How do you get through the holidays with a mental illness? It’s not easy. Everyone else seems to just “let it go,” but you’re “frozen.” The holiday stress, the gift giving, the concentration on food, the anxiety, the threat of a jolly fat man breaking into your house! It makes everyone crazy. So, how can you handle the holiday season?
1. Identify your “Grinch”
What’s your Grinch? You know, the Grinch? The green furry guy who hates Christmas so much that he steals it from the Whos? Each one of us has a Grinch who gets in the way of a good time on holidays. It may be a person, it may be a feeling, it may be a terrible kugel that your Aunt Ethel force-feeds you on the eighth day of Hanukkah.
The key is to first identify your Grinch. What gets in the way of you having a good time during the holidays? I have a few, but one of the funnier ones is my hatred of a song. A terrible, horrible, awful song. It’s called “Dominick the Donkey” and it is my hell on Earth. With every “ee-ohwn,” I feel like that stupid donkey is back-kicking my eardrums. Each year, I try my very best to avoid that song. The smell of boiling meat nauseates me, so I avoid being in the kitchen during that time or I put a little Vick’s VapoRub under my nose to mask the smell.
Grinches can be little, big, devastating, or just plain obnoxious. But identify yours and try your best to avoid it. Maybe it’s turning off the radio when Dominick comes to town. Maybe it’s staying away from cousin Murphy who always makes fun of your weight. Maybe it’s something else. But avoid it! Or, if you can’t, sandwich it between two things you love.
2. Create or continue a tradition
This is a fun one. The holidays are all about tradition, and that can be a very joyous experience. It doesn’t have to be a typical holiday tradition; not everyone has to go to midnight mass or have figgy pudding. But if you create a fun tradition for the holidays, you’ll have something you can look forward to. I personally have a few. I have a fake Christmas tree I like to decorate, and sometimes I do the Elf on the Shelf (need ideas?). Also, a family friend gave me an old Italian spaghetti sauce recipe, and I’ve decided I’ll cook that every year at Christmas time.
Other ideas? Try decorating cookies, watching claymation Christmas movies, starting a Christmas collection (such as stars, Santas, or houses), decorating with pine, reading Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (my favorite holiday story), singing Christmas carols, going to the movies, finding the perfect ornament, playing dreidel with friends, or throwing an ugly sweater party. Even traditions like setting aside time for yourself can have a special meaning. Make the holidays worth looking forward to! The one rule: don’t let it add to your stress!
3. Make gift giving easy (and get something for yourself!)
There’s always the option of not giving gifts. Or, for an easy alternative, gift cards and cash are great, too. But sometimes there’s just nothing like giving the perfect gift.
One thing I do is Christmas shop all-year-round. This requires some space in your home, but in the end, it’s worth it. Whenever I see something I know my friends and family would like, I snatch it up right then and save it until Christmas. Or, if I don’t want to buy it at that time, I take a picture of the item so I can return to it during Christmas. This policy also helps spread costs throughout the year rather than going into that December debt. You can even wrap them in advance and put Post-It notes on the presents to remember who they’re for.
In addition, there are a lot of very simple, affordable presents that you can get. You can check out my article on gift giving and gifting giving for kids and my Pinterest board on parties and gifts. Also, don’t forget “experience” presents like going out to lunch or going to a park. If you go for this option, schedule for later in the year so there’s less anxiety around the holiday.
And, don’t forget to to get a present for yourself! This year, I got myself a book on cooking that I’ve been eying at BJ’s. It makes me so happy to read it, and for just a little bit I can forget about the stress of the season. Find something you’ve been eying as well!
4. Manage your triggers
‘Tis the season to be triggered. Food, alcohol, wrapping presents, and the hustle of life can all trigger unhealthy behaviors. For example, if cutting paper is a trigger for self-injury, try using gift bags! If food is a trigger for you, avoid storing food at home. If you have to bring something, bake cookies the next before. No one snacks on ingredients, and you only have one night to deal with the challenge. If alcohol is your trigger, avoid keeping alcohol in the house and bring a soda or seltzer to Christmas dinner. Social anxiety? Limit the number of parties you attend or pretend you have another party to go to and leave early. You can also do all of your shopping online to avoid the shopping crowds.
But half of the battle of avoiding triggers is avoiding triggering people. Sometimes people get nosy, but there’s no reason you have to tell them about your struggles. For example, if someone asks you why you’re avoiding alcohol this year, tell them you have a stomachache or that you have a medical reason. Then, tell someone you’re drinking a “rum” and Coke (minus the rum) or “vodka” soda (without the vodka). Or, offer to be the designated driver for the night.
Also, keep a close friend or sponsor on speed dial during the holidays. Have a pet? See if you can bring them with you to the festivities. This is the Thunderdome, so make sure you’ve brushed up on all your coping mechanisms!
5. Remember your physical health, too
Your physical health is just as important as your mental health. If you haven’t done so already, get your flu shot. Congregating crowds mean congregating germs. Keep some antibacterial hand sanitizer on you while you’re shopping, and make sure you wash your hands before you feast.
Also, forgo some traditions if they affect your health. For example, people with mold allergies should avoid getting real Christmas trees (known as “Christmas Tree Syndrome“). In addition, if you have smoke allergies or little kids, opt for electric candles rather than real ones (there are even electric menorahs). Remember your meds, and always cook that turkey to 170-180 degrees F!