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Whose Family Isn't Crazy?

There are family obligations at the holidays, but not every obligation need be met, especially if they cause sadness, resentment, or regret. Whether or not you have someone in your life struggling with mental illness, you're only as helpful as you are healthy yourself.
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Young woman looking up at dining table
Young woman looking up at dining table

It's the time of year for making lists--and especially, it seems, list after list full of tips on how to deal with your crazy family, if the deluge of content on the subject (a mere week or so into the season) is to be believed.

In a recent post titled "10 Ways to Handle Your Wild, Crazy Family This Holiday Season," the editors at Jezebel suggest things like avoiding topics you know will start a fight, engaging in family members' hobbies, and "not petting them backwards," noting that, "It feels weird to them. They don't like it." Charisma magazine suggests skipping the adults' and kids' tables and instead "scattering chairs and TV trays through every room of your house so that each person can dine in silence and solitude." Buzzfeed, meanwhile, offers up "14 Ways To Get Through Tense Holiday Family Time Like a Pro" by suggesting readers adjust their expectations, make a plan for responding to triggers, and resist the temptation to self-medicate -- all of which are generally easier said than done, of course.

Truly, the holidays can be a difficult time for many families, stirring up old arguments and opening up old wounds -- so much so that holiday drama has become something to assume is true for all of us. These days, whose family isn't crazy? It's become something to joke about, with the word "crazy" thrown around to describe everyone from the perpetually over-served aunt to the Goth-clad cousin who utters not a word for 24 hours. Entire movies are based on the hilarious, madcap mess of forced holiday family fun, and every year we watch them with collective nods of recognition: Christmas Vacation, The Family Stone, Home Alone, and countless others.

But what if your family really is dealing with mental illness, as so many are? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 61.5 million Americans suffer from mental illness in any given year, and just a small fraction of them receive adequate or appropriate treatment. That's a lot of family tables dealing with the impact, and few scenes are actually funny.

For those suffering from mental illness -- and for people who love anyone suffering from mental illness -- the holidays can be especially tricky. For some, this time of year can carry unpleasant memories, or reminders of loss, exacerbating feelings of loneliness even when family and friends are all around. Holiday activities like planning (or attending) a party or giving a gift can be stressful, especially if employment or money is an issue, or otherwise overwhelming. Changes in the regular schedule can also trigger shifts in mood and an imbalance to a sense of safety and security. Healthy choices -- about food, alcohol, exercise, sleep -- can mean the world to a person affected by mental illness, and the holidays are almost designed to challenge those choices. All of these issues are very real, and nothing to make light of.

Of course, humor can often be used to deal with sadness -- both on film and in real life -- and I'm not saying these lists, and the movies, are harmful or hurtful. But for families struggling with mental illness, they're also not the whole picture. It's important to remember that someone can't be cheered out of mental illness, or expected to be on his or her best behavior or in their best mood just because everyone else says it's the "most wonderful time of the year." Some people with mental illness, or those whose lives are impacted by it, want to skip the holidays entirely. If that's the case, others need to respect that.

Meanwhile, if your family is just the "regular" sort of dysfunctional, you should consider yourself pretty lucky. Maybe your mom is argumentative and doesn't handle stress very well. Maybe your sister always, and only, talks about herself. Maybe everyone at the whole damn table has different ideas about politics (the wrong ones, that is!) The answer may not be to engage -- because a fight about politics at the holiday table is a fight no one wins -- but neither may it be accepting people as they are. We may be sold the idea that the holidays are about giving, but they're just as importantly about taking care of yourself and avoiding as best you can situations that make you feel uncomfortably stressed, lonely, irritated, or guilty. Maybe that means limiting the time you spend with family -- getting a hotel room, for instance, instead of staying in your old bedroom. Or bowing out of your in laws' before dessert in favor of your own couch in your own house. If you're someone who puts a great deal of effort into the holidays only to feel great disappointment or hurt when others don't reciprocate, perhaps reconsider your approach.

There are family obligations at the holidays, but not every obligation need be met, especially if they cause sadness, resentment, or regret. Whether or not you have someone in your life struggling with mental illness, you're only as helpful as you are healthy yourself. "'Tis the season to be selfish" isn't exactly how the saying goes, but in moderation, it may very well be the smartest way to go.