Many survivors struggle with traumatic anniversaries. What is a traumatic anniversary? The most obvious example is a yearly calendar date that seems to be circled in big, red marker in our nervous system, setting off cascades of emotional reactions. The anniversary can be a certain day (if we experienced a specific trauma), or a less-specific season (if the trauma recurred over an extended period of time — with or without any standout events — or because the brain placed greater emphasis on other seasonal cues from the trauma than the numerical date itself). Survivors can also be affected by indirect traumatic anniversaries such as the day an abusive ex-partner gets married, or when a younger family member reaches the age at which you were abused. While many of these indirect anniversaries are universal, they can carry unique connotations for transgender survivors. For example, a younger family member reaching an age or developmental milestone that corresponds with your own abuse can be compounded if it also triggers body comparisons, self-blaming rumination and fantasy connecting gender and identity development to developmental trauma, or painful increases in gender dissonance or dysphoria.
However painful it may be, an increase in intrusive trauma symptoms on traumatic anniversaries indicates that your brain is integrating the life you’re building for yourself now with the trauma you survived then. As survivors, what we do during these times of seasonal regrowth matters. The ways we cope with anniversaries can radically transform our healing process moving forward.
No matter the “type” of anniversary, many survivors struggle with increased shame and feelings of hopelessness if their healing becomes more painful and symptom-ridden during certain times of year on a recurring basis. It’s not uncommon for survivors to berate themselves for not successfully staving off a difficult patch, especially if they could see it coming. Many brave folks take valiant strides to fortify themselves against their traumatic anniversaries and then feel collapsed and innately flawed if these efforts, in their minds, fail. This poses several key points for coping with anniversaries:
1.What is the metric for “failure”?
Survivors of sexual and intimate violence frequently believe they are somehow responsible for their traumatization. This can be especially potent if trans and non-binary survivors had their gender identity or expression used against them by their perpetrator(s), significant others and family members, and responding officials and healthcare providers. Messages of responsibility for the original trauma(s) often leak toxic shame into the healing process. Survivors may tell themselves that dark times in healing are the result of their being flawed, at fault, or a failure. In reality, dark times in healing are both necessary and can be replaced with new, empowering self-stories moving forward.
Healing is not a linear formula of cause and effect. The efforts put into self-care, fortification against hard horizons, and reanimating into life now usually don’t translate tidily into their desired outcomes. This, however, doesn’t mean they didn’t “work” or that we somehow failed to pursue them properly. Anniversaries are difficult because of our biological mechanisms governing the storage and processing of traumatic materials; there is no “one and done.” There are certainly things that we can do to help ease this heartache, but we cannot force resolution. Our brain has its own survival path. Each step is progress; being on the path is not failure.
2. What growth, relief, and healing was made possible because of this effortful work?
Often, when everything hurts and the hurt is compounded by pressure to “get over it,” it can be difficult for survivors to recognize the changes that were made possible by the ways they chose to cope with traumatic anniversaries. Small shifts in perception, experience, behavior, emotion, and relationships (with others, the body and mind, and the world) can be momentous markers of progress from one anniversary and the next — and, they add up. While it can be easy to focus on all the ways trauma still ensnares us day to day, slowing down and looking at those things that are different this anniversary can be a powerful step towards deeper freedom. It may be helpful to ask trusted supports what they see different in this anniversary compared to those prior. Again, it’s crucial to not discount the seemingly small shifts. It is precisely these movements that get us from where we have been to where we want to be.
Suggested Exercise: There is no growth that is too small to matter. It can be illuminating to create a “thank you” to yourself that expresses the ways your healing has been strengthened this anniversary by the hard work you have put in. This “thank you” can be a letter, list, song, movement piece, or poem — anything that celebrates the changes you have won for yourself and challenges the impulse to magnify those things that haven’t changed to the forms or degrees that we may have wanted. After you create this “thank you,” keep it somewhere safe to share with yourself again later on.
3. What can we learn this time that will help us cope with future anniversaries?
An uncomfortable but ultimately hopeful guarantee with traumatic anniversaries is that there will be ongoing opportunities to learn from the current difficult season to further your healing in the next one. Viewing the recurrent nature of many traumatic anniversaries in this light creates a framework for survivorship based in empowerment and curiosity rather than hopelessness.
I have yet to meet someone who sails through a traumatic anniversary “perfectly.” The mandatory imperfections of our unique healing processes can be leveraged through gentle effort and the healing of time’s passage to shape how we greet future anniversaries. Future growth becomes possible when we are willing to learn from the wounded places in our present. Taken alongside our victories and “thank yous” in a current anniversary, those aspects of our experience that we still aren’t thrilled with can point us toward improvements for the next season.
Suggested Exercise: In a decidedly nonjudgmental process near the end of an anniversary, it can be helpful to sit down with your notebook, art supplies, and/or trusted support and identify some of the wound-spots and stuck points you struggled with this anniversary. These can be behaviors, emotions, thoughts, urges or cravings, relationship patterns, or challenges with executive functioning you faced throughout the day or season. Carefully consider each one of these: does this truly represent an important value you truly hold for your current self and your own healing, or are you merely repeating some “should”? Even if only for a moment, take a breath and give yourself the radical permission to let go of the many “shoulds” of survivorship and humanity.
Once you have identified the wound-spots, document (in writing, art, conversation, or all three) some possible lessons that you can take forward into how you cope next time. Some of these may be action-oriented: attending a therapy session or getting coffee with a friend instead of isolating, practicing harm reduction strategies with substance use, doing the laundry or another concrete “check box” task when you feel stuck, or taking the day off instead of pushing harder into over-work. Other strategies will be more internal: shifting self-talk, moving away from “contingency plans” and symptom hopping, or choosing the panoramic view of healing progress rather than the magnifying the stuck points.
Wherever possible, have multiple, flexible coping strategies for each struggle you listed. Be sure to include a variety of options that don’t all depend on your current financial, relational, geographic, educational or vocational, or health statuses remaining the same. This is another benefit of coping forward based on the difficult lessons of the present: It prompts us to dedicate future energy into developing often neglected internal strengths, potentials, and resources.
In short, when you notice a wish that something was different about your experience of this anniversary, pause and extend an attitude of curiosity to why that is and what you can do to actualize that wish in the future.
The above points (re-assessing what “failure” means, recognizing where healing has occurred, and coping forward) can be used to cope with any “type” of traumatic anniversary. Whether you are facing acute suffering localized in a specific day, coping with a generalized, seasonal increase in traumatic symptoms, or are triggered because of an indirectly associated anniversary, taking the time to explore these coping questions and exercises can transform your ability to cope with anniversary-specific trauma symptoms. In our next blog post, we will outline a toolbox of anniversary coping skills you can draw from.