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I'm Not 'Strong' for Seeing My Abuser Over the Holidays

You’re so strong.

That’s the response I often get when people realize I have been through years of childhood sexual abuse and somehow survived.  And in many ways, I am strong. I did survive. It is miraculous and a testament to my will to go on and to not be bested by the terrible acts of another.

I’ve overcome a lot of terrible acts of another.

The other day I was at my food psychologist’s office, and we usually talk about my mental health only in the context of my relationship to food, but since I was recently hospitalized for psychiatric care, he delved deeper into the psyche than the usual.  He kept saying I could talk with him about what happened and why I felt like I needed that extra care — because I see a psychologist every week, a psychiatrist every eight weeks and a food psychologist every month, so one would think my emotional and mental state would be pretty well-managed.

I finally told him more, because he seemed to genuinely want to know.

I told him how afraid I felt when I was being intimidated by some people, because I had always assumed that I had to choose abusive partners to feel intimidated in that way. I found out the night I went to the hospital that wasn’t true. People can hurt you no matter how you try to safeguard your life from abuses.

And I have been trying to safeguard my life since childhood.

There it was.  The inevitable “childhood” admission. The “shocker” that always hits people in the gut. And then I expressed my family history included chronic, years-long, severe sexual abuse that has been a black cloud hanging over us for decades. And that the upcoming holiday included me trying to explain I am coming home early because I need to have therapy, but also to not fully explain I am coming home early because while I am facing my abuser, I don’t think I can handle doing it for long. I’m going through too much current trauma to face much past trauma now.

This is the point where the strength and the amazement I allow the person who wrecked my life and gave me complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and complicated every relationship for the rest of my existence to be in my life at all came out.

This is also the point where I felt guilt for being told that was amazing, or I was strong.

It isn’t strength. It is weakness.

I don’t dare blow up my family any more than it is already blown. I don’t want to be the “bad guy” and the black sheep and the scapegoat any more than I already am. I don’t want to be blamed for keeping us apart and making things difficult and being “spoiled” and not being “forgiving.” I don’t have the strength to put up the most important boundary of my life. I am not brave enough to tell my abuser he cannot be in my life. Because he is related to me.

Blood is thicker than water, some say. I don’t think that is true. I have received more and better love and support from people who aren’t related to me than I ever have from my family, in most cases. My father and my daughter and my niece, a couple of cousins, an aunt — they are good and gracious, generous, compassionate and loving. But most of my blood could care less if mine kept pumping or not. I’ve gone through various struggles with little to no support from those who are related to me, while relative strangers, friends, co-workers and neighbors offered all sorts of love, resources and care. But even though I know many of my family members are uncaring or abusive, it is difficult to sever ties.

Why is it we are taught family is everything? Why do we have these sayings about blood being thicker? Is it ever true or trustworthy that family comes first? Is my situation simply the outlier and the “normative” structure is that families are healthy and good and supportive?

Somehow, the thousands of personal stories I have heard over the years would not show I am the exception and great families are the rule. Sadly, families everywhere seem to lack compassion and grace. And many of us are hurting at the hands of one or more of the people in our relation.

And it seems like the most difficult boundary to set for many of us — not just for me — is to say to a family member they do not get to wound you in that way.

I was reading today in the book “Self-Compassion” by Kristin Neff about the importance of recognizing our inherent interconnectedness. Sometimes we don’t set these essential boundaries, because we want to feel connected. But according to Neff, we are connected simply because we are human. We are part of humanity and we are all connected simply by being.

That’s a big concept to grasp and a hard one to hold onto, but I think it is a really important truth we need to learn to recognize every day. We are connected simply by being. So, we don’t need to hold onto the false notion blood is thicker than water, because humans are all blood and water. It is their actions toward us that help us decide whether we choose to have close relationships with them or set boundaries between them and ourselves, not their relatedness to us. We are connected by being. We are connected by our humanity.

If someone is treating you as less than human, or less than them, they aren’t appropriately connected with you. It doesn’t matter if that person is your parent, your sibling, your child or a stranger on the street. A boundary is absolutely acceptable — even to the point where you never again see that person, depending on the circumstance.

“Do you ever want to get it all out in the open?” My food psychologist was still probing this issue with my family and the abuses that keep us from having a chance at connection.

Yes. 

All the time.

But I’m the “wrong” one if I bring it up. Everyone else wants to keep it secret and not cope with it and not talk about it. And that hurts me. I don’t know how much longer I can let that keep hurting me, but I also know the alternative is to not have my family. One day they will force that choice. They will either accept the truth or I will put up the final boundary and not see them anymore. Because the mess they have made of our past is affecting my present, and possibly my future.

“Your life is really a series of clearing up messes that others made for you,” was one of the last statements my doctor made the other day.

He was correct. And as I made my way home from that appointment, armed with strategies for dealing with food while coping with acute trauma, I was also thinking about those messes and those others. How long was I going to let those be the things that affected me? How would I safeguard from the most recent threats? How long would I allow the stressors my family places upon me to be a trigger? Will I stop seeing them? When and how would I even do that?

It isn’t a thing I want — to stop having contact with my family. But it is becoming closer and closer to a thing I need. In order to be the best and strongest version of myself, I may need to leave the need for their approval and affection behind, and be satisfied by the connections I have to the rest of humanity, and be supported by the people who are truly behind me and looking out for my best interests.

My family is putting their own interests far above mine. Keeping secrets from the early ’80s is more important than my mental health today.

And that isn’t OK.

I’m starting to see how not OK that is. I’m starting to see how love for me means understanding how not OK that is and accepting my life is more important than their pride.

And if it isn’t …

If it isn’t, they don’t belong in my life. And I need to find the strength to say so.

I am strong.

And when it comes to it — if it comes to it — I will find the strength necessary to do what is best for my mental and physical health. I will set the boundaries needed to keep me safe and well. I will find the compassion toward myself equal to the compassion I offer my family, and start treating myself as their equal, regardless of how they treat me.

If I need to, I will find the strength to stop seeing my abuser at the holidays. And I wish you all the strength to do the same this holiday season — to find your strength, know your worth, recognize your connectedness, be compassionate toward yourself and set good boundaries.

You are strong. You can do it.

Happy Holidays!!

Unsplash image by Olaia Irigoien