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Q: Am I the only survivor whose abuser ruined birthdays? When I was with an abusive ex, he made sure the day was awful for me. Even though we’re divorced, I still dread my birthday because of him, but my kids want us to celebrate. Part of me wants to ignore the day and part of me feels like I deserve to celebrate, but I can’t shake this nervous feeling as the day gets closer. Any advice?
A: Abusive partners can really steal the joy from a lot of otherwise happy days, can’t they? Even after bravely escaping an abuser, the effects of that trauma can stay with us. As we’ve written about before, triggers can come in all forms—significant dates, places, sounds, memories—these can all bring with them flashbacks of abusive incidents that we wish we could just let go of.
For starters, there’s no rule that says you have to celebrate your birthday, or frankly, any holiday for that matter. So if you want to treat it like any other day, that’s your prerogative. On the other hand, you’re probably still going to receive reminders of your birthday from your kids or other well-meaning folks in your life, unless you choose to spend all day underneath a blanket. It might be better to come up with a plan ahead of time that makes you feel more in control and less stressed about the day.
I reached out to Canadian psychotherapist Shirley Porter to get her input on trauma-sensitive ways to get through this day, and she had this suggestion for you:
“It might be a day to reflect on, and in some personal way, honor one’s resilience, strength and courage as a woman and a mother. If they are no longer with an abusive partner, it might be a day to celebrate their freedom and the fact that they and their children are no longer living in abusive captivity.”
In that respect, is there a new tradition you can start to deviate far from how the day went when the abuser was in the picture? If they always managed to ruin dinner, let’s say, could you start a new tradition where you and your kids go out to breakfast together and you share what you love most about the past year? Maybe you share memories of your favorite days, or talk about the tough days that you got through together. Perhaps it’s a day to make goals for the coming year, things you look forward to or want to accomplish.
Maybe you go shopping and buy yourself the gift you always wish you got on your birthday. A bouquet of fresh flowers are likely deserved to remind yourself you’ve made another trip around the sun with resilience.
And, of course, let’s not forget the pampering. It can be hard to feel like self-care is deserved after an abuser has tried to convince you for so long that you’re not worth it, but see if you can quiet that thought. As a mom of two little ones myself, I think it’s important to show your kids that you can take self-care time because you’re deserving of it, and Porter agrees.
“Moms are role models to their children in everything they do. Thus, treating themselves with kindness and compassion is important not just for their own healing, but also teaches their children that self-care and self-love are healthy and important.”
Think of your favorite indulgence. Is it sitting down with a good book? Getting a massage? Treating yourself to a new pair of shoes? Cooking something other than chicken nuggets for dinner? It’s OK to do that for yourself and show your kids that you’re celebrating yourself, just as you’d want them to celebrate on their birthdays.
Partners out there should also be aware that survivors who’ve been through trauma in the past—an abusive partner or another type of trauma—might need more support on birthdays and other holidays. So this next part is for them: Ask what your partner needs. And then, says Porter, “honor what they say.
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“You might have different ideas of what you think she needs but trust her to know herself best.” Even if that request is a day of non-celebration, then that’s what she knows will help her best.
As the day approaches, prepare yourself for a mix of feelings and possible triggers. It’s OK to take breaks, draw boundaries and feel whatever emotions arise, good and bad. An emotional safety plan might be a wise step to prepare in advance.
For more ideas on how survivors honored themselves after abuse, you may want to read, “What Did You Do For Yourself After Leaving?”
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