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  • Heather B MacIntosh PhD

A Trauma Survivor's Guide to the Holidays: Post Covid-19 Lockdown Edition

(an edited version of this post was published in The Conversation)

So many things about the holidays were different for all of us last year, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. But, for some, the trauma survivors among us, especially those whose traumas occurred in the bosom of family who should have cherished and protected us, the holidays, during the pandemic, were the first time that we were forbidden to spend time with family. For some, this was liberating, for others, terrifying, for many, confusing and painful. Feeling forced to spend time with family, especially if family life was the place of your traumas, can reinforce feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. For many, the pandemic freed them to re-envision the idea of the holidays, liberated from the expectations of traditions and people who may have caused them harm. For others, it spared them the pain, humiliation, and dread, of trying to find new and ingenious ways of explaining why we have no safe family with whom to spend time at the holidays. For better or worse, many trauma survivors spent the holidays in warm fluffy track suits without the pressure of what the outside world might imagine our holidays should look like, perhaps reveling in the freedom or, having more time and space to grieve the losses of safety, connection, and having never had the warmth and gentle comfort of protective and loving caretakers.

If this title caught your eye, chances are that you are someone, or you love someone, who has experienced something unbearable, unspeakable, and dreadfully painful. Traumas can obliterate our sense of what is real, what is important, and any sense of goodness in the world. When traumas happen to us in childhood, they can also smash our sense of hope, joy, faith, trust, and our capacity to love freely, openly, and with abandon. While it may seem like the entire world is singing Fa lalalalalalala and preparing for joyful reunions with family members after 18 months of covid exile, many trauma survivors are dreading a return to pre-covid holiday expectations. Many are bracing themselves for being flooded with traumatic reminders of painful families and childhoods as they dread their way through the holly jolly of spending time with folks responsible for their greatest pain and trauma. Or, for many others, a return to the painful reminders that there is no family to celebrate and come together with—that their family disintegrated into the mire of a posttraumatic mess leaving behind a few straggling survivors, struggling to hold on to the life raft of humanity, scattered to the winds of time and space. For trauma survivors the holidays can be anything but joyful and filled with love and light. And…of course…it’s also the time of year when therapists are usually off work tackling their own whacky family lives!

We carry trauma in so many places in our beings; our minds, bodies, relationships and essential selves in the world. Trauma is not just remembered in the pictures and stories we carry in our minds but also in how our bodies and expectations of others are living breathing reminders. For many, the changes in the light, the colder temperatures, and how the world gets quiet and small as we retreat into our homes in the winter mystery, all trigger memories that have no words, only lingering feelings of dread, fear, apprehension, embodied reexperiencing of traumas older than time. All of this, connected to holiday times meant to be filled with fun and frolic.

So—what’s to be done about it all??

Here’s the thing, we may not be able to extricate the trauma from our bones, at least not with a magic wand that doesn’t involve a lot of therapy. And, we may not be able to find ways to avoid spending time with people who are triggering—often the triggering people act as gatekeepers for the safe people, a beloved aunt, uncle, grandparent, living in the home of a traumatizing figure. So, it’s often not possible to find a way through the holidays that doesn’t involve the dredging up of some of the hard stuff in our minds, bodies, and relationships. But there are some things we can do, and strategies we can use in the present to help us cope with reminders of the past.

Heather’s list of strategies for trauma survivor holiday survival

1 Self Compassion—let yourself off the hook for not being perfect when it comes to all of the things we can do to cope and survive that maybe aren’t the things that keep our bodies, and minds squeaky clean and healthy. If you find yourself on the other side of eating that extra chocolate bar, drinking the second drink, waking up after hurting yourself, or sleeping for 24 hours, be kind, pick yourself up, and, gently try again. Sometimes, going back in time or not moving forward in progress is okay. Sometimes it’s okay to just survive. If you are struggling and can’t find a way to limit drinking, drugs, self-harm or binging, call a friend you trust, call a crisis line, or reach out to the many self help groups including AA, NA, OA and ACOA, that can now be found online. Also remember that the “alcathon” the 24 hour AA meeting that runs the course of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day can be found in every town.

2 Other Compassion—let your partner, children, and loving family members off the hook for not being perfect. When we come from trauma, sometimes we just want the “new” world to feel safe and perfect and good all the time to protect us from reminders and the fear that things will all fall apart. The holidays are a time to find it in ourselves to be compassionate towards our own messiness and that of those we love—the ones who love us in healing and generous ways.

3 You have my permission to dissociate!—You never thought you’d hear a therapist saying that, did you? But, really, back to harm reduction—if dissociation was how you got through living life in a traumatizing family and, there are perfectly valid reasons why you want and need to spend some time with that family, you have my permission to come and go using the magical powers of dissociation , all you like if that is what you need to survive. If you need to be reciting Chaucer in your head as your uncle starts to talk about vaccine conspiracies, if you need to be imagining lying in bed with your stuffed elephant as your mother starts screaming at your brother for some long ago forgotten crime, if you need to float above it all, to survive, you have my permission.

4 Find yourself again—So, I encouraged harm reduction and self compassion about the things we may do that maybe aren’t the best for us but keep us alive and somewhat sane, and, I gave you permission to dissociate your head off if you need to to survive holiday experiences but—Come Back! If we give ourselves permission to escape, in whatever ways we do, we also need to find our way back when the coast is clear. Sing along to your favourite playlist; go for a winter walk and notice the crunching snow beneath our feet, the frost of our breath, the glistening branches on the trees; cuddle with a safe loved one and sink yourself into the feeling of gentleness, warmth, safety, and love. Remind yourself that This is the Present and That was the Past; play a game, laugh with a child, read a great book (without dissociating), sit by a warm fire and breathe in the crackling woodsmoke and bathe in the hot glow of the warmth. In short, let yourselves do what you need to do to survive and then, come back to this present life that you are working so hard to create.

5 Find your loves—When we have trauma embedded in our beings, loving and being close can feel really hard and scary and painful. But, we persist, we try, we move towards as we also move away. During the holiday times, do what you can to find the people who are safe, the animals who love you whose scent you can inhale, a lover who will hold you in the moments of fear and remembering. Try to let your mind and body pry apart the past from the present and allow yourself to be fully In the present moment with the humans and animals who bring you joy, comfort and hope.

6 Make new traditions—Maybe the tradition is the annual Throw the Christmas Card from Uncle Floyd into a Fire party. Perhaps the new tradition includes the annual Wear Your Pyjamas All Day Festivale. Or, perhaps, the new tradition is no tradition at all but, rather, a letting go of expectations, hopes, dread and fear, and spending time simply being, without the pressures of the outside world. It can feel impossible to say no to pressure from those who may have hurt or traumatized us, especially when those people are gatekeepers to those we love but, perhaps it’s time to find ways to connect with those we love in other ways.

8 Allow yourself to grieve—It hurts. It hurts to accept that our families have been the source of our greatest traumas. It hurts to let go of hopes and dreams that things might change or improve. It hurts to look around at the smiling faces of those who seem to have a “perfect” family (remember, we know nothing about what’s going on in other folks’ families). Let yourself grieve. Write in your journal about how painful it is, turn to a friend or a partner and share the pain, cry into your dogs’ fur, let yourself honour the real pain of having not had, and still not having, the safe haven of family that you deserved.

Be kind to yourself. You have experienced things that no human should ever have to experience and the holidays are a time when so many memories of the past can resurface, and we may feel that we need to spend time with people who have hurt and betrayed us. This year, take a breath and let yourself honour the real story, the truth of your survival, if even only in your own being.

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