Holiday Horrors – Dealing with the Holidays

The holidays, they are fast approaching; bringing with them hoards of estranged relatives, expenses you cannot bear, and far too many opportunities for a person to overindulge in intoxicating substances and all around stupid behavior.  This time of year can send even the most stable of us teetering on the edge of sanity. So, how can a manic depressive sufferer best deal with the onslaught of holiday madness without having to munch his/her way through a sizable prescription of benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety drugs) or check into a nearby psyche ward?  Hmm.  Good question.

Over the years, as a bipolar sufferer, I have been in and out of hospitals and other psychiatric institutions during all seasons of the year.  But, I think the loneliest, the one time that impacted me the most, was the time I was institutionalized over Christmas.  It was then I learned that during the holiday season suicide rates and deaths from overdoses go up significantly.   I don’t know why, I guess it is because peoples’ expectations of life seem to balloon up to impossible states of probability during the holidays.  People have this illusion that this time of year some how encapsulates a separate surreal dimension that exists on a different plane from the rest of the year.  They believe that the “magic of Christmas” will cause family feuds to end, lotteries to be won, homes to be saved from the bank, lost dogs to be found, or divorced parents to reunite.  I don’t mean to sound cruel or callous, but, sadly, this is the unfortunate misconception many people have.

In fact, Christmas can be quite a painful and stressful time of year.  For many people it is a yearly reminder of all the misery their life contains.  For example, many people, already pushed to the brink of financial crisis, further subject themselves to even more monetary difficulties by over spending, buying gifts for family and friends, hoping that the money will inexplicably appear in the New Year.  Then, for some, there is the reminder of the loss of close ties with people who are of importance in their life.  You see, Christmas is the time of year when many people reflect on family relationships and close binding friendships.  For people who have lost those close ties or bonds, Christmas can be especially painfully lean times emotionally.  Or, the holiday season can be a form of yearly punishment if you must attend gatherings and occasions during which you must mingle with estranged relations.  It is the one time of year when it is obligatory for a person to get together with his/her family whether it is a healthy undertaking or emotionally heart wrenching due to strained relations. People further complicate the host of holiday horrors by increasing the pressures and stresses they, in truth cannot bear, by overloading their schedule of events and taking on duties that seem to be part and parcel of the holiday season.  It sometimes feels like once December 1st hits life takes on the sensation of a rollercoaster ride that just doesn’t quit until January 2nd.  And during this rat race of hiddle diddle, here and there, many people feel it necessary to indulge in intoxicating substances, like alcohol or drugs, when they attend parties or go out to celebrate the season.  It’s Christmas, why not ring in the season with a warm fuzzy feeling of “good will”.  But, for many of us, where do the boundaries between “good will” and “Someone, please, take this person home” exist?  Some people turn to these substances because they feel an intensified discontent exasperated by the Christmas hoopla.Now, you might be thinking, Tatty, what is your humbug scrooge-a-listic problem?  Are you the biggest Scroogemeister or what?  That was the most depressing summation of Christmas that I have ever read since Charles Dickens drew his last breath.  What is your hang-up?  Well, I apologize for the few moments of down time.  But, I truly believe that the aforementioned text describes all too familiar and unfortunate situations many bipolar sufferers find themselves in during the holiday season.  Due to the extremely intricate nature of bipolar personalities, the problems I spoke of typically rear their ugly heads in our lives in some shape or form.  So, it would be in the best interest of us all if we were to figure out some game plan with which to sidestep the worst of the holiday horrors and alleviate most of our stress.  So, let us mull this around our heads awhile. I can hear the gears spinning out there the land of internet space.All right, first let us start with the expenses and money issues.  Many bipolar people have financial issues already plaguing them before Christmas even looms on the horizon.  This makes it difficult, especially if the bipolar sufferer is a parent of young children.  Not only are the parents responsible for the gifts, but also the tree, the treats, and the family Christmas dinner.  If the person is on disability, or low income, the costs can be insurmountable.  Yet, despite the mounting bills, these people will move Heaven and Earth to provide for their family.  Amazing. Here are some tips on how to alleviate some of that stress and grief over expenses:

  • During the year, every month, buy a $25.00 (or whatever you can afford) gift certificate from your local grocery store that you shop in.  Keep it in a safe place at home.  Then when Christmas rolls around you will have all those certificates you have saved to use for your holidays.++
  • Establish a monetary limit with your children on the gifts they will receive on Christmas day.  Tell them how much you can afford and what is reasonable to expect at least 4-5 months before Christmas and remind them of it 2 months beforehand.  Be firm.  I know it is hard, to look in their faces and not want to disappoint, but remember you only have what your finances can afford, nothing more.
  • Shop around throughout the year and comparison shop, you would be surprised the deals you can get on products if you take the time to search for them.  Hunt for sales, fliers, even second hand shops, antique stores, and dollar stores.  This year I searched through the dollar stores in my local area and was able to purchase silk flowers for a fraction of the price of what they would have been in a brand name store.  They were pretty and when I arranged them, no one knew where they came from.  I gave the arrangement to my grandmother as an early Christmas present. She loved it and will be able to set it out for many Christmas’s to come.  The bonus?  I felt a great sense of accomplishment.
  • Homemade gifts are nothing to sniff at.  Many meaningful gifts are given that have been handmade by the giver.  If you are skilled at a craft or are an artist don’t hide your light under a bushel.  These gifts may become cherished family heirlooms..
  • Make up a Christmas Budget at least six months in advance.  Factor in all the bills that will be due, the expenses of the holidays, how much you intend to spend in certain areas and then figure in an additional category for unseen expenditures. Once you have written in all the expenses, now try to forecast how well you can put aside assets and save for the holidays.  Give yourself an idea of how much money you will be working with.  When you are able to determine how much money you will have to spend on the different expenses, decide what the most important areas of expenditure are and where you want your money to go.  Then stick to your plans and follow your budget.
  • My husband and I stock up on frozen foods earlier in the year, about two months before December to stave off some of the expenses of holiday meals.  Frozen foods can be quite economical and can last for months in the freezer, so you can buy them when you have a little extra money on hand and stock up.  Their flavor is the same as fresh and they are just as nutritious.  We have even bought the turkey a few months ahead when we had the extra money knowing once Christmas came around it would be impossible to afford.  And don’t buy a large turkey if you are not feeding an army.  In fact, don’t buy a turkey at all.  Buy a small turkey loaf.  Some stores now sell small turkey loaves that are stuffed with stuffing.  They are perfect for a small family, they taste wonderful, and you can still have a little left over.
  • Consider starting up a cookie swap with a group of friends.  It cuts down on the cost of making a huge assortment of cookies and the work involved in baking them as well.  My friend has a large family.  She has all together, eight sisters and sisters-in-law.  What they do every year is get together and each swap a dozen cookies with every member of the group.  In this way, every person walks away with eight dozen of cookies, each dozen a different assortment.  So, every person bakes eight dozen of their allotted cookie flavor, then she trades a dozen of hers for a dozen of another person’s other flavor.  Everybody wins.
  • If you are hosting a large family gathering and providing the meal, you may want to consider lowering the stress of preparing the food and the costs by requesting it be a potluck style event.  You may even appoint different family members to bring certain parts of the meal, entrée, dessert, drinks, etc.
  • Try not to host more than one or two main meals or events per holiday season.
  • Baking from scratch can be very expensive.  I was surprised last year when I decided to make everything on my own just how much it all added up.  If you love to bake and want to put in the effort, make a concerted effort to budget for the expenses.  It should almost be considered a luxury expense because a lot of what a person bakes can almost be bought cheaper in a local bakery than made at home. Now, let me explain myself, I am talking about the cost of quality baking chocolate, Vanilla beans, or real Vanilla extract, etc.  It is a good idea to choose a few really spectacular recipes, like one or two special Christmas cakes or cheesecakes, and then make a few of the more less expensive recipes, like cookies that don’t have elaborate ingredients, like shortbread.
  • When asked to bring food yourself, if you are on a strict budget, offer to bring food that does not break the bank to put together, like veggie dishes.
  • If it is a particularly dry year financially consider arranging with the adults of your family/extended family that it will be a giftless Christmas.  Gifts will still be exchanged for children, but the adults will be opting out this year.  They are big boys and girls; they should be able to understand.  When my family decided to do this the last two years there was a sizable sigh of relief from everyone concerned.  It takes a lot of pressure off and you can actually enjoy the gathering more without all the stress of gift giving.
  • Obligatory gifts:  These are gifts that you are expected to give to people such as your secretary, your boss, your child’s piano teacher, your son’s hockey coach, etc. These gifts can add up and it can be frustrating to see money going to waste purchasing cheesy or unappreciated gifts that the person doesn’t want or will never use anyway.  You wonder just how many boxes of hockey puck shaped chocolates that poor coach has to choke down or how many ceramic mugs with kittens pictured huddled together on them does your secretary donate to good will every New Year. A good way to solve this problem is to consider giving teachers, coaches, and tutors, homemade gifts like: baking, a knitted scarf or mittens, a simple pair of thick felt slippers (patterns to be found in any fabric store),  A coach would appreciate a small pocket photo album filled with snapshots of his team taken throughout the year, a teacher might appreciate a ceramic mug with her present classes’ picture on it, a handmade Christmas ornament, a music teacher’s favorite music burned onto a CD just for her.

What I would do if I had several of these obligations I would donate $50.00 to a local charity of my choice.  Then for each person I would give a Christmas card that informed them I had donated $5.00 or $10.00 in their name to a specified charity. When it came to my boss I would give him a Christmas card in which I informed him I had donated $25.00 in his name to a specified charity of my choice.  It would include any brochures or literature provided by charity itself allowing him/her to learn more of where and what the money was going to be used for.  At least in this way, you know that your money is not being wasted on a meaningless gift and the receiver feels included in your act of charitable giving, making him/her feel good about themselves.

  • Christmas trees are getting more and more expensive every year, the real ones I mean.  Now, there is something to be said for the wonderful scent a true pine tree leaves throughout your house.  It looks beautiful and it really brings out the Christmas spirit in everyone.  You may wish to take the time to drag the family out to the local tree farms and cut one down yourself.  It does cut down on the cost, and you are certain to get the one you want, provided there are not too many arguments in the field.  I have a very close friend who happens to have three wonderful children and every year they go out to choose a tree, Armageddon breaks out.  So they have actually had to create a written agreement in which states which child can choose the family tree each year.  A way of circumventing the cost of a real tree every year is to invest in an artificial one one year when you have a little extra cash.  I know that an artificial one is not the same as a real one, but after the first two Christmas’s it has paid for itself and it is free from then on.  That means whatever you used to budget for a tree before in the old days can now go to some other more well-deserving area of expense.  Do you see what I mean?  You can get a rather nice looking artificial tree now a-days with lights already attached, for a fairly reasonable price.
  • Sometimes we have very demanding relations who feel it is essential that they receive gifts.  These people obviously have no sympathy for others who may be in dire financial troubles nor do they know the true spirit of the holidays.  What do you do with these characters?  Well, this is what I do.  I give them a gift that allows me to postpone any expenses on my part until I am able to afford them.  It is a gift that gives the illusion of WOW power and the idea that this person is special, but still allows me full control over how and when it is redeemed.  What I do is print up on my computer a very fancy coupon or certificate (one that looks real).  The certificate promises the holder a lunch at a certain restaurant with me on an appropriate date, or a coffee date, or a shopping trip during which I will treat the holder to a manicure.  You can make the certificate or coupon say anything you want.  The point is this is a way of deferring the expense of their gift to a time of the year when you may have some extra money to spend on them.  It may also be a way of promising a special favor like dying their hair for them, or doing their nails, or cleaning their house, or some other task that could be free for you, but deeply appreciated by them.
  • When it comes to decorations, stop, and think, before you run out and buy a lot of stuff that you could easily have made.  There are thousands of magazines and websites out there that have piles of ideas telling a person how to make Christmas decorations, from wreaths to ornaments.  You don’t even have to buy a lot of the supplies from craft stores.  You can get the supplies for wreaths right out of your own backyard or if you drive fifteen minutes out of the city limits.  I even scrounge around second hand stores to find old wreaths that may have odd bits and pieces I can use. Second hand stores can have some really cool old Christmas ornaments that are now being sold in major stores for double the price.  Ever since my son was born I have made our tree ornaments every year.  I make five or six of an ornament each year; it has been ten years now.  Our tree is like a record of our lives.  My son loves them and gets very angry when I talk about replacing them.  Most of these ornaments cost me $3.00 to make, if not less.  If all you can make is a bow, the tree will still look beautiful.  Let the children make decorations too, it is their tree too.  Popcorn strings and candy canes, Christmas lights and paper dolls or stars, cut outs of old Christmas cards with glitter sprinkled on, even these can make magic in a small child’s heart.
  • There are charitable organizations that will help families in need during the holiday season.  They will provide food and some small gifts for the children.  If your family is such dire circumstances don’t be too proud to approach these organizations.  They are there because they care; they are not there to shame.  The very first Christmas of my son’s life I reached out to one of these organizations.  They were exceptionally generous and kind and I will be forever grateful for their help.
  • If you are traveling make sure you factor into your expenses not only the cost of the flight or travel, but also the costs you will incur while at your destination.  You will be visiting family and may be obligated to foot the bill for some of the holiday expenses, as well as pay your way during family outings. You will also wish to have some spending money.  Before your trip make sure you create a travel budget, and plot out your financial plans for your vacation.  Don’t be caught by surprise by any unexpected expenditures.  Make sure your travel agent notifies you of all expenses you will be expected to pay out along the way, such as airport taxes, etc. so you can budget for them.

The next topic I would like to broach is that of family gatherings and other occasions.  I have the most trouble with these.  Over the years I have had to attend many gatherings and occasions during which I have had to interact with people I have had strained relations with.  It has been hard.  I don’t look forward to these times, but for certain family member’s sakes I oblige and attend.  So, how do I deal with this issue?

  • Don’t volunteer to do vast amounts of duties over the holidays.  You can offer to do what you can manage, but don’t overextend yourself.  Don’t allow yourself to get roped into having parties or gatherings at your own home if you can not handle it; put your foot down and say you are not well.  Save your precious spare time for the important things like attending the kid’s Christmas concerts and such.
  • If you do end up having the main family gathering at your home, learn how to delegate.  Enlist helpers, ask others to pitch in and help you.
  • Do not allow yourself to be the only person preparing the food for your family’s Christmas gathering; that is unfair and unrealistic.
  • Some of the food preparation can be done some days in advance and frozen until the day of the celebration.  This can make the day of the gathering less hectic in the kitchen and food preparation simpler.
  • If you wish to go to a big classy effort and use your best china, go right ahead.  But, if you are hosting a large family gathering you may want to lessen the clean up afterward by using pretty paper plates.
  • If family issues flare up while you are in attendance of one of your family gatherings it is in your best interest to make an inconspicuous and hasty retreat.  Just leave.  It will do your mental health no good to witness family strife that you have no control over and cannot change.  Do not become involved as a mediator or take sides; you will end up emotionally scarred in the end.  Go home.
  • If certain people insist on harping on uncomfortable conversational topics don’t get upset or start to hyperventilate, just get up and leave the room.  Go to the kitchen and help cut up veggies for the salad.
  • If you are really having a difficult time managing your anxiety and stress levels to the point that you are becoming agitated get someone to take you home.  Don’t torture yourself, get home and snuggle under the covers in bed where you feel safe.
  • When at gatherings don’t engage in conversations with people who are antagonistic or argumentative with you.  If they approach you and aggressively force you into conversation find a way to involve a neutral third party to diffuse the situation.  Or, excuse yourself politely and leave the room for a more populated area.
  • Surround yourself at the gathering or occasion with positive people, stay in a group of people you know will keep the conversation light and will protect you from aggressive confrontations.
  • Try to avoid alcohol, bring your own drinks that are non-alcoholic, pour them yourself to make sure they do not accidentally get mixed up with other drinks.
  • Around the 1st of December make sure you create a schedule of all the gatherings and events that you will be expected to attend.  Try to make sure that you don’t have more than one (two is pushing it) on the same day.  You will also be able to decide which ones would be inappropriate for you to attend, giving you enough time to politely decline the invitation.  Schedule the amount of parties, gatherings, and occasions that you can handle in a healthy stable manner.  Not as many as you can feasibly cram into your schedule.  You must be honest with yourself, be kind to your emotional inner self, how much can you truly manage to cope with.
  • Learn how to say “no” to people.
  • When you are at a gathering, occasion, or party and the stress gets too much for you to manage find a “safe room”.  A place in the building where there are few people and it is quiet, where you won’t be disturbed by many people or further stressed.  Usually this room ends up being where the smallest children are quietly enraptured by a movie, taking a nap, or the coats are heaved onto the bed.  Sometimes I have locked myself into an out of the way bathroom and sat on the floor with my head between my knees.
  • Find out ahead of time what the expectations are for certain occasions or gatherings. Are you meant to bring a dish of food, are you expected to bring gifts (for everyone or just the children), is this a formal or informal dress engagement, is it a cocktail party or a dinner?  Also find out who is going to be in attendance so that you can prepare ahead of time if there may be a person you have issues with and is going to be there.
  • If you know that you are a substance abuser it may be in your best interest to avoid as many cocktail parties and work related parties as possible.  These events tend to cater to drinking and that sort of mentality.  If you must attend these occasions try to bring your own sealed drinks and let close work associates know that you do not drink alcohol because of medication complications.  Ask them to look out for you as much as possible and try to leave the party early before the drunks come out to wreak havoc and get pushy about sharing the fun.
  •  Some miscellaneous tips and advice for managing the holidays: ·        Try to force yourself to get enough sleep, don’t allow yourself to over extend your waking hours to the point that you become sleep deprived.  You may become involved in a very entertaining conversation with relatives that you quickly become aware of will continue well beyond your normal bedtime hours.  It is important that you realize keeping a regular sleep routine is fundamentally important to your mental health stability.  It is alright to stay up one night in a while, but make sure it does not become the routine while you are visiting with relatives or celebrating the holidays.  The holiday season, as I have noted in the beginning of this text, has some of unrealistic presumptions and a deep felt desires to make magic happen.  This is precisely why beginning a new relationship during the Christmas season is not the soundest idea.  You may find yourself sorely disappointed once the afterglow of the season wears off.  If cooking and baking is a powerful therapeutic activity for you, a stress reliever, go ahead and go to town.
  • Caffeine is all right in moderation, but try to avoid ingesting large amounts of it. During the holidays there is a bonanza of caffeine laced concoctions and it is extremely easy to overdo it.  Coffee and foods like chocolate or confections with cocoa in them should be eaten with a reminder that too much caffeine can cause benzodiazepines and other medications not to work as effectively.
  •  It is important to prepare yourself emotionally before hand to be ready for the onslaught of the worst the holidays can throw at you.  If you know that you are prone to panic attacks ask your psychiatrist for a prescription of benzodiazepines for the month of December.  Schedule more frequent visits, if possible, with your psychiatrist and therapist during the month of December.  Prepare your family for the possibility that you may need hospitalization if the stress and fatigue gets to an unbearable level.  If you know that family gatherings and other occasions cause you extreme stress let your family know; give yourself an escape clause. Go into the season with the knowledge that you are a bipolar person, you are emotionally handicapped, and should be treated as such.
  • Learn to say “no”
  • Do not lose track of your medications, never allow yourself to renege on your medication regimen because the holiday season has made you too busy, too tired, or you were having too much fun to remember.
  • Pace yourself.  Remember that Christmas is a season, a whole month to prepare and celebrate.  You don’t have to do everything in one day.
  • Set limitations on what you are able to deal with emotionally and what is unacceptable.  Make sure your family understands these boundaries and respects them.

All in all, I want to say that the Holiday Season can be a wonderful time of year.  I want everyone to enjoy their Christmas and know that I wish you all the best in the New Year. This section was written as a means of helping those who need some direction in their holiday madness, some advice.  But truly I see this time of year as a special moments to spend with my husband and son and to cherish the wonderful blessings I enjoy from year to year.

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