During the holidays the entire world seems to be at peace. Smiles shine brightly, laughter floats through the air and a sense of purity and newness permeate every moment. That is, unless you are a victim of abuse—in which case each decoration, carol, or treat can feel like a heavy burden.
I remember talking to Angela last December. She was starting to connect her feelings of lethargy and lack of motivation to what was going on in her relationship. For her whole life Angela had been active—a woman of high aspirations and solid achievements; but for the last few years she had felt a steady decline in her levels of motivation and energy. Angela blamed herself, saying “I’m so stupid, really I shouldn’t be trying to do some of these things I used to anyway,” or “It’s because I’m so fat that I don’t have the energy anymore.” Yet, Angela was neither stupid nor fat; and she started to realize she was merely repeating the lines that her fiancé Rob had spoken to her day after day. He didn’t want her to aspire, achieve, or have confidence and his words and actions started making that a reality for Angela.
The words and actions of someone who is abusive are meant to frighten, isolate, stifle, and dishearten. The effects of intimate partner abuse are real, strong, and pervasive. The feelings of fear, loneliness, oppression, and sadness can be long-lasting. For someone who has been abused or is currently experiencing abuse at the hands of their intimate partner, these feelings can be intensified during the holidays.
When Angela started to connect the way she had been feeling to what was going on in her relationship, she got a burst of inspiration. She used to love the holidays—the decorations, the music, the get-togethers—so she decided that this holiday season she would be herself again. Angela created a Winter Wonderland in their home—it was spotless and decorated beautifully. She baked for days so that Rob would have his favorite treats, and she worked all day cooking a delicious dinner. She was so excited because Rob had actually agreed to having her sister, brother-in-law and nephews over for dinner—something that Rob hadn’t allowed to happen in a long time. Angela was inspired and had energy to burn, yet she felt more tense and anxious than ever. She figured she was just acting paranoid. After all, Rob had allowed her to do all of this and he was keeping to himself.
For those of us who have experienced abuse or who are experiencing abuse, the holidays can be especially hard. Perhaps we are wishing with all our hearts that this year will be better than the last, that this year things will be different. Or, perhaps, we are worrying with all our hearts that this year will be worse than the last, filled with more sadness, violence and hurt. The smiling faces of everyone on TV, on the street, and next door can make us feel even more alone and misunderstood.
Angela’s excitement for the dinner grew as the clock ticked. For once in a long time she felt proud of herself—of her desire to do something she enjoyed, of her ability to see it through, and of her ability to do it well. It really was beautiful! Yet, at the same time, her worry grew. She started to feel sick to her stomach and tight in her shoulders. Rob refused to get dressed for the dinner. He accused her of cheating, saying that the only reason she was dressed so nicely was because she was having an affair with her brother-in-law. He rose from his chair and came toward her quickly, tugging on and breaking the strap of her dress. He screamed at her, saying she couldn’t fool him—he knew the only reason she was acting like this was to throw him off of her cheating trail. He turned over the pot of vegetables that was on the table, and Angela watched, stunned, as the broth rolled in rivulets over the white linen table-cloth, snaking between plates and glasses and candles.
There is hope. During this holiday season and every day, there is hope. If you are feeling afraid, sad, or alone this holiday season, there are some steps you can take to harness hope for yourself.*
Reach out. No matter how afraid, alone, or depressed you feel you can reach out. It may be scary. It may even feel like exactly the opposite of what you want to do, but it can be done. If there is no one in your life right now who you feel emotionally safe with, you can always call us. Our free and confidential, 24-hour Hotline is there for you—whether you have 100 friends you could call or zero, whether you are in physical danger and need somewhere safe to go or you’ve been physically safe a long time but the strong emotions just keep coming, whether you have a lot to say or your words get stuck in your throat. Call us at 412.687.8005 x1 day or night. We will listen to you and support you.
Breathe deep. Here’s another one you can do anytime, anywhere. Breathe in deeply through your nose. Let the air fill up your belly (if you put your hand on your belly, you will feel your belly get bigger). Hold the air in for about 4 seconds (or less if it feels uncomfortable). Then push the air out of your belly, feeling your belly get smaller, through your nose. Hold the air out for about 4 seconds again. Do this at least two more times. To really pull it all together, close your eyes softly and as you breathe in say to yourself, “I am breathing in.” As you breathe out, say “I am breathing out.” Three times is all it really takes to bring a sense of calm to your body, but do it as long as you’d like.
Plan for the future. You cannot stop the abuse, only the person who is abusive can. Your only responsibility if you are being abused is to do what you can to keep yourself (and your children) safe. The steps above are to help you in the moment—whether you are experiencing abuse now or not. However, these steps will not keep you safe from a violent partner and they will not end the pain of emotional abuse. If you are interested in creating a safety plan, finding out your legal options, exploring individual or group counseling services, or discussing the option of shelter you can call our 24-hour Hotline at 412.687.8005 x1.
This December I spoke to Angela again. Throughout the year she had created a safety plan, participated in one of our support groups, and found out some legal options through our legal department. She just called to check in. She wanted to let me know that this year she was planning to decorate, bake, and cook again. She even got a new hair style, just for the holidays. Angela was thrilled to share that she was going to be having a dinner party—just her, her sister, brother-in-law, nephews, and the two good friends she recently reconnected with. This year, the holidays were going to be happy.
* If you are currently in an emotionally or physically unsafe relationship, be cautious when taking any of these steps. People who are abusive are typically very hyper-vigilant and/or are monitoring your activities. If an abusive partner finds out you are reaching out for support or trying to support yourself, it may put you in a dangerous situation. This is unfair; however, it is a reality. Please contact our 24-hour Hotline when you are alone if you have any questions about how to safely take these steps or would like to create an emotional and/or physical safety plan. We want you to be safe in all that you do.