The holidays can be some of the worst days of the year when your family is dealing with mental illness. Not only is it TOO DARN DARK AND COLD, but it’s also a time when expectations of being Merry and Bright can seem especially hard for your family.
Why the holidays can be hard
Having a mental illness makes you extra vulnerable to the demands, pressures and expectations of the holidays. We deal with:
- The demands of the culture, like parties, shopping, baking, cleaning and entertaining.
- The changes of schedule, which can be really challenging for a person who has a mental illness. Getting out of normal routine can lead to forgetting meds and getting self-care out of balance.
- Family functions and crowds that trigger anxiety.
- Financial stresses because your loved one is not being able to participate.
- A pronounced sense of the passing of time. Gathering with cousins, friends and family reminds your loved one of all the “normal” parts of life that seem out of reach to him.
- The noise, which can make the noise in their heads worse.
The stress can make your loved one have more symptoms. In fact, a NAMI study found that 64% of people with mental illness report that their symptoms are worse during the holidays. And that can make you even more anxious.
Make your loved one a priority in planning
Yes, you can make the holidays a little less stressful for your loved one with mental illness. Their health comes first. And you may be surprised to see that this helps your mental health as well.
Any family member who is inconsiderate or otherwise difficult to your loved one should be kept away. I banned a brother-in-law for horrible comments during a holiday dinner. We didn’t make a big deal of it; we just never invited him again. He’s now dead, and I’m still glad I did it.
Let your loved on know the plans ahead of time. Make the holiday as consistent as you can.
For you, accept that your holidays are different now. If you can get rid of your unrealistic expectations and be honest with your loved one and all the other family members, it will go better. Just remember: You can’t force anyone to be happy.
Know your loved one’s limits … and your own
Is being around family a trigger? Are crowds? You need to be aware of this.
Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you is suffering from a mental illness, it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. If it’s a child, a sibling or a parent, Christmas can hold a lot of memories.
Avoid feeling guilty. Around the holidays, many people want to be many things to loved ones. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So we put pressure on ourselves. Pleasing everyone is unrealistic.
At the same time, let participation be your loved one’s decision.
Keep your routine
Try as much as possible to maintain routines like:
- Regular meals and good nutrition
- Taking medication
- Keeping appointments with mental health professionals
- Attending support groups
Think about the warning signs of relapse. If you start to see them, encourage them to retreat to a normal routine.
Help your loved one to keep her dignity. Provide a gift fund or another way to allow her to give gifts, so she won’t feel left out if she has no money.
If crowds or frenzy are a problem, encourage them to shop online. Or offer to help pick up the things they need.
Consider volunteering. The satisfaction of giving to others can help you put your own problems in perspective.
Scan every situation that’s coming up to make sure that your loved one won’t get unwelcomed attention.
Keep the celebration small and safe
Hey, it’s a good excuse to keep the unofficially crazy family members away. You want a small gathering of your own family. Period. Otherwise it’s too stressful for your loved one.
Identify what they really want to do.
Don’t overschedule. Pick and choose. If your loved one will be uncomfortable in a situation, it’s ok not to go.
Encourage your loved one to keep connected and not be isolated. Spending time with a friend or family member … even just one … can help.
Keep it short. Keep it informal.
If you have to do the Big Family Thing, let your loved one stay home. Big groups can be too much for your loved one, especially when you have to Put On a Happy Face. If you have a large family and lots of traditions, you can encourage your loved one to pick her favorites and let go of the rest.
Setting specific times for family traditions, like baking special food, decorating the house, wrapping gifts or attending community celebrations, gives the person something to look forward to.
If any of your extended family members really want to see your loved one, they know your phone number and where you live. Something private is better. And try not to be bitter if no one asks. (There’s a reason God chose you to be this person’s lifeline. Not everyone can deal with this.)
When people ask
The best answer I’ve found to the question … How is he? … is “About the same.” That’s tough enough for you to answer. So please don’t put your loved one in a situation where he or she has to answer the question.
During this time, we may find ourselves at extended family gatherings or at parties with people who do not understand the illness. Some people may be uncomfortable and not know what to say to you. Others may say hurtful things or offer cliché advice out of ignorance. It is helpful to prepare by knowing who may be at a gathering.
When the event is at your house
If you are having an event at your house, discuss it in advance with your loved one so he or she knows what to expect. Accept his limits. Accept her choices. Acknowledge his feelings.
If the person wants to be more visible during the holiday, brainstorm some things in advance. What will he say when asked how he is? What will she do during the gathering? Is there a quiet place to retreat if needed?
Work out a plan. The loved one can walk a dog, or go outside.
If someone offers to help you with any holiday preparation, ACCEPT.
Finally, don’t drink alcohol, especially if you are around family.
When you go to other people’s houses
Don’t overschedule. Ensure that the person will be able to do their regular nightly routine.
Tell the person whose home you are visiting what you may need in advance.
Go in multiple vehicles or take other modes of transportation so you can leave when you need to go.
Please don’t put yourself in a position … helping cook at someone else’s home, for example … where you can’t leave with little notice. If you are stuck, have someone … a sibling or spouse … available to get the person home if needed.
All your great preparation may result in your loved one refusing to participate at the last minute. And that’s OK.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
When you make out your own Christmas wish list, ask for things that will reduce stress, whether it’s a massage, a day trip, a cleaning service or a gym membership.
Eat right. Avoid the alcohol. Sleep. And write out a list of things that you are grateful for this year.
Live in the now.
I also create my own holiday rituals that are 100% under my control. I celebrate Advent, with a creche, a reading plan and activities that mean a lot for me.
Advent is a time of waiting. We are all waiting for the days when our loved ones will be well, whether here on Earth or in Heaven. You can lift this thought up as you celebrate.