Most families with chronically ill relatives dread holiday time when other families are all happy and looking forward to yet another happy get-together, while they dread holiday time. Then, at these occasions, a (mentally ill person) a consumer, is expected to eat, drink and even enjoy the family’s company plus celebrate the fact that it is a time of joy and good will.
For me, times like these bring back memories and feelings of disappointment, resentment, sadness and a host of other emotions. For my family, holidays were not good times. Sometimes my son was in a psychiatric hospital, at others he was home but barely in a stable condition. There were occasions when he had to be taken to a psychiatrist during the ‘festive season.’ Once or twice the police came for him after ‘the voices’ had urged him to break the law in one way or another, so it’s no wonder I felt that way.
What did holiday time mean to my son? When a lot was expected of him, he was able to handle himself well for a few hours only, but then he would crash as the voices only he heard got louder and more insistent. He then retreated into his inner self, got agitated and even though each sibling present took him aside for a one on one chat, it only worked for a short while. He might have felt that we all cared about him but when dinner was served, he disappeared, quite sure that we had poisoned his food. He was also unable to process the noise of loud laughter and/or snatches of conversation. It was all too much for him. There were numerous times when he refused to join us even for a short while, but stayed home alone, which ruined any enjoyment we might have had.
Some relatives treated him like a child. While it’s impossible to tell our guests what to do, or how to behave, we managed to take measures to keep a modicum of control and reduce our patient’s anxiety at those family functions. How? I found an ally; anyone in the family who was a supporter rather than a critic. If you have a friend who is able to accompany you to a family gathering, go for it but be sure to find someone positive and focus your attention and energy on that person. Together you can decide on the limits you want to set for the patient. Because we can’t control the way others treat our ill relative, that doesn’t mean we had to let everything that was dished out pass without comment. I knew it was okay to speak out for my son. I made sure that he was kept away from the offending person and hoped that my ally would use distraction techniques.
It helped to bring something like a game of chess to help him escape. I suggested that he go to into another room where it was quieter and If that didn’t work, someone went with him for a walk, weather permitting. All we could do was to help him to focus on what was good. Of course I worried that there might be anxiety-provoking triggers at our family celebration, we found one or two positives. In today’s world, one would make sure that he had a smartphone or an iPad handy.
As anxiety can spike at any time particularly during holiday time, an understanding of what’s happening can increase our sense of control over the situation and so decrease anxiety levels.
I tried to be positive and to smile a lot. Did it work? Sometimes but not always.