Coping with Anniversaries Series: Father’s Day

What is an anniversary?

An anniversary is an important event or experience that brings back a flood of memories and feelings triggering anxiety, depression, or other symptoms that negatively affect an individual.  For me days like this trigger feelings of anxiety and shame among others.  My body reacts physically.  Flashbacks start to overwhelm me.  I get disoriented and start to feel hyper-vigilant more than normal.
Father’s day is one of these days.  An anniversary is personal to the survivor, so what can be an ordinary day to you is something else to me.  And the symptoms that I described in the first paragraph are not limited to the day of the event.  They can start at any time before or during the anniversary and not end for days, weeks, months afterwards.  And depending on where I am in my recovery, the symptoms change.

Who does the anniversary affect?  How?  Why?

Me.  My alters.  Anyone I interact with during the affected period. The hardest time is face to face.  Phone comes second.  Writing is not as difficult, but trickier in the sense that I have to be careful about my word choice.
When my symptoms increase, I have a hard time staying present.  I am less social.  I act in ways unlike the self most people recognize.  I speak in different tones of voice.  My body gestures/facial expressions do not match each other or my words.  I am more sensitive to triggers.  I react to people based on what is happening inside of me instead of their verbal and non-verbal cues.
This has caused me many problems and misunderstandings with friends, family, co-workers, and clients.  In the past, I blamed myself and withdrew from the world.  I dissociated and engaged in more harmful coping strategies.  Then I started therapy and counseling.  These people taught me how to express myself, how to communicate effectively, and the best ways to set boundaries.  So I have replaced most of the harmful ones with healthy ones.

Anniversary Coping Challenges for Father’s Day

  • Flashbacks (mine or my alters): I am at work on the computer.  People are walking by in the background.  A phone is ringing somewhere.   I am 5 years old hiding from the scary people who came to visit.  My Dad is angry because he  can’t find me.  My mom is having a manic episode.  He finds me, but can’t reach.  Then I see a broom handle.  I am back at work looking at my computer screen wondering what I was working on
  • Increased anxiety: my emotions are all over the place, and I have a hard time staying present.  So I start to worry about the next time I get triggered.  Will I be able to come back safely?  What happens next?
  • Hyper-vigilance: I am distracted, anxious, feeling unsafe.  So I am focused on what is happening around me suspicious of danger everywhere
  • Body memories: if you have ever experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, or torture, you might have a better understanding of this.  Sometimes my flashbacks include reliving and physically re-experiencing the event through my body.  Every sensation, every pain, is happening in the present time wherever I am and can cripple me.  I’ve gone to the ER when body memories trigger panic attacks, and I double over in pain, then pass out.  It happened once at work; now I make sure I call in sick when I start to feel like that
  • Distracted: intrusive thoughts and flashbacks keep interrupting me.  I can’t control what is happening and have a hard time doing my job when I am trying to hide an increase in symptoms
  • Dissociation: the sensations and feelings are so overwhelming I start reliving my past.  My mind & body can’t handle that.  I leave my body and go someplace safe for a while.  When I come back a minute, an hour, a day, or longer could have passed.  Sometimes I remember what happened during the lost time.  Sometimes I don’t.
  • Increased switching of alters: the more stress I and my parts feel , the more often we switch personalities to help all parts cope with internal and external triggers.  We do this while working, living, and interacting with others in the outside world
  • Feelings of shame and guilt: remembering my past, talking about it, acknowledging the feelings and sensations, using positive coping strategies means going against everything I learned growing up.  So I get backlash, feelings of shame and guilt and the urge to punish or hurt myself for not keeping the secrets anymore.  I also remember what happened, being blamed for it, feeling shame because it was my fault even though my logical self knows that all parts of me do not have anything to be ashamed of.  We did what was necessary to survive
  • Sensory over load: Everything around me: sounds, scents, movement, environment, is too much.  The noise hurts my ears and head.  People moving around me is scary and confusing.  My skin is ultra-sensitive; everything itches or hurts.  My eyes hurt; vision blurry.  I want to get away someplace safe and quiet with minimal distractions.  I feel that way when I have an increase in symptoms, feel under pressure, or have difficulty practicing self care

My coping strategies

  • Increase self care: engage in physical and non-physical activities that help me feel grounded and safe in the present, i.e. Reciting affirmations, creative journaling, cuddling with my stuffed animals, wrapping myself in a blanket, using hot or cold packs to soothe painful or sensitive places
  • Increase self soothing: sleep, read a book, watch a funny movie, knit, take a hot/warm/cold shower. Take a bath, meditate, exercise, anything that comforts you without hurting you and others
  • Make sure I get lots of alone time to relax and recharge: this is NOT isolation.  I am a solitary person who enjoys spending time alone.  This is how I recharge so I can be alert and attentive when I spend time around friends and loved ones
  • Sensory grounding: I use my senses to bring me back to the present.  i.e. Look around and name all of the blue items in my view; listen and name every sound I can hear; smell candles or cook or bake something that I enjoy; eat something sour, sweet, bitter, or savory; bush your skin gently with a soft-bristled brush (current favorite)
  • Sleep hygiene: I have a routine I follow almost every night to help me relax andprepare for sleeping.  The ritual is comforting and requires me to let go any stressors to focus on my routine.  Some tasks are: changing and putting away the outfit I wore during the day; taking out an outfit for the next day; having something to drink; checking my locks; charging my phone; and putting on soothing music or sounds
  • Ask for help: I call the BARCC hotline if I feel overwhelmed or unsure because the above strategies are less effective than usual and I am not sure what to do next.  This hotline is specifically for survivors of sexual trauma, but there are others for specific issues like depressions, suicide, eating disorders, etc.
Before, I used to give in to the urges to hurt myself and then beat myself up over it later.  Now, I call the 24 hour hotline at BARCC and ask for help making a clear choice.  Sometimes I still have to use a strategy I consider borderline or harmful.  The difference is that I do not punish myself or any parts of me who use them.

Reader’s Digest

There are many types of anniversaries.  For trauma survivors, many anniversaries bring back difficult memories and feelings.  My memories of Father’s Day used to be all bad.  Now they are mixed.  I remember the good with the bad.  Part of that comes from working with my therapist.  Part comes with time.  The rest comes from learning positive ways of coping with my internal feelings and memories so I do not hurt myself, my alters, or anyone on he outside.  I wanted to learn, to not let my past control me.  I still make mistakes, use a strategy that is not quite healthy or positive sometimes.  It happens.  Accept that sometimes any coping strategy is better than not using one at all.  And some day, with hard work, I will be able to replace them with healthy, positive, safe coping strategies.
I hope some of these coping strategies can help you.