A couple of years ago, I went back to the Dominican Republic to find my biological mother.
And without thinking about it, almost instinctively, the first person that I thought about who would not only know where to start looking for her but would also go with me to find her, was the man who abused me as a child.
It happened on one of my many childhood summer trips to the Dominican Republic.
It happened so quickly.
I was coming out of the bathroom as he was coming out of his room. He cornered me. With all his weight, he pushed me against the wall and stuck his tongue down my throat while his hand cupped my breast.
It seemed to last forever but it was only the worst few seconds of my life.
I think I froze in time.
My heart stopped and I lost my breath. I didn’t really have words for what was going on but my body knew that it was not okay.
He must have thought he got away with it because I remember his hot breath in my ear telling me not to tell anyone. He slipped out of the house before anyone noticed he was gone.
The tears stuck in my throat and I must have turned white, because when I went back outside my mother saw me and screamed.
She asked me what happened.
Her voice was so high pitched and alarming that I thought I must have looked like I had been shot and was standing there covered in blood. She moved urgently, as if I would die is she didn’t act quickly.
It was her alarm that shook me back into my body and I instantly started to cry.
Her reaction also gave me the strength, courage and safe space to talk.
I knew that even though he had told me not to tell that my mother would protect me. She shook me several times and demanded an answer.
I finally told.
Amongst mixed reactions from adults present my mother took me home. I would not see him again until I was 25 years old.
Fourteen years later, like clock work, I went back into the routine of summer and found myself packing for yet another special event with my family.
Except this time, part of the packing included not just disclosing to my children what happened to me but preparing them to protect themselves from someone they knew and loved very much.
The list for protecting myself and my children went something like this:
1. Do not hug him too long.
2. Take turns standing outside the bathroom like a guard when one of you has to go.
3. Never, ever be alone with him.
4. Do not go anywhere alone with him, especially if he offers to buy you something if you do.
5. Do not sit in his lap.
6. No matter what, do not go into his room.
These were the cardinal rules my mother and I created for my four-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter.
Hidden within those rules were the stress and anxiety both of us would experience while we watched them and tried to act like nothing was happening.
It never occurred to me in a million years that I could just not go and stay in his house.
Spending the summer in the Dominican Republic was a holiday for my whole family.
It was a chance to gather and celebrate birthdays, grieve deaths, share food, drink and dance at the reunion of the entire family. It was also tradition for the women to gather and talk about our lives and reminisce about our pasts.
It was at this inter-generational gathering that I learned that he had not just done this to me but to all the women in the family.
As more and more girls were born into my family, the more me and my family members would have the same conversation about protecting them.
However, it never occurred to any of us to just never go home for the special events we celebrated throughout the year.
Here is a list of self-care/self-defense techniques to help you through the holidays/vacations with family, whether or not it’s your choice to go.
1. Stop pleasing people and choose not to go. You cannot lose that which you have already lost!
2. Create a healing pouch—some lavender, peppermint and rose water to spray on yourself if you get triggered.
3. Find a safe space to cry, shake and scream if your body needs to release.
4. Have friends that can support you in emotional release or processing on speed dial. Tell them in advance where you are going and that you will need support.
5. Love yourself by going outside and taking a long walk to release tension.
6. Stop apologizing for being who you are and be compassionate when you show up fully self-expressed. There is nothing you can do differently.
7. Surround yourself with the allies in your family, make sure you are never alone with your thoughts.
8. Bring a journal or list of affirmations you can sneak into the bathroom and say to yourself in the mirror.
9. Always know you have choice to say no and leave. Put your hands on your throat and stick out your tongue, do a silent scream, make sounds and give yourself permission to speak.
10. Create an herb packet with anxiety and stress relief tea and vitamins.
11. When the tension builds, check to see if you are clenching your jaws or your shoulders are tight. Pour some oil on your hands and massage your hands, feet and scalp.
12. Check in with your body and see where you are holding powerlessness or stress. Place your hand on your heart and belly and breathe, repeating, “I am safe, I have a choice, I am powerful.”
13. Set personal limits and boundaries before you arrive about what you can do and what you will not do. How far can you lean into the uncomfortable?
14. Light a candle in your home before the event and ask your spirit guides and ancestors to protect you and be with you on this journey home. Know that you are not alone.
15. Cry, laugh, write, eat, pray, write, heal and do it all over again.
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Author: Dayanara Marte
Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Catherine Monkman