Happy Holidays

by Christina Bruni Patient Expert

Three years ago on Thanksgiving my mother said something to me that set me off. Though I forget what it was, I remember that the comment triggered in me a long-buried feeling: "Nothing I do is ever good enough for her."

For all of us, even an ordinary dinner can expose hidden family dramas. One night, about four years ago, we ordered in Chinese food, and I ventured to try the noodle soup. Only I wanted less liquid, so I carefully managed to pour more noodles into my bowl. This provoked my mother, five minutes later, to take the container and pour the rest of the soup in my bowl.

It angered me. Why couldn't she let me enjoy the soup the way I wanted to? Later that night, back at my apartment, I screamed so loud the windows shook.

Imagine that scene turbo-charged with turkey and all the trimmings. Why exactly are the holidays, so often hell-idays, events when emotions run high? One take I have is that those of us with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, who get depressed when the days are shorter and darker, are naturally more sensitive at this time of year.

On top of that, unrealistic expectations abound. We're supposed to be cheerful. We're supposed to set aside our feelings and put on smile-y faces for the occasion(s).

What happens if we've just gotten out of the hospital, or are in the hospital during the holiday season? We need to be assertive and set limits on how other people can encroach on us. This is easier said than done. Is it possible people with schizophrenia lack the confidence to stand up for our rights?

Before I tell you what to say, I'll read you your Holiday Bill of Rights:

  1. You have the right to be a quiet observer and not a rowdy participant.

  2. You have the right to set a time limit on your involvement, say, an hour, and revise it if the hour passes and you're enjoying yourself.

  3. You have the right not to join everyone in the eggnog, champagne, or other alcoholic beverages.

  4. You have the right to opt out of going if you feel you you'll be overwhelmed.

  5. You have the right to be frugal and not spend a lot of money on gifts or go into credit card debt to buy them.

Now, if you are in the hospital and somehow reading this, I wish you a safe, peaceful and calm stay. If you've just gotten out of the hospital, I wish you the courage to brave the holidays with as much cheer as you can muster. The years to come will be good to you if you stay on your meds. Do things that boost your self-awareness and give you insight into where your comfort zone begins and ends. Knowing this makes even an ordinary day workable.

Here I'll give you suggestions as to what you can say to deflect well-intentioned, if not outright rude or nosy, comments. First, if someone asks, "Are you okay? You seem quiet." you can respond, "Thanks for asking. I'm enjoying myself. And how are you?"

If you want to set a time limit, you don't need to give an excuse. Simply say, "I want to make it an early night." If pressed, you could perhaps add, "I'm sorry, I have to wrap some gifts/want to call some relatives I can't see in person/have to feed the cat/walk the dog."

I don't recommend opting out if you've just gotten out of the hospital and would be dining alone. Set a time limit instead. You have nothing to be ashamed of and if someone mentions what happened, or seems to sense something has happened, try changing your perceptions of their comments. You can choose to see it as an attack, but chances are the person is at a loss for the right words. Put him at ease by saying, "It's okay, I'm doing okay, you're kind to ask."

Some advice if you decide to opt out: a lot of us prefer to celebrate with our "family of choice," not our birth family. That's perfectly fine. Or perhaps you want to stay home and do nothing. If this is the case, tell your mother or whoever that you'll call her after dinner to talk for a bit. Let her know it's okay to call you to check in. If you have no one to celebrate with, you could maybe tape episodes of a cheerful talk show, like Rachael Ray, and have a video marathon. Or you could call up a warmline to chat for a few minutes.

As to your right to be frugal, I suggest buying something at a thrift shop, or having a "secret santa" where you put everyone's name in a hat, and each of you chooses one person to buy a gift for. Maybe you could knit a sweater or make jewelry or bake a cake for someone, a perfectly acceptable loving touch if you're on a limited income.

Now, I want to talk about that other holiday: New Year's Eve. I was a lonely teenager without many friends, so on this night I usually baby sat the neighbor's kids or stayed up late watching a T.V. movie. As I got older, and made new friendships, I'd generally go to parties and a couple times I hosted my own get-togethers.

I will tell you how I know, without a doubt, that life gets better and it pays to hang in there. My darkest night was when I'd just gotten out of the hospital in 1987, and I felt I needed a boost so held a New Year's Eve party. After everyone left, it was 6 a.m. and I stood at the kitchen sink washing the pots and pans. It was the lowest I ever felt. Tears rolled down my face uncontrollably. I thought my life had ended. I felt I couldn't go on.

Those friends at the party I would rarely see in the coming years. It was as if I had invited them over to convince myself things would stay the same. Have you ever been that depressed? You feel what you feel and mourn and slowly move on. I'm sorry, I wish I could tell you everything will be the same after you get out of the hospital. It won't. I was a changed person, washing and scrubbing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window onto the silent, empty world.

Somehow, I kept going. What if there's a part of you that feels there's no hope, and you're ready to give up? Or maybe you have the energy that gives you the idea to act now on a plan? You know what I'm saying. If there's a tiny light going off, if you recognize that you need help, call the crisis hotline at 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255).

If not you, it could be someone you know who is hurting or has expressed this desire. A "cry for help" is only that - a cry for help - unless a person acts on it. As soon as someone you know makes a threat or hints at one, even if it's only to say, "I'd rather be dead," take her seriously and offer to drive her to a therapist or psychiatrist.

With all this ending on a note of gloom, I'd like to bring the focus back to a happy and healthy outlook. Next week I'll get a head start and write about New Year's resolutions: making them and keeping them.

For now, I'll leave you with my "wish list" for Christmas:

  1. Peace on earth (one can hope).

  2. Health insurance for all men, women and children living in America.

  3. An end to war.

  4. A vaccine for schizophrenia.

  5. Perhaps a product(RED) tee shirt in my stocking.
    (I already have one, but the more the merrier. The proceeds of the sales go directly to help people in Africa living with AIDS.)

To all of you I send good cheer

God bless,


Chris's Pointer:

Two non-profits devote their talents and resources to combating suicide:

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) can be reached toll-free at (888) 333-AFSP (2377). Log on to their web site at http://www.afsp.org/. The AFSP "is the only national not-for-profit organization exclusively dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research and education, and to reaching out to people with mood disorders and those affected by suicide."

The Rita Project can be contacted at (866) 775-RITA (7482). Rita is Sanskrit for truth, and their web site, http://www.ritaproject.org/, lists their mission as: "devoted to using the arts to help survivors of suicide connect with the power of creation, and, in doing so, foster transformation."

Christina Bruni
Meet Our Writer
Christina Bruni

Christina Bruni wrote about schizophrenia for HealthCentral as a Patient Expert. She is a mental health activist and freelance journalist.