Holidays Bring Joy & Triggers: Here are Five Tips From One Survivor to All of Us

Me at my first Christmas!

Me at my first Christmas!

Here I am in my warm home with my two children, husband, and our silly dogs.  I am listening to classic holiday music as I look around at 11 years of decorations and my children run wild throughout the house, likely because I let them eat too many sugar cookies!  I feel all that usual holiday joy, but I still feel that grief that so many survivors of human trafficking feel. You see, there were so many years that the holidays only brought a dark reminder of all that was missing and wrong in my life.  The holidays are a bittersweet time for me. When I was a little girl, my father would celebrate Christmas with all the joy and warmth you’d see on those Hallmark cards.  Only, he added in loads of alcohol, often paid for with the money that would have been used to buy food, clothes, and holiday gifts. He always said we’d work it out; the reality is that we seldom did.  The Dollar Tree rag dolls and empty kitchen made me wonder, “have I been bad this year.”  My mom would cry in the shame that she had let us down and chosen her addiction over us.  Only, then my parents would do it again the next year.  I would continue to think it was my fault for years to come.

My kids with Santa!

My kids with Santa!

When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I promised we would never screw up Christmas for our kids.  We came up with a plan. We give four gifts to each of our children; the concept is “want, need, wear, and read.”  This solved several issues at once. First, I could always afford this, even if I had to hit up the Dollar Tree late on Christmas eve, digging through the sad leftovers of the store, and its slim pickings. This taught my kids to have expectations that we could actually meet. Then, we focused on giving rather than receiving. They understand the gift of giving, knowing that each thing we choose for anyone, is chosen with love and intention. Santa gets credit for very little in our home.  We still try desperately to keep the magic real, even if it’s small.

 1997

I woke up in the middle of the night, maybe 2am, on Christmas morning. To my surprise, my parents were up, lights were on, and they were happy, like, genuinely happy. That’s not how they were when my siblings and I went to bed the night before. I knew there was a good chance we’d have nothing the next morning, but at 8 years old, no matter how much life and poverty had jaded me, I couldn’t resist the pure joy in my heart at the idea that maybe, there’d be something under the tree. I remember my Daddy walked up and picked me up and swung me around. Laughing, he set me down, and crying, he said “Baby girl, Santa came! Mommy and I had nothing to put under the tree, and we were sad. Then we heard a knock, so we opened the door, and there was a box! Full of presents for everyone! But there were no footprints in the snow! It’s magic!”

 That was in fact a magical Christmas, but the one that followed was not at all. Then, my father died. Soon after, I met my first trafficker.  The loss of my father and the hell of sex trafficking made the next eight years a blur of pain.  I married my husband when I was 18 and received the most beautiful gift: a true family. I still miss those years I lost, though. So, the holidays bring both these triggers but also this incredible sense of gratitude.  Yes, these two feelings can exist at the same time.

So, here I am enjoying the life I’ve created for myself and my family.  I treasure the home we have together. Yet, I still grieve the loss of my own childhood.  This is the first sober Christmas for me, which leaves me terrified after six months without a drink.  I’ll be with my wonderful family where there will be a lot of holiday cheer, including the usual holiday wines and drinks. Instead of drinking the triggers away, I’ll be looking to practice leaning on healthy self-care strategies.  I have a feeling other survivors out there (and everyone else!) will be having their own struggles.  So, in the spirit of this holiday season, I want to share a few of my own personal tips:

5 Self Care Tips for the Holidays:

1.     Boundaries: This is my greatest tip, not just for the holidays, but for every single day of the year! Whether it’s a Secret Santa amongst friends, or going to a party you’re not into, give yourself the gift of saying “no thank you.” Complete sentence, no need for explanations and excuses. Exhale, snuggle up in your P.J’s, grab some bite size Reese’s and binge The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime! It’ll be worth the peace you feel, because believe me, there’s 5 more events to replace the one you skipped!

2.     Respect Your Budget: As we grow into our “new” lives, our “adult” lives, working amongst society, being “normal,” we’re making money, something many of us never had, especially while we were being exploited, we get this deep desire to SPEND! Spend it all!! STOP! Take a step back and consider what’s really important, necessary, and special. Is it realistic to purchase something for everyone? Can you DIY it? Can you find something similar, cheaper? Word of advice: buy only what you have cash for. Pay the bills, buy the groceries, put gas in the car, or cash on the Metro card, and what’s left is your budget. Don’t use credit, you’ll spend the next year trying to catch up, and feeling sick about the debt you’re in. Give the gift of love and save the money. It’ll be worth it.

3.     Eat Well:  I have the nasty habit of saying “fuck it!” during the holidays, especially when it comes to food, and until this year, alcohol. I would eat whatever, whenever “just because!” Like, as if Christmas calories are magic and don’t stick!! Secret time: they do, they stick like a son of a bitch! At the end of the season, you’ll be broke, hungover, and 15 pounds heavier than before, and you’ll feel like shit. If you’ve been attempting to practice healthy eating, portions, and body love all year, don’t throw it all away now. If you know you’re going to struggle, maybe food is a trigger, plan ahead of time, and seek help from a mental health professional, or a coach, and find the support you need to keep your habits the way you need, in order to feel your best self. You’ll thank yourself come Jan 2.

4.     Make Your Appointments:  Speaking of mental health pros, I make it a point to really stick to my appointments around the holidays, because I inevitably know that I’ll experience a trigger, or 10, and I’ll require that support. I practice self-accountability around this in particular. I have a nasty habit of allowing my anxiety to manifest in the form of procrastination and flakiness, allowing important things to fall to the wayside, and forgetting that the consequences will be EVEN BIGGER, later. I keep my appointments, go to my meetings, try desperately to keep with my deadlines, and follow through with my responsibilities. I fail, often, and I get discouraged, almost always, but I try. Keep your appointments, it’ll be worth the sense of peace you feel when you’re leaving your therapists office after.

5.     Give Up the Guilt:  There’s absolutely no one in my life, who isn’t aware of how little I purchase at Christmas, and not a single soul has high expectations. Why has this benefited me? Well, it saves my wallet, allowing me to pay my bills, but it also keeps me from having yet another issue to work through. I gave up the guilt, told everyone that my kids come first, and they only get a designated amount, that I’m ok if I don’t receive anything, and I volunteer my time somewhere. I know, it’s cliché, but it’s important. I am gifted time, with people I love, people I will love, and the knowledge of making someone else’s life brighter. It makes it easier to wash the guilt away and accept the grace. It’s powerful and feels way better.

Whatever you decide to focus on for self-care this holiday season, know that our pasts, our traumas, our hurts, and pain can’t take us down. We can utilize the shit we’ve been handed for better.

You’ve got this. Happy Holidays, and a Beautiful New Year!

— Liz Kimbel, Program Manager at Karana Rising, Survivor & Mom

Andrea Powell