Holidays with Depressed Family … Not Easy
Are you enjoying this holiday season…? This time of shopping, music, winter hats and gloves… hot chocolate and marshmallows. Sounds like a Christmas carol, doesn’t it…?
On the other hand, there’s another side to the holidays, isn’t there?
Is setting up the tree, and unwrapping all your ornaments, something you make time for, and do with quiet joy…?
Or is it something you cram into the 45 minutes between work and the holiday chorus concert while the kids scarf down McDonald’s and fight over who gets the last cookie…?
The traffic to go anywhere is jammed in gridlock…so driving home from work… well there’s no way you’ll ever get home.
That “Christmas Card” Family Holiday
Wouldn’t we all love to have that dreamy kind of holiday…?
But I’d like to suggest that a “perfect Christmas card holiday” wouldn’t be as perfect as it sounds. And here’s why.
Because it isn’t reeeeally sitting inside a Norman Rockwall painting on the wall that scratches that itch we all have for meaning in life.
And because it really isn’t silent perfection that fills our hearts — no matter how pretty the picture.
But isn’t it the people…?
Isn’t it being with Aunt Sue who talks a lot, and Grandma Jansen and her raucous humor, and the wild and wooly cousins we grew up with…the crazies and the noise….?
Life is messy. It’s not a pretty little picture, and we aren’t images on a holiday card. And you could even have a fault or two yourself … right?
Holidays with Depressed Family Members Can Be Messy
But you love them. And they love you. You have history together. You’re family.
If you have some people in your family who are a bit out there, eccentric and even occasionally annoying, that’s part of the patchwork quilt that makes you who you are and gives your family uniqueness.
You know those stresses that turn your holiday moment into a chaotic nightmare…? As much as you feel the stress, they are possibly more distressed than you are. When you have all you can handle, and someone in the room makes a scene…or explodes into an outburst… or leaves and no one knows where he is…you want to pull your hair out.
Nothing wrong with that. You’re human.
In Family Gatherings, Stronger Ones Carry the Load
But, as you know, it’s also true that you may be a little more predictable. Your emotions may be a little more reliable. And you may be a little more skilled at managing them. These loved ones of yours probably do the very best they can. And they want meaning and love just like you do.
Of course, this isn’t news to you. You know all about all this, because these are your family members. You’ve been there…and done that. Still, it doesn’t hurt to get a little encouragement from others who also understand your situation. Sharing the holidays with depressed family members can be challenging at best…and sometimes downright traumatic for everyone.
Holidays Can Breed Crisis
Caleb was a young man in his twenties, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was a young teenager. He’d had bouts in psych hospitals. He’d also had bouts in jail. And bouts in rehabs. By this point in time, his confidence in himself was pretty much shot.
He had such a gifted personality… you couldn’t sit in the room with him and not laugh your head off at his incredible humor. When he was good, he was your favorite person in the world.
But far too often, he was sick. Nosediving into depression and crippling anxiety. You could tell when his fun self was transitioning to his tormented self. And that could happen at any time. Sometimes there was a trigger that set him off. Other times it just happened with no warning.
Holidays were tough for him. His hopes were high and his anxiety that he’d fall apart were higher. You probably already can guess that the anxiety can lead to a panic attack.
So it was Thanksgiving, and the memories and interactions got to be too much and he left. Just walked out. He walked to a bridge in his community. He sat on the bridge and watched the traffic underneath, contemplating what he was going to do.
Thankfully, his family drove up soon enough. They’d been looking. And they held him…reassured him…and he agreed to get in the car and go home.
That Thanksgiving wasn’t a flawless Christmas card experience for the family…but isn’t it all about the people you love anyway? The family’s memory of that Thanksgiving was about safely returning home with him.
Depressed People Have So Much to Bear
Cherri was 16. She had been depressed so long she couldn’t remember what “happy” was like. She looked mad and sullen to those around her. But it wasn’t that. She was so numb. So silent. So hopeless. So paralyzed.
She thought about death. About relief. She had self-medicated with various substances in the past then spent 18 months in rehab. After she came home, she was white knuckling sobriety, but was still miserable.
Then her grandmother died a week before Christmas. She’d been so close to her. At times it seemed Grandma was the only one who understood her. At least it felt that way. Cherri couldn’t bear the pain.
The day of the funeral she ran away. She just couldn’t face everyone. She needed to be alone with her memories of Grandma as she knew her.
When the family arrived at the funeral home, they mumbled among themselves about Cherri’s selfishness to turn all the attention to herself. In their own pain and loss, they didn’t really realize it wasn’t about Cherri being selfish.
It was that she was so sensitive, and she could feel the feelings of the people around her. And she wanted to protect her private feelings about her grandma.
When the family returned home after the funeral, Cherri was alone in her room…looking at pictures of Grandma with the family.
People with Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, and PTSD Need Extra Support This Time of Year
And accept life at this time of year as it happens.
Because it’s all about love … after all.
If you have a family member who is suffering, where treatment hasn’t helped, please call us. We’d love to help you and help your family. That’s what we do. We offer advanced treatment options, like IV ketamine treatment and TMS. We offer hope.
May your holidays be warm and heartfelt, and may you feel loved by those around you …
To the emerging of your best self,
Lori Calabrese, M.D.