- Natasha J. Thomas, MD
Incest Survivors: You Don't Have to Do Family Holidays
Updated: Jul 2, 2021
*This article discusses a topic that may be upsetting to some readers.*
Peace, joy, and holiday cheer. They're holiday season ideals we all seem to aspire to, or conspire to, though they often do not represent our familial truth. In childhood, many of us were taught to see the holiday season as a perfect, untouchable time of fantasy and nostalgia. The truth is, though, this time of forced family socialization is absolutely dreadful for people who were sexually assaulted by family members. Because secrecy, shame, and accommodation are the pillars of incest in a family, many survivors plan to participate in family gatherings, despite the fact that their abuser(s) will be there as well.
However, this year, I'm here to tell you that you don't have to go along with the charade any longer. You do not have to smile, hug, and numb out just to please grandma, or an auntie - or because you already said you'd bring the cranberry sauce. This year, you can do the holidays your way.
How Do I Know if This Applies to Me?
If you were ever sexually abused/assaulted by anyone in your family, even once, you are a survivor of incest. If the person or people who assaulted you (or were complicit in your abuse) are still living and come to family gatherings like family reunions, birthdays, or holiday celebrations, this post applies to you. This is especially true if since the abuse or assault you have forced yourself to be in the presence of the family perpetrator - simply because you do not want to:
"Bring up" the past
Have to explain yourself
This even applies to you if you attend family gatherings where you know your abuser will be and purposely avoid them.
What Will I Say?
If you are the survivor of any type of sexual assault, finding and using your voice is one of the most difficult, but important, milestones to healing. No matter how outspoken one may be at school, in their career, or with their partner or children, using your voice against an abuser is not easy. It's because abuse thrives on silence - and once it's occurred, it bets on silence. Most perpetrators take their chances that their behavior is never going to be outed. Even though it's completely misplaced, shame is rampant in the hearts and minds of survivors, too. For some, it just feels easier to try and bury the experience.
Depending on where you are in your journey to reclaiming your voice and reassigning your feelings of guilt and shame back to the perpetrator, you can give ANY REASON YOU WANT for not participating in the family holidays. You don't owe anyone an explanation. I have witnessed people do everything from make up a seemingly unrelated excuse like needing to work, to just outright saying they're never coming to family holidays again. If you need to tell the hosting family member that you can't make it, here are some reasons you may give:
I'm going to stay home and have a quiet holiday this year.
I need some rest.
I'm going to start some different traditions.
I'm traveling (could be true, but doesn't have to be).
I was invited to another get-together.
You can also just decline the invitation and not offer an explanation. Depending on how relentless your family is, though, you may need to come up with a canned response that you don't have to think about. Pick something now, that way you won't be stressing over it right before the event.
If you have been contemplating confronting your abuser, this may or may not be the time to do so. If you've been working to heal (with or without a counselor), you may be at the place where you can say something along the lines of: "You abused me and I don't want to be around you during the holidays (or ever)." If you take that approach you need to be clear on your objective. Do you want them to stay away from the family holidays this year so you can attend in peace? It's ok to say so.
Many survivors feel too intimidated to speak up to their abusers. Some abusers are extremely aggressive and scary people - people who stalk in person, through phone, text or email, who verbally assault, or otherwise try to control their victims. Others, though, are banking on your silence and cooperation. Other than seeing you at family functions and being cordial (or overly "nice"), they try to avoid you. The last thing they want is for you to expose them and their abuse of you to the entire family.
Is it more damaging to you to disappoint a family member or to lie to yourself?
If you think you're dealing with the former, you need to stay completely away from them (and if appropriate use legal protection to keep them away from you and your children). If you're dealing with the latter, though, don't be afraid - the power is actually in your hands now! You don't have to miss the family holidays if you're ready to tell that person to stay away. They'll know exactly why you're saying that - and most times, they will indeed back off. However, you should also be prepared if they are dismissive, deny any wrongdoing, or make a threat toward you. I've seen these scenarios handled best when a survivor prepares for them with a therapist.
Will People Be Upset?
Maybe. Especially if you come from a family that is riddled with secretiveness, emotional problems, addictions, and/or denial. However, is it more damaging to you to disappoint a family member or to lie to yourself? It makes true healing and recovery nearly impossible when you tell yourself to stay silent and just accommodate the dysfunction in your family. As you can guess, doing that reinforces feelings of victimization every single time.
Furthermore, if you have children, it is unnecessarily dangerous to bring them around someone who abused you. To be honest, those people should be reported to the police. If you're not able to do that yet for whatever reason, you most certainly don't want to show them their behavior is acceptable by acting normal or exposing your little ones to them.
How Will I Celebrate Without My Family?
I know it can be sad, but the reality is the best thing to do is realize you have the opportunity to make a huge wide world of new holiday traditions and experiences - once you step away from the stronghold of fake family interactions. Some of the successful
survivors I've worked with have done these things instead of attending family holidays:
Volunteered for a charity
Stayed at home with their own spouse/partner and/or children
Made it a movie day
Gone to visit another part of the family (where the abuser is not)
Opted for a "Friendsgiving" or other friend-based celebrations
Whatever you decide, just know that the choice - the power, is totally yours now! Take it in your hands and run with it!
Survivors of Incest Anonymous - https://siawso.org/
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network - https://rainn.org/about-rainn
They offer a 24-hour chat line in case you need someone to talk to
during the holidays, or anytime!