The holidays can be a hard time for everyone. The running around and making of magic can deplete anyone’s energy. I recently wrote a post about mental health and wellbeing during the holidays in which I reference the seven facets of mental wellbeing and how to balance them to have a safe, healthy holiday season. For some of us, the holidays negatively impact mental illness outside of those facets.
This post focuses on those of us with mental illnesses and how the season can make matters worse. Good mental health and wellness are important cornerstones for mental stability, but there are some reactions that are unique to those with mental illness that may not apply to the neurotypical.
Even as I write this the anxiety is building. So far, this post has taken longer to write than any other because it hits very close to home. But we are in this together and I am here to tell you that I am not alone, and neither are you. What follows is how the holiday season can adversely affect my mental illness, and what I do to cope. I hope it helps you, too, even if it is just to relate, and know that you are not on a solo journey.
Change in Routine
My mental illness requires a certain amount of routine if I want to stay as well as possible. Mostly, on a normal day, a routine is hard to keep. There is no telling how I will feel when I wake up on some mornings. Simple things like taking a shower and brushing my teeth, which are routine enough for someone without a mental illness, are difficult to keep up with.
I find myself having to make lists that have the most basic things on them: shower, brush and floss my teeth, groom my hair, etc. After that I may be daring and add something to the effect of doing laundry or cleaning the kitchen. On good days I can get enough done to my satisfaction. Sometimes, if I do something not on the list, I add it and check it off just to feel good. On my worst days I manage to roll out of bed and maybe make it to the couch.
The holidays come with a change in the norm. When I was working, I had my normal schedule, what I did when I got to the office in a certain order. The holidays came with holiday parties and potlucks that would disrupt my workday and cause an immense amount of anxiety. Even now that I do not work, the routine that me and my husband have is upset due to his work schedule changing and him not being home at the “usual” hours.
Many people can easily adapt to changes that seem minute. For me and my mental illness, it seems that my entire world is turned upside down. To battle this, I try very hard to only worry about the things that I can control, when I can control them. I remember the little lists. Even if I don’t have anything on it, if I take a shower, I add that achievement to the list, check it off, and create some semblance of normalcy in my day.
Cosmic Loneliness and Crippling Fears of Abandonment
Being lonely is a normal part of the human condition. For me, loneliness triggers deep fears of abandonment that have been ingrained in me since childhood. At some point in my life, I was left alone during a crucial period. Having a severe fear of real or imagined abandonment was one of the majors sypmtoms of my 19-year-old BPD diagnosis.
During the holidays, this negatively impacts my mental illness. People’s priorities change. They are here, there, and everywhere and it seems that they are here, there, everywhere else but with me. Something inside of myself gets triggered. Like I don’t matter anymore, maybe I don’t even exist…maybe they no longer exist.
You see, with some mental illnesses, when people leave for whatever reason, be it going to work for long periods of time, or going away to visit family, it is almost as if they do not exist anymore. This can lead to a feeling more than loneliness; it is cosmic loneliness. It’s almost as if I am floating around in the dark and isolated vacuum of the universe. This can trigger deep depression for me.
How do I deal? I am not afraid to use transitional objects and I first started doing this when my husband would go to work, leaving me home by myself for hours. I would take a stuffed animal (and no I am not ashamed that I still have a stuffed thing), and I would wrap it in one of his shirts. Somehow it reminded me that even though he wasn’t with me, he still exists.
Another thing in my box of tricks is, quite literally, a box. It is called my “stress tolerance box.” Inside this box I keep little things that make me feel connected to the world around me. I keep pictures and items that remind me of friends, loved ones, and things that I just love to be around. For instance, I love tea. It calms me. I have a tube of Darjeeling that I was gifted when I was in middle school after a loved one took a trip to London. Though there is no tea in it, it reminds me that I can enjoy a cup. I keep things gifted to me by my friends, reminding me that even if they are not with me, they are there for me and do care immensely. Some other items in the box are pictures and trinkets.
Crowds, My Social Anxiety and Paranoia
When I was working, I enjoyed having my “weekend” be in the middle of the week, like a Tuesday and Wednesday. I preferred this because I could go to my appointments and run errands in the blissful social emptiness of mid-morning on a random weekday. I absolutely abhor crowds. Now I even pick my groceries up and have someone do the shopping for me as my social anxiety and paranoia have worsened.
The holiday does not come without the hustle and bustle. People are just EVERYWHERE. The roads are crowded, the store parking lots are crowded, and heaven forbid I have to go into any department store. With my mental illness I have an irrational belief that people are watching me. Even though I know that this fear is “irrational,” it doesn’t matter much to how I feel. No matter where I go or what I do, be it going out to pick up my groceries, or sitting on my back porch, I cannot shake the feeling of being watched and judged.
Crowds mean more people, and for me that means more eyes, more eyes on me. Over the years I have learned to take a deep breath and keep telling myself that everyone is out, minding their own business, and that I am not being watched. The holidays still trigger that for me.
How do I deal? Thank the sweet lord for internet shopping! I am not saying that it is good to isolate but ordering the things I need without having to deal with the crowds is bliss. If I do have to go out, I usually have my husband go with me or find a buddy. It eases the stress. Sometimes, however, I do have to buckle down and rationalize my way out of my paranoia. At least long enough to get what I need to get done, done.
Unexpected Visitation, and I Don’t Mean Santa
As sweet as it can be, unexpected visitors want to come by and spread their holiday cheer. Like carolers demanding figgy pudding. What even is figgy pudding? A couple of years ago I had that dreaded knock on my door. I slowly opened it and was greeted by a whole ensemble complete with little song books and two guitarists. I didn’t know what to do with myself. As they sang, I stood there wondering if I should just close the door and turn off the porch light. No that would be rude. So, there I stood, frozen in a growing fear with this stupid, fake smile on my face.
I didn’t know when I was supposed to close the door. Do I tip them? Do I give them the “thank you” wave and say goodbye? This was a new situation for me so eventually I just kept smiling and nodding while I shut the door very slowly. Then immediately had a panic attack. My illness comes with delusions. I also began to wonder if someone had sent them to me as a joke. If someone knew I was sensitive to these things and was trying to be mean. I brushed that off eventually and took my PRN.
There is a caveat to holiday ordering, as well. That can be the incessant knocking on the door. It seems simple but this can negatively impact my mental illness. Due to my PTSD, my fight or flight response is all kinds of wonky. I have a mean startle reflex. Even when I am expecting a package, that knock on the door or the doorbell ringing while I am minding my own business triggers me. Luckily, these days we have no-contact delivery. Mostly I choose that option. Leave it at the door, and text me when it has arrived. I do have to keep an eye on my texts and emails because, you know, porch pirating.
Food Everywhere and My Body Dysmorphia
During the holidays there is food flying at me from every direction and this impacts my mental illness negatively. I have a bad relationship with food as I mentioned in my post on Tips to Survive Thanksgiving with an Eating Disorder. Thanksgiving may be over, but it applies to the rest of the holiday season as well.
Mostly I try to eat everything in moderation, not minding a diet, especially during this time of the year. I do find myself, however, looking at myself in the mirror more often. Pictures are being taken; parties are going on. I become very concerned with my appearance. I am incredibly hard on myself. If not for my weight, it’s my skin, it’s my hair, etc. I just don’t feel like I ever look good enough or right. This dysmorphic tendency does make me want to control my food, and this can spiral into something much larger than anticipated.
During this time of year, or really any time I am making an appearance, I try not to spend too much time in the mirror. I put on my makeup and make sure my clothes aren’t on inside-out. I give myself a compliment and move on.
Mental Illness Exacerbation Due to Expectations From a Narcissistic Family Unit
This subject is fresh for me. I am writing this first and inserting it next to last. This year is my first year divorced from my bio-family. It is one of the most profound ways that the holidays impact my mental illness. It seems that getting older and doing the right kind of therapy only made me realize what a huge part of my trauma my family has been. From almost day one until my 30’s I was at every point some mixture mentally, psychologically, physically, and sexually abused by my parents. This is the first year that I decided to say “no” to sitting around the dinner table and pretending like nothing ever happened like the “good daughter” I have been expected to portray.
As charmed as my life was, it was full of abuse. I realized that my severe mental illness did not develop because of one incident here or there with a bad babysitter but was from the pervasive and severe abuse from my family throughout my lifetime. There will be a post in the future dedicated to estrangement from narcissistic family units, but for today it is all about the holidays and how this factor makes my illness worse.
Even though breaking free was the right thing to do, that trauma bond is a real thing. I am doing what I need to do to nurse my mental illness, but the ingrained expectations of my family still loom over me. This adds extra anxiety to the season. It harps on the feeling of abandonment and loneliness I felt when I was with them, and the twisted sense of both I feel without them. This is because, even if a situation was abusive, it was all I knew.
This holiday season is embarking into the unknown for me. I have filled my life with my chosen family and that has eased the pain. Friendsgiving was a roaring success and, honestly, the best Thanksgiving I have ever had. I will be moving on to a “Friendsmas” celebration and going into the new year, just me, my husband, and our close friendships. As healthy as the move has been, it has caused dissociation at some points on top of the anxiety. Just the idea of the holidays is so intertwined with my narcissistic family unit. The lights, the sounds, the smells– all the triggers.
This year I am replacing bad memories with new, healthy, and joyous ones. If you are in a similar situation, I hope you can find joy in the season as well
Stress can not only make me anxious, but trigger my psychosis
With all these triggers—changes in routine, anxiety, paranoia, dysmorphia and my family, the worst of the worst can happen. I have been fighting it this whole season thus far and sometimes have succumbed to it for a few days to a week at a time. This is the symptom of psychosis.
Psychosis is a symptom not a diagnosis. It is the worst symptom I tend to have with my schizoaffective disorder and my dissociative identity disorder. The weight of the holidays can send my mind into overdrive, trying to compensate for the chaos around me. The result is my delusions coming back in full force. It starts as an idea, like something I would write in a fantasy novel. Then the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred as the stress piles on.
My DID goes haywire as my alters, who are fractured parts of myself, try to “help” by taking over. The result can be a total cluster of dissociation, fatigue, brain fog, inconsistency of character, and actual bodily response of pain in my head and muscle weakness. Psychosis requires bed rest, which puts a damper on the things I want to participate in for the sake of holiday spirit.
What I must do for myself is take it easy. I must separate my triggers and deal with them one at a time. If I try to take them all on a at once, psychosis can set in, get worse, and last longer.
The holiday season can be just as much stressful as it is joyous. It is important to mind your mental health in general. There is no reason to put yourself into psychic danger for any reason. For those of us with mental illness, it is incredibly important to mind our symptoms. A good thing to do, first, is identify your symptoms and how they will affect you. This way when the holidays come at you with the unwanted stress that can trigger your illness, you have an action plan.
If you are reading this and you relate, you know now that you are not alone in this. And if you are reading this and have never considered the impact of the holidays on mental illness, perhaps you have learned something. You may have a family member, friend, or coworker that needs extra support. Do not assume that someone that seems ok is having a season that is a bowl full of cherries. A cornerstone of the holidays is a love of humanity. Please, be kind and gentle. You never know what others are going through.