental escape as you listen to soothing music on your phone. If you feel yourself dissociating, silently name five red, green, white or black items in the room. Grab some ice water. Run your hand over the couch material or a solid object beside you, focusing in on its texture in your mind to bring you present into the room . If there are children around ask one of them if they want to play catch. Toss a stuffie or ball or any small item back and forth with them. These tools can all help to bring you back into the present.

4. Stay sober. Try not to drink in an attempt to relax. Keep your mind aware and focused. Concentrate on breathing. Visualize a protective barrier between you and those who you are not comfortable being around.

5. Set a time limit on your visit, and have an exit strategy. If three hours is all you feel you can handle, then try and time your visit so that the family meal is starting and wrapping up within your time frame. Be okay with taking a “to go” plate to enjoy later when you are back in your own safe space.

In essence, please remember to not be guilted into placing yourself in anxious or stressful familial situations. Even if your family doesn’t understand you, or doesn’t try to, know that you have the right to reserve your own comfort zone.

Remember to stay in the present.

Remember that if you feel triggered you have the right to ground or leave.

Remember that many people are not mindful of others’ needs, so prepare a self care list that you can glance at if you feel your mind can’t focus on its own. Looking at a list of ways to ground yourself can, in itself, also bring you into the present.

To my fellow abuse survivors who struggle through the holidays, I am with you in my heart. Here’s to the passing of another year and the start of a new one.

Vennie Kocsis is a child abuse survivor and the author of “Cult Child“. She is an outspoken advocate for trauma survivors.

Lost Letters

As I was going through some boxes that have been packed up for some time, I came across a bundle of letters. There were nine of them. They were all dated throughout the year of 1993.

I had just left college in Tennessee and moved to Washington State. I was in a foreign culture and in varying states of emotional trauma. I was pregnant with my youngest son and had a four year old child to care for. I felt alone and scared. Morning sickness was rocking my body. I was in deep need of support. The life I had imagined I was moving to was not as I had pictured.

I sat cross legged on my bed the other night, excited to read the letters. I couldn’t remember their context so they were new to me. During that time was the first that my sister and I had been separated by miles, since we’d left the cult. She was now married and off living her life.

I must have been writing to her about the despair I was in, based on her responses. The first couple of letters from her contained the average “Hi! How are you doing? I am fine.” generic theme.

Then I read on and became internally disturbed. My first irritation rose at her continual referring to my unborn child as “Shanaynay“, due to he/she (the gender of my infant unknown then) is a multicultural child. Every letter had the same line in it at some point.

So how’s Shanaynay doing?”

I cringed every time I read it.

I opened the sixth letter.

Hey Bitch! Relationship this! Relationship that! Don’t you have anything else to write about other than your fucking relationship?”

No, I thought. I didn’t. I was alone in a strange city. I had left my whole life, family and friends in Tennessee. I was in cultural trauma. I was having panic attacks. I was arguing with my partner. Things weren’t as they were supposed to be. I was rocked to my core. I had no one to talk to except her.

Letter eight made me wince even more. It bothered me when she called my unborn child Shanaynay. This reference felt intentional and racist.  I had obviously expressed this to her at one point.

So how’s Shanaynay? (Does that still bother you?)

I sat reading all of the different jobs her husband was going to have.
Refinery. We’ll be in the money!”

Job after job, fake happiness after fake happiness, to the point that she had to continually say it in the midst of my own churning hurtful life.
I am so happy with my husband.”

I sat with the letters in my lap. Twenty five years would pass by. She would call me panicked, vomiting out the years of verbal abuse she had taken from him. She would leave and go back. She would ghost everyone who ever fought for her. She would do it in the same coldness from which she had written these letters.

I sat on my bed realizing why I had held my family at bay in those later years, always feeling different, set apart, standing in the shadows of my own broken heart. She had chosen the other spectrum; the one filled with things that make people feel they have worth, and I chose to face the hurt.

I am wistful for dreams we had of lounging on beaches with drinks. I hurt for the cruel words thrown out in spite and the loss of a sibling who is still alive.

I have come to live in acceptance. I keep my spirit attached to my tribe, growing, healing and expanding. Yet, when she drifts my mind, I wince a bit. The cult broke her into pieces, and she walks behind a mask, unable to gather the shreds of her own greatness.

And I hope. I always hope, that she will return to who she was before they stripped us and tore our family apart.

She Did the Worst She Knew How

I said I wasn’t going to think about you this weekend; that I would shut my eyes and turn off electronics, stay off the streets where men are selling flowers out of buckets, but here I am.

I’ve been here days, weeks, just a mere ten minute drive away from your gravestone, the one I felt so proud to design with the engraved hummingbird and rhyming epitaph.  They were the best words I could find when the family called on me, the writer, to make it all sound nice.

I have a picture of your grandson standing at the graveside.  His hair is long, curly and falling over his bent down face. He never likes to cry, and the hands shoved as deep as possible into his pockets are a sign of his struggle against it.

Even to the death you controlled the manner in which you were buried, commanding torrents of rain to fill your grave until they had to dig the new one under the tree like you had requested.

You’ve always won, Mom. Your gravestone sits overrun by wildflowers in the summer and smothered with golden leaves that float down to cover you in the fall.  You’ve become a tree.  Is that the best way you could love me?

This day where the humans celebrate their mothers is a reminder of my host’s facades.  They will sit at dinner tables, applauding and toasting with eloquent words, but their minds will stay soaked in the truth while they make excuses.

“She did the best she knew how.”

Not you. You did the worst.

They will speak in rehearsed phrases and no one will mention the dysfunctions.  Maybe they have healed it; moved past it; shoved it so far down it is invisible.

Me? I run my hands over the scars, amazed at how far I’ve made it.  I touch the calloused tips of my fingers to my lips, hands which have scraped through rubble tirelessly just to be able to breathe.

And I feel it all, because the alternative is numb, and I can’t go to the cold anymore.  I will shiver to death again.  So instead, I turn my face to the page, and with a click I give it all away.