I have been thinking about writing a Christmas blog post for a while – something festive and lighthearted to warm your cockles. The problem is that Christmas is a complicated time for families scarred by domestic abuse and it is inevitably difficult to navigate. My parents split up 10 years ago so I no longer have to endure the particular torture of a family Christmas, but each year brings with it fresh challenges.
Every time I visit my Mum I make a silent resolution on the journey down the M1 – this time it will be different, this time we will all just have a jolly festive time. But each time the spectre of my father’s violence haunts us and the ghost of Christmas past refuses to be put to bed.
The last time I had to endure a family Christmas with both of my parents must have been just before they split up. Fresh from University, I coped with my difficult feelings by downing double vodkas, hoping that the drink would render me comfortably numb. By this time my brother and sister had both left home and our family gathering was reduced to my parents and my slowly dementing grandparents and I found it interminable. My Grandma, in the early stages of Alzheimers spoke to me as if I was a childhood friend and tried to eat the table decorations. Grandad asked me whether I had ever taken drugs in the middle of Christmas dinner and my parents later employed a pincer type manoeuvre to catch me smoking a spliff out of their bedroom window. I was young and bored and disaffected but compared to childhood Christmases, it was relatively uneventful.
As anybody who lives with a violent perpetrator will tell you, they do a good line in ruining family occasions. My Dad specialised in drinking excessively, provoking an argument and then scaring us all to death. We would cower in corners until he finally passed out on the sofa and we would try to quietly salvage what remained of the day. It was more ordeal than pleasure, and as soon I left home I would dread returning for the festive onslaught.
When I met my partner I realised that I no longer had to go home and we started to create our own traditions. We often had Christmas dinner for waifs and strays, bringing together a gaggle of friends similarly estranged from their families, to celebrate in our own way. We would cook vegetarian food, don fancy dress and actually enjoy ourselves. Every other year we would go to his family where I experienced the joy of a truly happy family occasion – Champagne for breakfast, flaming Christmas pudding, candlelit dinners and presents under the tree. And nobody would argue. Slowly I began to rewrite the script and I gradually stopped dreading the annual festive period.
At this time of year I am always torn between seeing my family and avoiding them like the plague. A family that has survived domestic violence is a fractured broken affair and even though the fear has been replaced by underlying tension, we still do not know how to function together. There are many old wounds, easily ripped open by an unthinking remark, and it is easy to revert to the sulky 15 year old I once was. This year my Dad sent me a generous amount of money and I began to contemplate sending him an email with some pictures of the kids to let him know what we’d been up to this year. I am never comfortable with my decision not to see him any more and find myself conflicted whenever he tries to connect with me. Just as I was thinking about what I might do, I arrived at my Mum’s for a few days and she told me that a recent brain scan had revealed brain damage following multiple head injuries over the years. Head injuries inflicted by the man who supposedly loved her. Head injuries that she hid from us for years that have eventually resulted in her being diagnosed with dementia. It seems like every time I soften and consider allowing my father to be part of my life again, something like this happens to remind me of the violent ogre he once was.
Once again, Christmas is a complicated affair. I am safe now, ensconced in the heart of my husband’s family, away from the high emotions and history that can not be ignored. This year I am determined to have a happy christmas, but my thoughts will be with those who are still living with domestic abuse every single day. Those behind closed doors with violent others who can not allow them to enjoy themselves for a minute. As I sit here happily content with my glass of wine, I think about how lucky I am and my heart goes out to survivors everywhere.