Depression during the Holidays
Major holidays carry significance for different reasons. Memories may often be strongly tied to a specific date meant for celebration or honor. Holidays are dates marked out expressly for respect and remembrance; they come around once every year to observe a seminal moment in history, be it secular or religious. Personal associations with a specific date—whether a holiday noted on the calendar or not—carry merit as well, and the importance attached to these dates may not always be known to those around us.
July 4th is known as “Independence Day” for the United States; flags, parades, barbeques and fireworks symbolize the holiday for many. It is a moment in the year for us to remember our founding fathers, and those who serve (or who have served) to preserve liberties obtained at high cost.
Perhaps not so ironically, Independence Day on July 4, 1975 was also the day that I took my first risk for my own personal freedom. When I was seven years old, under the fireworks and in a crowd of my extended family, my uncle molested me for the last time. It was dark, everyone was looking up, and I was silently shaking. I saw my father out of the corner of my eye at the hedge, looking at the two of us, my uncle and me. My father may have been drinking or drunk; I don’t know for sure. Regardless, my father does not remember this moment. I do.
This was the first time I actually stood up and walked away from my uncle. I was humiliated and mortified like usual, but this time I walked away. I initially thought my uncle would come after me. But he didn’t. I was surprised, and yet still terrified. I just stood there, three feet behind him, waiting for the fireworks to be over and for the crowd to start moving.
After five years of being either raped or molested by this uncle at holidays year round when our families would gather together, this was the first time I stepped away from him. I just stood up and walked away. There was no fight, no words expressed; just me, stepping back three feet. At seven years old this was a very big deal. I had never done anything like this before. I did not know it was possible until the moment I stepped back.
It is now thirty-two years later and I can still remember this moment very clearly. A day meant for celebration and honor was a day of anxiety and self-loathing for me. Nobody around me knew this. For years I tried to push back the memories, but to no avail; I was always tuned out, and stiffened against any holiday, regardless of meaning given to the date by others. Holidays have always been a trigger for me, and I have yet to experience any holiday without some sort of trepidation (although these triggers have lessened considerably).
This year in particular on July 4th, I am changing up my thinking. I am choosing to honor not only those who came before me, and those who are or have been in position to risk their lives for liberty; I am also choosing to celebrate myself. I choose to honor myself for my choice thirty-two years ago. I changed my own personal history at seven years old! (I think of my nephew who is seven and I can not seem to fathom how a seven year old could make such a choice… it still boggles my mind that I did what I did.)
Only in adulthood (and after time in therapy) can I see how this step away from my abuser would end the horror of five years running. The five years of sexual assault would haunt me, yes, but today I am more powerful than he ever was. I no longer allow my uncle to define who I am. I did for a long time, and I still have memories that pop up; at the same time, however, I also have the ability to recognize the memories for what they are: an abuse of power. My uncle had a problem, and he took it out on other people. I do not excuse his actions, but I am able to forgive him. I do not believe he was intentionally trying to take away my soul, my innocence, my sense of self. Perhaps he too was abused as a child. I do not have any real answers. All I do know is that for me, I needed to forgive him in order to empower myself to move forward. The longer I stayed angry at him, the longer I was still under his control (even after he passed away several years ago). The results of his torment have required a lot of therapy as well as medication. Having these experiences at such a young age literally changed my brain chemistry and channels of thought and emotion. For me, at age thirty-nine, to recognize that I am a powerful, intelligent, loving and caring woman is testament to my commitment to love myself enough to not let my past experiences run my future. (I think I heard it on the Oprah show that if you do not forgive someone, it is like taking a pill of poison and hoping it will make the other person die. That analogy resonated with me, as I was of that mindset for a very long time (I punished myself mercilessly for experiences that were beyond my control).
Independence Day for the last few years has been a movement toward not being fearful of memories coming to the surface and trying to fake my way through the day with all the flashbacks that occur. That part for me is pretty much done with. Perhaps I will always have a personal association with this holiday regarding my childhood; perhaps as more years pass, this memory won’t even show up. Gaining independence from the stronghold this date had on me—I only saw it as another moment of abuse rather than the day my abuse ended because I stood up—enables me to take back this date, and not have to fight negative thoughts or feelings about myself and who I am. Instead, I choose to gain freedom from the memory in the negative, and let it remind me of a positive: it was my first moment of participating in my own self-care. Twenty years separated the first step from the second step, but that is okay. I took the steps. In the end, that is what matters to me. I am so much more than a victim; I am so much more than a survivor; I am person who chooses to live. And live purposefully with intention.
I believe we all have our own Independence Day. Mine just happens to fall on July 4th.