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Friday, December 12, 2008

"Can't you just be normal for one day?" More Thoughts on PTSD and Holidays

“Can’t you just be normal for one day?” More thoughts on PTSD and holidays
Reprinted from Vol. 4, No. 4 of the Post-Traumatic Gazette. ® 1998, Patience H. C. Mason.
I give permission to copy and distribute this to anyone it might help.
POBox 2757, High Springs, FL 32655-2757, 904-454-1651,

One of the perrennial problems trauma survivors face is the request, usually from family members around holiday times, “Can’t you just be normal for one day?”
The answer is no.
The answer is “I am normal for what I have been through.”
Trauma survivors pay a price for what they have suffered. This price is not rescinded just because it is a holiday. The answer is “I went through hell, and holidays bring up a lot of pain. No. I cannot be normal, as you call it. I am normal for what I have been through.”
Part of the pain induced by the request to be normal is the unspoken assumption that you could be normal for a day if you just tried hard enough. Suzette Hadin Elgin in her book, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense (Dorsett, 1980), calls this a presupposition. Other presupositions in that statement are that it is wrong not to act like everybody else, that other people’s happiness depends on what you do, that holidays must be celebrated by everyone in the same way, and that trauma shouldn’t affect you, or should only affect you in ways that the other person finds tolerable.
“Can’t you just be normal for one day?” is a verbal attack, although the person doing the attacking probably does not identify it as such. It is couched in terms of sweet reason, but it carries a heavy burden of denial of what the survivor has been through and of the problems the person doing the requesting has in meeting his or her own needs through a variety of other sources, which is why he or she is trying to make the survivor meet them.
Of course, if the trauma survivor spends the rest of the year denying that he or she has problems and refusing to get help, wanting to have special needs over the holidays can be pretty irritating to the rest of the family. If you are doing that, you might want to face your problems and look for some good help.
Families and friends pay a price for living with a trauma survivor. Sometimes it is painful, but any relationship has pain. We feel survivors are worth the pain. We can acknowledge our pain without having to blame the survivor. This is just how it is. As families, we are different. That difference does not have to remain a negative. It takes strenght to survive trauma. It takes strength to survive living with a trauma survivor. We are strong, but our strengths do not lie in conventional holiday celebrations. We need to create our own ways of celebrating survival and recovery which may be quite different from shop-till-you-drop, Christmas crowds at the house, or going over to the houses of relatives who discount and demean trauma survivors.
Each of us can think about what we can do for ourself. Is there some small way you can be there for yourself in ways you haven’t been in the past, even if it is only staying sober or allowing yourself some quiet time? What can you do for the parts of you you may have lost during the trauma or the parts of you you have ignored while living with a trauma survivor? What can you do for other survivors, for other families and friends of survivors? One thing is to pass out last year’s article on PTSD and Holidays. See my previous post. You have permission to make copies of it and this article.
Perhaps this year the trauma survivor and family and/or friends can sit down and discuss how they can create meaningful celebrations. Is there something the trauma survivor would like to do with or for the rest of the family? Starting small is a good idea if you are going to try to change. In my experience, every time I tried to do too much or tried to change quickly, I failed. I strongly recommend very small. low key changes, things that seem like they won’t be a trigger. Have a backup plan for the survivor if he or she is triggered.
Broken promises can create very hard feelings, so I suggest not making promises or asking for them. Making someone promise to do something is also a form of coercion, an attempt to control, and with trauma survivors it can backfire. They need to regain a sense of control in their lives. Extracting promises only gives them something to rebel against.
Sometimes survivors are also controlling, extracting promises from family or friend. It is understandable but it carries the same drawbacks. If we need to stop focusing on the trauma survivor and let him or her heal, we, too, need the freedom to meet our own needs. We should have back-up plans so we can enjoy things even if the survivor has to bow out at the last minute. Yes, we do deserve to go to the Nutcracker, to a movie, to a service, to a tree lighting, a party, or any other treat we have planned, by ourselves or with another friend, if the survivor can’t make it. We do not have to stay home.
—Happy Holidays from Patience


  1. I am a retired police officer and developed PTSD in 1993 and have been living with it since that year. I use a service dog to help mitigate this disability as well as mobility issues, The first thing I had to deal with when I left the police force was no one phoned or came to visit me from the upper echelon or my peers. The stigma of having a mental disorder was hard to deal with at first, but became easier as time went on. Now when I am out with my service dog (had the dog for 4 years) people come up to me asking why I have a service dog. I tell them I am disabled and quite often what is said to me is "You don't look disabled". It hurts.

    Thanks for your blog.


  2. First, thank you for all the hope you have given to so many people.

    Until recently, I didn't know that I was the one with PTSD, but I did know that there was something wrong with the way I felt about the holidays. I was actually, as you say, having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

    With help, I have found a successful way of managing the effects of my past and because of this have had many spontaneous, happy moments.

    However, my family of origin is in disarray, and consequently, we didn't celebrate Christmas this year. Instead, my husband and I had a quiet day of reflection, and took a walk in the afternoon. It was beautiful. You are right. We each find meaning in the holidays by first respecting ourselves and others, and then doing what fits our circumstances and meets our needs. - Grateful in NH

  3. Thanks SO much for your informative and interesting information! I'm a social worker and I have an undeniable passion for working with veterans. I eventually want to practice treating anxiety disorders and PTSD. Your website is an amazing resource for anyone looking to learn more! Thanks again!

  4. Holidays are for people to be near those they love. I feel different, sullied in a way, since I returned from Vietnam. Why would anyone want to be close to me, given the things I seen and done. I can never get clean and I don't want to contaminate my family. These are several reasons why I don't like holidays. I feel like I'm always on the outside looking in.

  5. Feeling sullied by what you saw and did in Vietnam must be very painful. You were doing your best is what I believe, and if it was shitty, it is not like you bought the gun and a plane ticket to Vietnam. Nor were you in charge of how that war was carried out. You were what? Eighteen, nineteen, twenty...Would you want your 18 year old to feel responsible and damned for a choice he made when all choices were bad? I think the fact that you feel sullied is proof that you are a good person. If you weren't, you wouldn't feel sullied.
    If you feel guilt for what you did or saw, find a way to make amends. Send school supplies to Vietnam, or medical supplies. Or help the homeless here. Work with other vets who are having a hard time. There are a million ways to make the world a better place.
    And your family loves you whether or not you were always a good guy. People are not loved because they are good, but just because they are.


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  7. Wow! This explains a lot. I've been home from Afghanistan for 3 Christmas' now. Every one seems like a nightmare. Thanksgivings weren't much better. I picked up on something in your article about the control thing. I never realized it, but I think it's spot on. I feel a strong necessity to establish dominance, to not be walked regain my freedom. My family paid a huge price for this necessity...and now I seemingly have no family. I am in the midst of a bitter divorce from my wife of 14 years, and 3 kids (ages 6,4, & 1). I sit alone in my apartment and contemplate life. I've been through the suicide thing, and it no longer interests me like it once did. I don't know if I'm better off alone or not. All I know is that Christmas is different, I am different, life is different. The latter will never be what it once was and that is a heavy burden for us all to bear. My parents will never understand this, my sister grapples with it, my ex-wife suffers from secondary-PTSD (but will never acknowledge it), and my little girls are so confused. If there is any hope for me and the holiday season, it will likely come in the form of new love, new wife, new family, and new life. I believe that rebirth is my only hope. Of course, there are casualties in every war; and for me, those casualties are littered in my family wake. I never thought that collateral damage would come in the form of my wife and little children. Nevertheless, that is what my wartime experience has produced.

  8. PTSD has caused me much harm, so much so that I have remained single not wanting to harm others.

    To get some idea of the harm caused, I am the person interviewed by Agnetha Faltskog for ABBA's song Fernando. She called me in the fall of 1976 to inform me of this!

    Not knowing how to deal with PTSD I felt it better to remain single rather than remarry. Caused Agnetha Faltskog to be hurt while I could not relate to her. So confused by society and the lies told by media, it was simply easier to block everybody out and hide.

    I sought help from the VA system, but they are all about them not about helping Veterans!

    While looking outside of myself for help, I put too much hope in finding help! Now I know looking within is the answer I have been looking for all these years.

    A system called Centerpoint by Bill Harris help more than anything else I have tried so far!