© (2005, Revised 2006), Vicki Polin, MA, LCPC
Hanukkah is for many a time filled with wonderful memories of rushing around to purchase gifts and cards for loved ones; of families and friends getting together, lighting the Menorah, eating potato pancakes, and singing the traditional songs.
However, for survivors of childhood abuse (emotional, physical and sexual abuse), this festive time can be a time where painful memories reemerge. It is not unusual for survivors to need to make decisions about how to best keep themselves safe during the holiday: some may need to spend time with friends who understand their conflicted emotions toward the holiday, some may need to limit their time with their families, while others may not feel safe spending the holiday with family at all. Even for those who make alternate plans, there is often a sense of loss of the loving, healthy family they never had or the memories they wish they'd had. Hanukah--like other times where families traditionally get together--can be a difficult time for those who no longer have contact with family members due to the degree of dysfunction that was (and often still is) in their family.
This is a time of year when a survivor may find it safer to retreat than to participate in holiday functions--the associations and memories may be too painful, too emotions too close to the surface. This is not a failure or wrongdoing, but can be seen as yet another aspect of the aftermath of abuse in the family. It is important that each individual survivor finds what works best for him or her so that they can optimize their ability to stay emotionally healthy. If you decide to be with your family and are nervous about how you'd feel about it, it can be helpful for you to designate ahead of time a 'safe person' with home you can debrief afterwards or call if things get tough while with family. It is vitally important that each person be kind to themselves about the decisions they make for holiday plans. The rest of us need to respect the survivor's decisions, and to understand that they may decide not to participate in Hanukah events.
If you know someone who is a survivor of childhood abuse, maybe you can take upon yourself to check in with them over the eight-day holiday. Maybe invite the survivor to your house for lighting the menorah or a family meal, and if they say no let them know they can change their mind and come at the last minute. Remind them they are not alone, that you are there. That you understand.
Holidays are often times for families to get together. School may be out, vacation days may be taken; routines are changed. In many families there is--along with the excitement and happiness of getting together--an added stress of cleaning and preparing meals, sometimes financial issues over not being able to afford the kind of holiday celebration one might want.
It is a reality that some parents have difficulties managing their own stress and are already inclined to use their children as an outlet for emotions and urges. Such parents are often even more likely to do so when under the pressure of increased anxiety, close quarters with their own family of origin (and it's pressures), and holiday stress. Though clearly not all stressed-out parents abuse their children, many survivors of childhood abuse do report that their abuse became more intense around and during holidays.
If you know parents who struggle to manage stress, see if you can discretely and gently offer them your support: Maybe offer to take care of the children for a bit, to take them on an outing or host a meal; maybe provide the parents with information about resources available in their community (such as parental hotlines in your community). Be a friend. By allowing the parents some time for themselves and offering venues for relief, you can greatly assist in the parents in managing their anger and stress.
If you are a survivor, remember: YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
It is not uncommon for symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) to re-emerge even after times of relative remission and/or intensify in those already struggling. If holiday times are difficult for you, you may experience an increase in disturbing thoughts, nightmares and flashbacks. Thoughts of self-harm, even suicide, may be an issue. The crucial thing for you to remember is that these feelings are about the past; that the abuse is over and it is of utmost importance for you to be kind to and gentle with yourself. To stay safe.
Over the years we've spoken to many adult survivors who admitted that they find it very painful to even think of being around family members, even around friends. This is sad, but it is OK. Someday you may feel different--many survivors do with time--but if the pain right now is too intense, you need to do what is healing for YOU and set boundaries to what feels safe for you.
One survivor shared that she felt uncomfortable not doing anything for Hanukkah, so she'd rent movies that she found carried an empowering theme for her. Another survivor invited other Jewish Survivors over to his home and together they created their own 'tradition' that felt healing and empowering.
Whatever works for you is OK. You are not alone; not wrong; not bad for having second and third and forth thoughts about how to celebrate and if to celebrate the holidays. Look into yourself and see what you need, then do what you can to do it, and be kind to yourself for needing to make these adjustments.
Todah Rabah for Surviving!
The National Hopeline Network
National Child Abuse Hotline
1-800-4-A-CHILD (24 Hours a Day)
National Runaway Switchboard