How I've reclaimed holiday joy after an abusive relationship
December 12th, 2017 is the official day that I became free from my abuser. I was a victim of gaslighting, and I had been living with a narcissistic partner who manipulated and minimized me for two years.
After stopping my life that week to move out of our shared place and into my parents’ house, I started suffering from PTSD. I was reliving his abusive words, his alcoholism, and his narcissistic tendencies that I had been living with. So that December, I chose to skip out on holiday festivities.
My favorite time of the year became dreadful. It now meant that I had to face people and tell them that my—from the outside—seemingly perfect relationship was actually abusive.
I skipped the advent calendar, reluctantly bought a tree on Christmas Eve, didn’t go to Rockefeller Center, missed my family’s holiday party, and passed on Boxing Day. I was a shell of the “Hollie Jolly” I had grown to become.
However, in 2018, I began therapy, met the most supportive partner I’ve ever been with, and focused my efforts on recovering from abuse and complex trauma. As the end of the year approaches, I am coming back a stronger woman. I’ve spent time reflecting, and I vow to take back the holiday season that once brought me more joy than stress. But how do I do that?
In order to continue my healing during the holidays, I sought out advice from a few experts. Here is what they suggest, and I hope it can help you reclaim joy this season, too.
1Focus on myself
“Many people in abusive relationships put their own needs last, and this is especially true during the holidays. While you can certainly focus on family, friends, and others, make sure that you put your own needs at the top of the list this holiday season.” says Jonathan Bennett, certified counselor and owner of Double Trust Dating.
This year, I bought myself a few nice gifts like a Chanel nail polish, Disney Vans, and a new book. I gave myself these gifts because I deserve the self-love I had lost.
2Surround myself with the right people
Meg Josephson, LCSW suggests that you rebuild relationships “with the people who will listen without judgement and know when to give you space. If the abuser (as they often do) isolated you, it’s likely it impacted your relationships; try to spend some time rekindling a relationship that is meaningful to you. Be patient if people are slow to warm up to you again. They may have mistaken your withdrawal into your relationship for disinterest. You’d be surprised at how empathetic people can be if you open up.” But Josephson acknowledges that this task can be daunting: “If you aren’t ready, don’t rush it. Listen to your gut when it comes to getting close to other people again…And don’t be surprised if it changes on a daily basis. Ultimately, reigniting connections to loved ones will give you strength and sense of self.”
Bennett adds, “Many people feel lonely at the holidays, and this can prompt them to reach out to a toxic ex. Resist that urge! Instead, don’t hesitate to reach out to loved ones for support if you’re feeling lonely…Create great holiday memories with the healthy people in your life.”
I made one-on-one plans with my mum, spent time with my partner’s wonderful family (lots of cute kids will put you in the holidays spirit), and made an effort to see my close friends. I am extremely lucky to have found a loving partner who can support me while I reconnect with people and recover from trauma.
“Be patient with family and friends who don’t know how to react to your situation,” Josephson says. “Understand that they are coming from a good place, but may be struggling with how to make you feel most supported. If you can, tell them how to support you!”
I had family members who were totally under the narcissist’s spell, and I realized that I had to be open about the abuse I experience in order to shatter their incorrect perceptions. Ending his facade by speaking the truth helped me gain power over him.
4Re-engage with my interests
“Often times, being in an abusive relationship leaves little room for you to pursue your passions,” Josephson says. “Accept that you may have lost some of your confidence and focus on the feeling that the activity gives you. Slowly, with time, you will regain your confidence and appreciate what you lost.”
I took it upon myself to plan my traditional Christmas in N.Y.C., bought tickets to the Met Opera with my mum, wore a Christmas sweater every week, and bought Christmas crackers for Boxing Day.
Last year, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to Christmas music at all, so I made up for it by playing Spotify Christmas Pop starting on November 1st. No man is standing between me and Mariah Carey ever again.
6Don’t put too much pressure on myself
“Accept that the holidays may be difficult and painful. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you are struggling to get into the holiday spirit,” notes Josephson. “What you went through is incredibly real and difficult. Be kind to yourself.”
Survivors of domestic and emotional abuse need to be supported, and the holidays can be really hard on anyone. If you are in a position to help, volunteer at your local women’s shelter, drop off supplies (hats, coats, feminine products, food, etc.), and skip one Gingerbread latte to give $5 to the Domestic Violence Hotline. Fight back any way you can.
8Don’t be ashamed
Josephson ends our conversation by telling me, “Abusive relationships, by definition, are complex and hard to understand. There’s a big difference between knowing that someone is bad for you, and the emotional connection and love you may still feel for them. It’s totally normal to grapple with this, and putting additional strain on yourself to fully detach emotionally may make things worse for you.”
In my reclaiming of the holiday, I forgave myself. I spent a long time beating myself up for letting a man treat me badly, so I chose to forgive myself.