Thanksgiving Dinner with my Abusers 

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), "Freedom From Want," 1943

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “Freedom From Want,” 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 3/4″ x 35 1/2″. Story illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post,” March 6, 1943. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

As I sit in the corner of my parents living room this Thanksgiving my hands are shaking and I’m fighting back tears.  For some people the holidays are a wonderful, family-oriented season, but for others, like me, the holidays are an especially difficult time of year. It’s the time of year when some of us are forced into confined spaces with our abusers, and we have to pretend to be happy.

Of course, the holidays aren’t the time to discuss the fact my parents are abusive. They’re the time for forgiveness, “letting go of the past,” and loving your family no matter what they’ve done… At least that’s what my sister tells me. After all, let’s not ruin our Thanksgiving family dinner with the truth. Maybe she doesn’t want to be reminded of the abuse she suffered. And that’s totally fine, no one should force her to relive their abuse. But it’s really invalidating to be told that I need to “move on,” to stop “dwelling in the past,” or that I’m just being bitter and resentful whenever I mention my parent’s abuse.

The anxiety I experience whenever I’m around the individuals who abused me (and still abuse me to a lesser extent) is a valid response to past emotional and physical trauma. Needing to express my feelings is not the same as being “bitter” or “dwelling in the past.” It’s not like I sit around in a dark room every day thinking up ways to hurt my abusers. Nor do I talk about the abuse I experienced to every person I know. In fact, I tend to suppress my emotions more than most people.

Invalidating my response to abuse is itself a form of abuse. But honestly, I’m used to my entire family doing this. From my siblings, who were also abused growing up, telling me to “get over it,” to my parents telling me I’m crazy and imagining their abuse, invalidation is par for the course around here.

Invalidating comments from family aside, holidays can still be incredibly traumatic for those of us who were abused by relatives (or anyone else who regularly shows up to familial holiday functions). Having to smile at your abuser(s), fake affection for them, refrain from making any negative comments, and bottling up my emotions are also forms of abuse. I am forced to quietly relive past harms, and I must pretend everything is fine and dandy – including the fact these people are abusers.

The neighborhood pedophile is even having dinner with us because my mother is having an affair with him (everyone knows this, including my father, but we don’t say anything). It doesn’t matter he used to come into our yard and look in the windows at me any time I was home alone as a young teenager. And it doesn’t matter he used to tell me to “come give daddy a hug” and force himself on me. No, it would be rude to bring that up. Instead, I hold his hand while someone says a prayer.

Some people might wonder why I go along with family Thanksgiving. Wouldn’t it me easier to say “fuck all of you?” Why don’t I just go somewhere else for Thanksgiving? Well aside from the fact I don’t really celebrate U.S. colonization and theft of Native lands, no, it wouldn’t be easier to just remove myself from family functions. My family would hold that against me for years. They would try to guilt-trip me, or berate me for being a bad daughter and a bad sister. They would say I’m stuck in the past, I’m an angry person, and that all my hate toward them will make me ugly. They would punish me for years by any means available, including putting down the family pets (I’m not kidding, my mother did it once before), withholding financial help if I need it, and being emotionally abusive every time we interact. People who are abused repeatedly often go into survival mode because it’s the only thing we can do. We comply with the abuse because we know fighting it won’t make it stop, it will just make things more painful.

So, what’s the point of this? Where’s the happy ending? Unfortunately, there isn’t one.  I have done things with my life and grown as a person. I’ve traveled, I’ve gotten a college degree, I have friends, etc. I even went to therapy. But holidays will never be easy.

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