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
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
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.