Depression & Difficult Relatives on Holidays: Journal of Stress, Harsh Words

Merely Me Health Guide
  • The holidays are coming!  Run for your lives!  What makes one wish to go to a deserted island for the holidays?  Could it be the pressure for perfection, the stress of getting everything done, and how do I put this gently...the relatives.  Thanksgiving is but one holiday where there is extra emphasis upon family harmony and togetherness but what happens when things aren't exactly so darn harmonious?   Getting along seems much easier when you are interacting with people one on one.   But for some reason something less than magical happens when you stick a large group of individuals together near a platter of turkey and mashed potatoes.  Chaos. 

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    Can anyone relate?


    Once upon a time long ago, the Pollyanna in me decided to make Thanksgiving dinner for my then fiance's family and my own.  We would get them all together at one table and it would be lovely.  At that time I was in my twenties and still very wet behind the ears.  I had these visions of family laughing and talking into the evening hours with glasses raised in a communal toast.  The food would be picture perfect and new traditions would be started with our generation.  Uh huh.  And turkeys can fly. Actually I have heard they can fly a little but not much.  But I digress.


    The first thing that I failed to understand at such a young age was that one member per family owns each holiday.  It is a simple fact but so true.  In asking family to come to MY Thanksgiving dinner I was violating this very important rule.  "But we always have Thanksgiving," was the instant reply. "Well this year we want to have you guys over so you won't have to do all that work," was my cheerful come back.  "But you have never done this before are you sure?"  Of course this triggered my defenses as in this person is telling me I can't pull this off!  "Yesssss I am sure," I seethed.  How hard could this be?


    I found that the physical work to make this happen was nothing compared to the emotional stamina I would need to make it through this one dinner.


    We didn't have much money back then and lived in a small apartment.  I quickly found that we also lacked many of the items necessary to create a big feast.  Like for example, a gravy boat.  Let's just say that gravy wasn't an important food staple to us in our day to day life thus we never had a reason to buy a vessel to contain it.  But on Thanksgiving gravy is pretty much second to the turkey.  Of course it was Thanksgiving Day when we discovered our lack of hidden gravy boats in our larder.  "WHAT WILL WE PUT THE GRAVY IN?" I groaned with the emphasis that only all caps can convey.  My fiance's solution was to use a milk glass bowl his grandmother gave him which had a little ladle to go with it.  I looked at this offering and knew that this was all wrong.  I didn't know much about gravy or gravy boats but I did have a gut feeling about how gravy should not be presented.  "It is either this or a cereal bowl," he reminded me.  I quietly acquiesced.


    Along with our lack of a gravy boat we were also not knowledgeable or wise in the ways of making coffee.  Neither one of us drank it, ever.  So we opted to simply offer soft drinks, wine, or tea.  The gravity of our mistake would last pretty much a lifetime.


    After a full day of preparation (we had both taken off the day before to cook, clean, decorate and move big heavy long tables we borrowed from a church into our apartment) everything was ready.  I looked at the table meticulously adorned with an autumn floral centerpiece and the Happy Thanksgiving banner above the fireplace and dreamed of the perfect dinner.  Our guests would be so thankful for this day with us, their gracious hosts.  Charlie Brown Christmas music played gently in the background.  And then my daydream was interrupted with the sound of the doorbell.  Family was here.

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    The comments came swiftly.  "Christmas music?  Turn on the game!"  "Do you have a better chair for mother, these chairs are going to be too hard for her to sit in."  "Well you certainly live within your means don't you?"  Whatever visions I had of some wonderful feast quickly dissipated.  One relative lit up a cigarette.  I gently whispered that my fiancé had asthma and could they smoke outside.  "You're kidding right?" was the reply as they continued to fill the room with smoke.  One relative came bearing a huge coffee maker which caused a cry of joy among the coffee drinkers.  "Well you knew they would not think to have coffee," which was said with a sneer. 


    We attempted to make conversation and keep things lively but quite often ran into the kitchen to huddle with one another.  One of our guests was late and we didn't know how long to delay things.  So we set out more appetizers.  "What is this I am eating?" bellowed one relative.  "It's a carrot.  A carrot stick. "   "How did you make these?" Feeling like we were part of some standup comedy routine we hid back in the kitchen.  "What are we going to do?" I whispered.  "My (unnamed relative who is always late) is almost two hours late!"  We could hear the conversation at the dinner table turning to complaints about us.  "I think we better bring out the turkey or we will have an angry mob on our hands." 


    We carried out the turkey and this is when the real fighting began.  Men like to fight over two things related to food, who will be in charge of the barbecue grill in the summer and who will carve the Thanksgiving turkey.  With at least several hands on the big carving knife I settled the squabble by threatening to throw the turkey out the window.  Of course this was the moment when the ever late relative arrives to make a grand entrance.  "Where have you been?" I hissed into her ear.  "I had some wine before I came over," she confessed. I dragged her into the kitchen, "So let me get this straight, you had to get a buzz in order to come to my dinner?"  "Yes that's it basically," she admitted.  All of a sudden I had sudden urge to beat her with a turkey leg.  "Go sit down and be a good guest," I reprimanded.


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    Then of course came the moment we came out with the milk bowl glass with tiny ladle full of gravy.  There was a gasp of shock from the grandmother who gave this bowl to us.  "It's filled with gravy!" she cried out in horror.  I stared daggers into my fiancé.  "Where is your gravy boat?" cried out several people at once.  The truth had come out publicly.  I was hosting a Thanksgiving dinner with no gravy boat.  Later our shame would be magnified when we carried out an old Tupperware container filled with sugar.


    That Christmas we received a coffee maker, gravy boat, and sugar bowl. 


    Holidays can be rough.  Families are not always supportive, functional or easy to get along with.  And having a big dinner with people you don't necessarily get along with to celebrate family togetherness can cause great stress and anxiety.  Here are some quick tips to get you through.

    • Tell yourself that this is one day out of the year. You are going to get through it. Think about the day after when you can relax.

    • Take the pressure off. There is no such thing as a perfect Thanksgiving or holiday. You don't need to cook a big dinner. Just like on the movie, "A Christmas Story," you can always go out for Chinese food.

    • There is an old saying from the 70's of "Don't let the Turkeys get you down." Picture your annoying relatives as squawking turkeys. They are going to say the things they always say. But you don't have to internalize the message.

    • Make a new holiday tradition for yourself so you have something to look forward to each year.

    • Do something on Thanksgiving or for the holidays which is meaningful to you. One year I worked at a soup kitchen for the holiday and that was one of the best Thanksgivings I have ever had. Have a mini celebration with friends and immediate loved ones. You have control over what you want to do and how you wish to celebrate.

    • If you can't stand to be with your relatives all at once then space out some individual visits over the week or even month.

    Remember that you call the shots.  You are in control of your life and you have that freedom to celebrate the holidays any way you wish.  Let go of the stress of creating family harmony.  You can't change other people.  You can only change yourself and how you react to life's circumstances.  So take this Thanksgiving and make it yours. 


    Have any Thanksgiving family stories to share?  How will you cope with the holidays this year?   We want to hear from you, the good, the bad and the ugly.  Sharing your life experiences can help someone else going through the same thing.

Published On: November 16, 2009