By Michelle Wolff, CCASA Blogger
If you’re lucky you’ll know in advance that someone who assaulted or abused you is being invited to the same event you are. If not, you’ll be hit with that ton ‘o bricks reality when he/she walks through the door and everyone starts shifting uncomfortably around the room and avoiding eye contact with you or worse, covertly daring you to confront the issue.
What do you do? Leave? Say something out loud to either the host of the party or the abuser directly?
It’s possible that before you can even choose a course of action you’ll be dealing with some automatic responses to seeing your abuser such as:
•Racing heart, sweaty palms and trouble breathing
These emotions often overwhelm us, making it hard to decide how to respond to a highly stressful situation. Very often family members expect that you’ll pretend everything is ok and “be polite.” This can make you feel as if you’re the insane one in the room when you are anything but. You may need to take a break and go outside or go to another room to let your emotions rise and subside before choosing a response, especially if you’ve been caught off guard by this person’s arrival.
Remember the assault/abuse was not your fault, and you have every right to feel the way you feel and to stay or go as you choose! Family expectations or not, you are not required to act as if everything is ok nor are you required to sit next to, hug, kiss or otherwise interact with the abuser.
I know some survivors are asked to sit next to the abuser at the dinner table. Some are asked to pose next to the abuser for holiday photos. I suggest quietly asserting to the photographer or event host that you want to eat dinner with your family and to be in the photo but you will place yourself where you feel most comfortable. Again, remember that ultimately you don’t have to pretend. You must do what is appropriate to care for yourself even if it means offending other people. It’s also important to carefully decide how to exit the party or to stay.
Some people have said that it helps to think about throwing a plate of hot Christmas ham into your abuser’s lap and storming out the door. Although it is possible, if acted on it might cause more harm in the long run if that person pursues assault charges against you for 3rd degree pork burns. Shouting your feelings across the table or using a pre-dinner champagne toast to confront the abuser is not likely to help, although it’s certainly an option. Ultimately it’s your choice what to do after considering all the available options.
One thing you can consider using is use the old Broken Record technique with yourself and your family/friends. Remind yourself every 30 seconds if you need to that you have the right to determine how you will participate with the scheduled events. You have the right to insist on accommodations and you have the right to leave if you choose to do so. Also use the technique of acknowledging what the other person wants paired with what you want through the use of the word “and.” For example, when Mom or Great Aunt Edna insists that you sit next to Grampa Perpetrator at the dinner table, politely decline. You can say for example, “I can’t wait to dig into that killer stuffing you make every year, Mom, and I’ll be eating mine at the other end of the table. Thank you for helping me trade places with Cousin Sandy.” You’ve now validated Mom’s request while asserting your own.
If there are protests, and in my experience there usually are a few, initiate Broken Record and repeat; several times if needed. “I hear that you want me to sit next to Grampa and I’ll be trading places with Cousin Sandy or Uncle Jake which would you prefer?”
These surprisingly simple, albeit annoying tactics work well in most situations with a number of issues not just this one. Such as to your neighbor, “I can see that Spot likes to poop on my lawn and the next time he does so while you stand there watching I’ll be contacting the homeowner’s association. Yes, I hear you that he’s a dog and you think he’s gotta go when he’s gotta go and the next time he does so…etc.”
If you haven’t already; please strongly consider bringing a support person to the event. Someone who can remind you that you are sane and to keep you from being pressured into situations that you’re uncomfortable in.
It can be helpful to mentally rehearse how you’ll respond to such situations. Although, be warned that even if you’ve rehearsed as much as if you’d been invited to play violin at Carnegie Hall, your body may still temporarily run amok with heart pounding, some serious sweating in strange places and you may feel a sudden attack of June bugs in your belly.
It’s all ok. None of it is your fault, not the abuse and most certainly not the social event difficulty. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Choose a healthy response and take action making your own safety and well-being the highest priority.
Michelle Wolff is the Sexual Assault Response Team Coordinator for the 17th Judicial District. She is working with a team of professionals dedicated to creating a seamless system for reporting and receiving services for sexual assault. She’s also an artist and blogger who frequently gets riled up about something and writes about it. You can find her at www.wolffdenpress.wordpress.com.