Early last week, a friend emailed me with an invitation to her holiday party.  In the invitation, she mentioned that one of my paternal aunts might attend too.  This friend is retired, a member of my knitting circle, and someone who’s known me since I was five years old.  We reconnected about 2-3 years ago through a mutual friend I ran into before moving to my current residence.

It took a few months, up to a year, before I really began to trust them both and open up.  They were still connected to my family and had been (continue to be) the paternal aunt’s friend before I met them.  But they protected my privacy; accepted my differences; worked with me to help me learn better coping strategies so I could attend knitting circles and go out more; and always supported me with their actions.  Because of them and my friends in the knitting circle, I’ve become more social and more comfortable with socializing.

Back to the invitation.  She lives about 2.5 hours away from me, so I wrote back telling her that I’d try to make it.  Sundays are difficult because there are less trains and buses operating throughout the city.  On Thursday, I decided to go to the party and wrote an RSVP Friday morning.  She wrote back with her address and also confirmed that my paternal aunt would be there.  It was considerate and caring of her to warn me.

A month ago, I might not have attended the party.  3 months ago, I definitely would not have gone and might have experienced some negative flashbacks thinking about the event.  One year ago, I would be having flashbacks and panic attacks about being invited to a party with few friends and many strangers.  The travel arrangements alone would have scared me enough to make an excuse not to go.  And forget it if there was a hint of snow on the ground.

This time, though, I decided that I was going to go.  I would dress up in an outfit that felt and looked good (gave me confidence) and take my time traveling there.  Since many of my knitting friends were going, I’d also have a built-in support network and people to hang out with.  And with my phone handy, I could easily find many ways to leave if I wanted to leave.

At the party, I would be polite if she approached me and then ignore her the rest of the time.  If not, I’d ignore her.  But I wasn’t going to hide.  And I didn’t hide.  Spending time with my friends, meeting new people, chatting with them was way too much fun to miss out on.  My friend’s friends are wonderful and unique – think United Nations – and made me feel comfortable even though I was the youngest one there.

In the end, I heard my aunt come in (her voice is loud and recognizable) before she saw me and moved to be with a group of friends, my back to her.  We chatted and laughed in our corner; my friends were facing the other way and kept an eye on her for me.  But she didn’t approach.  Instead, she hid until I left.  Not very long since my ride was getting ready to leave 20-40 minutes after “auntie” arrived.

But seeing her silhouette, the back of her head did not bother me like I thought it would.  I had a moment of fear before I realized that there was nothing to be afraid of.  I was warm and safe and supported among friends.  And shocked that she would hide from me.  She who always was loud-spoken and brash, displaying confidence and being pushy with criticism and set-downs ready.

Instead, I felt at peace inside.  Confident, self-assured, and comfortable enough with myself to cope with whatever happened.  I wasn’t afraid of her anymore.  And that is big.  Because I’ve spent decades being afraid of her and everyone else in my family.  Intimidated, less than, all of it around them.  And now, I feel equal to them.  Not more, not less; equal to them as a human, a woman, an individual.

I am smart, successful, independent, female, and able to cope with my past and present.  I control myself and influence my choices.  My past and the people who shaped it do not control me or my choices anymore.  I have strategies and plans to help me feel in control of stressful situations.  The planning itself is a wonderful coping technique.  Building in flexibility allows me to adapt to changes easier.  Finally, having options allows me to make choices and ground myself when I start to feel out of control.

Thinking about them still brings on flashbacks sometimes.  This time of year; certain scents and sounds; images and crowds still trigger me into feeling uncomfortable.  Until after January 1, I have to cope with encountering higher than normal amounts of rude and insulting people from the past who know or recognize me without my being able to return the favor.

So this is my life changing moment.  I went to a holiday party knowing I’d see family.  Instead of being scared and panicking, I enjoyed myself.  Instead of hiding from her and being invisible, she ran and hid from me.  Without all of the hard work from before, I’d not be here now.

We all hope that someday, the guests here will do the same at least once.

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