Navigating Holidays With Mentally Ill Loved Ones

By KCWe just made it through another holiday season. Often at that time of year, the question is asked, “How do we balance hosting parties in our home when our mentally ill loved one’s illness is in overdrive?”

Unless violent behavior is a factor, my advice is to reduce your expectations of a “Norman Rockwell” holiday. As a dear friend who also is my NAMI co-teacher points out, “Jerry Springer” moments may be more the norm.

Honesty or excuses?

Many of our adult loved ones who are mentally ill have behavioral and/or emotional challenges that are often exacerbated in a social setting. Feelings of insecurity, fear, anxiety and self-consciousness become overwhelming. Those feelings can balloon and be accompanied by inappropriate emotional outbursts, acting out or complete withdrawal. Our ill loved ones come across as “trouble-makers,” “downers,” or “aloof”– not the life of the party, as we’d wish them to be. This, in turn, can make guests in our home feel uncomfortable and often puts us between a rock and a hard place. We either have to have an honest conversation with our guests about our family member’s behavior or offer polite excuses.

I often hear of families compensating for this by not inviting their mentally ill relative. They feel it thwarts any potential drama and insures a peaceful holiday for all others in attendance. Families believe they are acting in the best interest of the majority. While I certainly understand their motivations, it breaks my heart. No one should be alone on the holidays, especially those with a mental illness.

Sacrifice for mentally ill loved one

I’m not a professional expert, but I strongly believe we should invite our mentally ill relative! Yes, it means a sacrifice on our part. We may have to make the party shorter to accommodate their emotional needs. Maybe it means inviting fewer guests so our loved one isn’t as overwhelmed. Perhaps we have to prepare more food because our ill family member cannot handle bringing a dish to share. It’s possible we may have to help schedule transportation for our loved one because they don’t drive. And yes, we might actually offend another guest because we invite our ill family member who ultimately acts inappropriately. True friends hopefully will understand and stick by us.

I firmly believe that including our ill relative eventually helps in their recovery. I’ve seen exclusion make mental illness worse. That’s a road we don’t want to travel.

If our mentally ill loved one decides not to come to the party because the pressure is too much, let that be their choice. Don’t make the choice for them by not inviting them. Should they come to the festivities, hope for the best, yet be prepared for the worst. Holidays are a time for love, warmth, closeness and family. If a “Jerry Springer moment” arises, it simply could add character to your holiday memories. Don’t get caught up in a quest for perfection; that only leads to disappointment. Instead, look for the tiniest of blessings within the heap of chaos. That’s where the true holiday spirit is found.

(KC has requested that her blogging remain anonymous. You can send comments to meisenbath@gmail.com and they will be passed along to KC.)