As Christmas approaches, most people who live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) find themselves engulfed with dread. December rolls around every year, and they find themselves in a sea of sadness, grief, and anger at a time many people feel jolly and happy.
Making matters worse, the holidays come in winter when many survivors suffer from seasonal affective disorder, increasing their fatigue and depression.
While childhood trauma is the primary cause of CPTSD, the emotional turmoil many feel during the holidays can be a contributing factor which causes the increased dread and hopelessness.
For this reason, and because I have personal experience from which to write, I will be using childhood trauma as the basis for this article.
While I will not be describing abusive scenarios, I will be discussing how abuse in childhood makes children feel. These emotions are painful, and the stories I incorporate may cause you to relive some of the emotional turmoil you experienced as a child during the holidays.
If you begin to feel overwhelmed or unsafe while reading this article, please stop. Do not suffer alone, stop reading and seek out someone you trust who will listen to share what you’re experiencing.
Our number one priority at CPTSD Foundation is always your safety.
The Violation of Childhood Trauma
Children are born hardwired to depend on their caregivers for protection and nurturance. We cry and smile early in our lives to reinforce caregiver’s responses to taking care of our needs.
When a caregiver is neglectful, we learn very early that our needs are not important. This first lesson in life teaches us we cannot rely on anyone.
However, when child abuse compounds the neglect, our ability to trust becomes more violated. We decide the world is a scary, dangerous place where we must use our wits to survive both physically and emotionally.
These trusts include but are not limited to:
- Trust that our caregiver(s) will not hurt us
- Trust that our caregiver(s) have our best interest at heart
- Trust that our caregiver(s) will protect us
- Trust that if I get hurt or sick, my caregiver(s) will help me
Children are incapable of blaming their pain on anyone else but themselves. It is a built-in survival mechanism to believe that our caregivers are kind and protective even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
We live in childhood with this delusion because to allow ourselves to think or believe that our parents or caregivers do not love or want us is equivalent to emotional suicide. So, we force ourselves to live in a fantasy world where all the problems and pain caused by our caregivers can only be our fault. This fantasy creates a necessary false sense of control which helps us to believe we can control our environment. It is this belief which keeps us alive.
The Media and Their Impact on Hurting Children
Making matters worse is the way the media portrays how a family is “supposed” to interact. No matter what decade you grew up in, there have been television families who quickly solved their problems and love one another despite those difficulties.
These programs are created to entertain.
However, when hurting children looking for the pain to stop view these programs, they have a different impact. Living under the dark umbrella of child abuse, these children look to these pretend families as a template of what their family could be…if…
…if I am good enough; they will love me
…if I am good enough, the abuse will stop
…if I love them more, they will love me
…if I do whatever they say, I will be safe
Though wholly unintended, the media sets these children in harmful homes up for beliefs that they have the power to make their family happy.
Our Childhood Beliefs About Christmas
Children have enormous imaginations and peaked by watching television families form naive beliefs about life. These unrealistic ideas then become traps which are harmful if there are no adults to give a grown-up interpretation.
For a reference, I’ll give an example from my own life.
When I was growing up, The Brady Bunch was popular. My brothers and I would observe with hope as every problem the Brady family faced were resolved in thirty minutes with the help of loving and supportive parents.
I assumed, as do all children that I was a powerful force in my household, and sadly, this deep-seated belief worked against me.
I often fantasized that someday my family would be like the Brady Bunch. Mommy and daddy would be supportive of my failures and rejoice in my accomplishments, and if they weren’t available Alice would step into the role.
The longing for my family to be what I considered to be “normal” was so painful that, after seeing the Brady Bunch, I would lay down to weep silently into my pillow.
The same is true of the beliefs children acquire about Christmas.
On the screen, they watch shows where families face challenges, but in the end, they enjoy each other’s company on Christmas day.
Kids want more than anything to believe that what they see and hear in the media and from other children is right for their family as well.
The Painful Reality Faced by Abused Children at Christmas
Because abused children believe, after viewing their favorite television families, that Christmas can be a time of rejoicing and acceptance, or even a “fun” family time, they are very unprepared to accept the realities they face.
Instead of their family being happy, there is often fighting, bickering, and more often than not—violence, abuse, drunkenness, exploitation, and moments which are never to be repeated because they are “our little secret”.
Instead of Christmas being a time of peace, these children endure beatings, sexual abuse, and neglect.
Instead of Christmas being a time for family love, they are told by caregivers either in words, actions or withholding of love, that they were never wanted, or that they should never have been born.
The greatest tragedy is that because children cannot bring themselves to believe that they are not responsible for their family’s behavior, they internalize the blame.
This underserved blame, if left unchecked, will haunt them throughout their lives.
These traumatized children, because of their inability to trust and connect, often have few friends. The abuse isolates them, compounding its effects. These kids live in a world of loneliness and envy over what they believe is the reality of other children and their families.
Traumatized Children Become Traumatized Adults
If you have been following the articles I’ve been writing for CPTSD Foundation, you will have read how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect adult survivors.
Survivors come from dysfunctional families.
The official definition of what a dysfunctional family is and how they act is as follows:
“A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse on the part of individual parents occur continuously and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions.”
A shorter and more to the point definition is that living in a dysfunctional family is like growing up in hell.
I believe that the list of characteristics listed on the Children of Alcoholics and Family Dysfunction’s website offers excellent insight into the behaviors of survivors. Janet G. Woititz Ed.D. wrote it in 1987, and the version you are about to read comes from an adaptation from Adult Children of Alcoholics.
While reading the following list of traits, see if you can see yourself in them.
- We guess at what normal behavior is.
- We have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
- We lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
- We judge ourselves without mercy.
- We have difficulty having fun.
- We take ourselves very seriously.
- We have difficulty with intimate relationships.
- We overreact to changes over which we have no control.
- We constantly seek approval and affirmation.
- Because of our childhood sufferings, we thought that things were always better in the “house next door.”
- We are super responsible or super irresponsible.
- We are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved
- We are impulsive.
(I’ve given you a shortened version, for the full impact, check out the full list and descriptions for each characteristic.)
The first time I read the characteristics of a person who grew up in a dysfunctional home, I was flabbergasted. There in black and white spelled out for me was my life.
However, to me the first characteristic, “We guess at what normal behavior is” struck home the most.
Okay, Shirley, What Does This Have to Do with Christmas?
I have not forgotten the topic and title of this article, “Why Do Survivors Suffer Such Painful Emotions at Christmas Time?” Please, allow me to explain why I have lead you down this path.
Understanding where we have been and how we came to expect so much from the holidays also explains a great deal about the pain we feel when they roll around each year.
When we were children and Christmas didn’t happen the enjoyable way we fantasized, we grew angry, disappointed and grief-stricken. As kids, we just KNEW we were responsible for the misery in our households.
Added to our hidden dread of the holidays, meant staying home from school sometimes for a week. Thus, our jeopardy of having a caregiver perpetrate violence against us was greatly increased.
The intense emotions of fear, sadness, grief, disappointment and longing formed in childhood, will never go away on their own.
An Example from My Own Life
To help you better understand the characteristics of a child who grew up in a dysfunctional home, coupled with childhood fantasies of a perfect family, I’m going to give you an example from my own life.
Growing up our Christmases were always filled with turmoil.
My mother was an alcoholic and the main cause of the trauma in our home.
My father was neglectful and didn’t intervene to protect me and my two brothers from her rage.
I also had another relative who was extremely unpredictable and abusive in other ways who lived nearby.
Before Christmas day my brothers and I would sit around the television watching longingly as happy families dined together. No matter what the challenges, those families worked through them and always, always were by the end of the program loving and supportive of one another.
Christmas Eve we’d visit the relative who lived nearby who was the primary cause of my developing dissociative identity disorder. I always tried to appear happy and excited to be there, but I was afraid of being alone with that relative.
I learned early to remain with the family and not go off alone, even to the bathroom.
On Christmas morning, I’d get up expecting that I could make my family behave the same as those on television.
I tried hard to make peace between my brothers and to entertain my mother so that she wouldn’t grow angry and abusive.
I just KNEW if I tried hard enough, we would be one big happy family. Like the ones on television.
That’s how powerful I felt I was, but, of course, it wasn’t true.
Before noon there would have been at least ten fights between my brothers, and of course, mom would be drinking. I would have either received a beating, or worse, told things which caused me to feel hatred towards myself.
Then, we’d pack the entire mess up and go visiting family.
There we ate turkey and I attempted to appear happy. However, underneath I was seething with feelings of disgust as I watched mom laugh and try to look like a sober, loving mother to her children in front of family.
It made me want to vomit.
That night, after I went to bed, I’d cry myself to sleep but feel relieved that Christmas was over.
My History Haunted Me
Fast forward thirty years to the time I began working hard to mitigate the effects of my past on my present.
When the last vestiges of summer had gone, I began to dread the holidays. I did not want to feel the emotions that inevitably trickled to the surface every November and increased to a roar in December.
Invitations came for holiday dinners, but I tried to turn down all but those I felt obligated to attend. Once again, I found myself with my mother at dinner, this time at her home, on Christmas day.
The old nausea I felt as a child returned as I watched her hide her lack of sobriety and pretend to be a good mother and grandmother.
How I Began to Overcome the Negative Emotions which Surface at Christmas
While I am certainly no expert, I have been working on these issues for many years.
It’s been almost three decades since I began therapy, and I have learned a few things through my experiences.
For one, if you need it to be just another ordinary day, then make it so. However, I believe you will find that the commercialization of the holidays will make that almost impossible.
If you are like me, and the holidays make your anxiety and depression increase, you can talk to your doctor about temporarily increasing any medications you may be prescribed.
However, learning to recognize the emotions, cope with them and own them is much better.
If you wish to remain at home and not subject yourself to the dread of being with your dysfunctional family, then do so.
You are an adult now. You have a choice.
However, if you are like me and feel guilty turning down an invitation to mom’s, then limit your exposure to the toxicity. Set a time limit for yourself and then make a pre-arranged reason to leave.
Don’t allow the holidays of the past to steal your joy in the present.
Yes, your past experiences with the holidays were horrendous, but by working with a mental health professional you can learn to separate the past from the present.
Doing so will help you make new memories today to ease the experiences you had yesterday.
Some Parting Words
My final words to you who have read this far are these.
You are not alone.
There are statistically one billion survivors of dysfunctional families in the world. I am one, and so are the other people at CPTSD Foundation.
It is okay to grieve.
Lord knows you have plenty to grieve over. You were cheated out of wonderful childhood experiences—memories which can never be replaced. It’s time to acknowledge those emotions you are having, and own them.
The most important statement I wish for you to remember from this article is that the abuse and dysfunction of your home was not your fault.
You were never that powerful.
To be very, very clear, I will repeat that sentence.
You did not cause what happened to you, and you could not have stopped it. You cannot own that. I won’t let you.
In our next article in this series I will offer you ways to take the tragedy of childhood Christmas experiences, and turn them into a day full of peace in your heart.
Until then be safe and take good care of you. We’re here if you need us and we care.