Friday, November 19, 2010

Holidays When the Relatives Really Are Crazy

The holidays are just about here. For a caregiver of a mentally ill person ... especially the female type ... this means creating an atmosphere of joy and delight in an environment of darkness and despair. It means creating a complicated, great meal while dealing with the impact of additional stress on the family. It means making the best of things, even when the best is painful indeed.

In his post "Family Caregivers: The Silent Safety Net" on Huffington Post, Joseph Nowinski, PhD, notes that families today are overextended even without the issue of caregiving. "As lifestyles become progressively more squeezed by the need to shoulder added responsibilities, families can begin to fray around the edges," he writes.  And how.

Lots of us are in that position.  In fact, Nowinski begins his article by quoting that great mental health advocate Rosalyn Carter:  "There are only four kinds of people in the world - those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers."

So how to deal with the holidays? Just realize that the unrealistic expectations of Joy, Joy, Joy can make things a lot worse for you and your loved one.  The stress can make your loved one have more symptoms, and that can make you even more anxious. I've only found one source of tips: a good book called "When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness" by Rebecca Woolis. Here are some of her ideas, mingled with mine:

  1. Accept this ain't gonna be pretty.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. Keep it short. Keep it informal.  If you have to do the Big Family Thing, let your loved one stay home. Big groups are too much for your loved one, especially when you have to Put On a Happy Face. And do your own celebration. 
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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. 
  7. 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?
  8. Tell the person whose home you are visiting what you may need in advance.  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. 
  9. All your great preparation may result in your loved one refusing to participate at the last minute. And that's OK. 
If any of you have any other ideas, I'd love to hear them.  Good luck.  God appreciates you, and so do I.

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