For the first time ever, we changed things up and chose not to stay home for Thanksgiving. Instead, we took off for Nashville, TN and had one of the most rewarding family trips to date! Prior to embarking to spend 5 days in an Air B&B condo with my daughter and son-in-law, I made some pretty heavy decisions concerning how I was going to present on this short vacay. I made a pact with myself, and I kept it! Many of us have a rough time at The Holidays who conjure up a Norman Rockwell-esque mental picture of special family traditions, friends and family gathering to enjoy food, exchanging of gifts, all accompanied by warm fuzzy feelings of love and excitement. Instead, there are those of us where the Holiday season can cause feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and perhaps some memories we would rather not come to the forefront of our recollection.
Living with mental disorders of any type during the Holidays IS a challenge and seeing as I have Borderline Personality Disorder and other co-occurring disorders of Panic Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar 2, Treatment Resistant Depression and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it is typically a hellish time interacting with family and friends for me. I suffer with many traumatic “Ghosts of Christmas Past” and the Holiday Season seems to amp up my symptoms, as I tend to compare my expectation of what I want to happen vs what actually does occur. In addition, I am envious of those who do not have to weave and dodge symptoms of mental disorders, who seemingly take things in stride, are organized and especially those who can bake something without burning it!
The pact I made with myself this year was that I was going to do everything in my power to be others focused, instead of expecting my family to acquiesce to my wants, desires or symptoms. I concluded that I was not going to let my emotions rule me (as they normally do having BPD). I decided to allow my husband to be in charge of all spending, including Black Friday Sales and I would not beg, badger or coerce him for more than our budget would allow. (That is a bipolar thing and a self-soothing mechanism I use - SHOPPING!).
I monitored myself constantly to make certain I was not trying to take over or manipulate our schedule. I let others take the lead and tried not to ruminate (OCD) or make a fuss if I didn’t get my way. In the end, my family was happily amazed at my efforts and I even received a round of applause! (I asked for one!) They scored me a 7-8 on a scale of 1-10 in my ability to live in a confined space, being together for 5 days and not going “Black Brain” or having any meltdowns. Was I perfect? No, but neither were they. The point being, we all got along famously and the trip was a huge success! I proved to myself and perhaps I am encouraging you, that it CAN be done!
Let’s take a look at some Holiday triggers and how to overcome them, starting with the obsession and pressure to have “the perfect, spotless, Christmas house”. There is a feeling or need to want to impress family and friends with our perfect decorations, or the perfect gift. Malls, crowded parking lots, travel (airports), can send some of us into a heightened state of anxiety. Picking and choosing which function to attend can leave us feeling overwhelmed and maxed out trying to be everywhere all at once. Our family time may end up riddled with unwanted conversation topics or toxic relatives (we with Mental Disorders are usually considered the toxic relative!). Perhaps you suffer from intense feelings of missing a loved one that has passed on, or you are on the outs with your family and unable to spend any time with them. Feelings of loneliness and feeling unwanted may seem to blanket you.
- DON’T BE AFRAID TO SAY “NO” IF YOU ARE NOT UP TO ATTENDING
The temptation is always there to say “Yes” to every RSVP that comes your way. Trying to be everything to everyone can leave you feeling overwhelmed and can suck the joy right out of any occasion you do choose to attend. If possible, try postponing some friends or family who are understanding into the New Year. Especially if you suffer from social anxiety, you may send your mental health into a tailspin by pushing yourself too hard to participate in events or go to crowded places that trigger your symptoms. If shopping malls are not your thing, online shopping is always an option.
- KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR BUDGET AND RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO IMPRESS
For many, finances and the family budget can be a source of anxiety. If you share a budget with a spouse or partner, decide in advance how much you will allot to the Holiday season. Think of everything from decorations to entertainment and gift giving. Think of low-cost activities and be creative in lieu of the typical gift exchange. Offer to have someone over for a home-cooked meal, or plan a coffee date. After all, it is your company and attention they are wanting. Special memories always trump a token gift that will long be forgotten next year! Instead of travel, try a Skype date. Try to get as many friends and family to participate and make it fun!
- DECIDE, IN ADVANCE, WHAT TOPICS ARE OFF LIMITS/SET BOUNDARIES
Skeletons exist in every family closet and they tend to come out after a few drinks, when people’s inhibitions are lowered. Things can quickly turn from a normal conversation into an all out family feud. Be prepared and know what landmines to steer clear of in topic matter. If you have to, remove yourself from the conversation. Those of us with mental disorders may feel as though we are under the scrutiny of the “family microscope” when things are brought up such as weight gain or loss, relationship status, any touchy situations you have recently gone through, or how things are “progressing” with your mental disorder. Rehearsing and preparing what to say prior to the questions will give you the upper hand. Don’t be tempted to overshare because you feel you owe an explanation. If you want to be “cheeky”, throw the ball back to them with an intrusive a question and see if they don’t wake up to their inappropriate behavior! Remember to use humor! It helps to keep things light and more on an even keel. If all else fails, excuse yourself for a bathroom break or direct attention to the next thing on the Agenda if possible.
- KEEP IN REMEMBRANCE AND HONOR THOSE WHO HAVE PASSED ON
You look around the table and can’t help but notice the empty seat. You miss the smell of your grandmother’s sweet potato pie in the oven. It does not take much to bring to mind those who have passed on and are no longer at family gatherings. It is okay to feel sad and express it. There is no way to replace that special loved one. Doing things such as recreating Grandmother’s famous recipe, watching old family videos or looking at old photo albums will help keep some of those memories alive for the younger generation. Perhaps you could all share a favorite memory about the person and end with a toast to their memory.
- DON’T BE ALONE IF YOU DON’T HAVE TO OR WANT TO
There are tons of ways to avail yourself or volunteer at community sponsored events over the Holiday Season. Look up your local County Event Calendar and decide which events you would like to participate or volunteer. Be open with friends or co-workers that you will be alone during the season and see if an invite doesn’t ensue. If all else fails, you could always spend time at a nursing home or soup kitchen where you will be helping yourself and someone else at the same time! After all, isn't that the real meaning behind all the hoopla? To be there for each other in times of need and help those less fortunate than ourselves.
I truly hope that some of these ideas will help you in getting through a fun and memorable Holiday Season. Please keep in mind my opening where I challenged and pledged to myself to be in the mindset of putting others first. One fond memory from our trip I will share as I conclude...we decided to eat out for Thanksgiving instead of doing the Big Meal with dishes and cleanup. We chose an amazing Italian Restaurant in the area and splurged! We got all dressed up and took tons of pictures. They served the dinner family style with platters stacked with ham, turkey, spaghetti and meatballs you name it. There was NO way we could finish the food. We had our server package it in containers, including plastic utensils and napkins. We then spent time driving around the areas we knew where the homeless would frequent. It was such a blessing to give someone a Thanksgiving Dinner!
When we returned to the condo, I had the Falalala LLAMA Tee Shirts for us all to change into for our Christmas card family photo shoot! We had such fun making crazy poses as we laughed and took tons of pictures. We ended with Black Friday shopping, in our crazy outfits!
My wish for each of you is to enjoy a happy, healthy, and episode free Holiday Season!
With you on the Journey, Alice