While the holidays are a stressful time for many of us, it is even more stressful for families of those suffering with addictions and mental illness. Many modern day Christmas stories feature certifiable crazy characters. Dr. Seuss’ Grinch suffers from bipolar mood swings, depression and obsessive compulsive disorders. In The Christmas Story, Scut Farkas is a narcissistic serial bully who gets joy out of tormenting Ralphie and his brother. Clark Griswold is manic and even loveable George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life has become so stressed and disillusioned with life he has become suicidal. The reality is that dealing with mental illness during the holidays is less than entertaining.
Christmas in itself brings a heightened level of expectations for a picture perfect holiday. There is so much pressure to be merry, bright and social during the holidays when often we are so fatigued from our holiday preparations we want to go home, pour ourselves a glass of wine and go to bed. Expectations arise which take us back to idealized Christmas’ of our own childhoods or the imagined perfect Christmas’ of others. Christmas gatherings often throw us together with family members we may not care for or see much of during the year, adding strain to already difficult relationships.
We are taught about the blessings of giving at Christmas. In the movies, the unselfish act of giving and its accompanying generosity often support the climactic turning point of the storyline. I would argue that in reality, rarely does a generous dose of Christmas spirit significantly and permanently improve one’s mental health. I do not believe mental illness is something most people choose to have; rather it is a disease of many variable symptoms and treatments that is just as measurable and real as cancer or heart disease. It is merely less socially acceptable.
Counter-intuitive to the season of giving, dealing with mentally ill family members may require us to behave in just the opposite manner. Especially when dealing with family members with violent tendencies, PTSD or anger management issues, we may need to withdraw ourselves from unhealthy interactions with them by creating boundaries to protect ourselves and other family members. Many types of mental illnesses are curable and treatable but only if its sufferers admit to having problems and needing help. While hitting bottom is often the turning point for many addicts and mental health sufferers, for many there is a long road ahead. We have to be careful to not unconsciously support the bad behaviors and continually rescue the mentally ill from the consequences of their actions. We must remember there are much worse things than spending Christmas in a jail cell or mental institution. How much worse would it be to lose someone you love due to the out-of-control behaviors of an addict or the mentally ill?
I would like to believe that love and a big plate of my homemade cookies could cure the world of its problems but that’s my own mental illness talking. What I do believe is that love and cookies can let people simply know they are cared for and can help alleviate a bit of the loneliness and social isolation that tragically runs rampant in our society.