Sometimes holidays can be difficult, especially living with mental illness.
|On the Fourth of July, Americans celebrate their Independence Day. Usually we do this by grilling cheeseburgers, drinking beer, and blowing things up. It's just a single day, but like any holiday, it can be stressful. If you're cooking or hosting people at your house, it gets even more stressful.
Now, let me be clear: I really enjoy cooking great food and trying out new recipes. This year I tried out a grilled zucchini and leek salad-- lighter than mayonnaise-based coleslaw or potato salad with a lemon-and-olive-oil dressing-- from a recipe found in Bon Apetit magazine. It's delicious and healthy, which is important because good nutrition can help prevent certain symptoms, and with so many medications causing weight gain, eating healthy can stem that a bit. (Though exercise helps even more, and has the added bonus of giving a great surge of endorphins.)
On the down side, sometimes cooking can be stressful. I come from a large family, and several of the (male) members of the family have a habit of standing in the middle of the small kitchen watching me cook and being very much in the way. Usually I jokingly threaten them with a wooden spoon, but sometimes, if I'm hypomanic (low-grade mania) or in a mixed state, the irritation makes me snap, "Get the hell out of my kitchen!" This is just one example, but there are many other factors that make cooking stressful: if you're missing an ingredient, trying to time everything, making sure things come out well (spend too much time mixing the salad dressing and your meat could burn).
Cooking isn't the only thing that can be stressful, either. Interacting with people can often be one of the most difficult parts of our lives when living with mental illness. There are so many stigmas to overcome, and as I have discussed before, many people simply lack the desire to educate themselves or the compassion to offer any form of support to us.
Even at a party where people are friendly and conversation is enjoyable, chances are good that people are drinking alcohol, sometimes in massive quantities with the specific goal of getting drunk. Those of us actively trying to treat our illnesses know that we really should not drink. Many people take a non-drinker as someone who is going to judge them, or somehow seem affronted by a person abstaining. Some can be frankly quite aggressive about demanding to know why you don't drink. Guess what? It's none of their business, and you are perfectly entitled to inform them of that, though I obviously recommend you do so politely.
Those of us who have bipolar disorder know how wildly different parties and social gatherings can be. When we're up or manic, we tend to be the life of the party, able to carry on multiple conversations at once, full of energy, and ready to take risks. There is also the element of being eager to try new (or familiar) substances, from alcohol to street drugs, and promiscuity is another common symptom of manic phases in particular.
Conversely, when we're down or depressed, a party can be excruciating to endure. The noise of happy people who don't care how you feel grates on your nerves, those people invariably start ignoring you or even gossiping about how you're "such a buzzkill" or "so dramatic," and all you want to do is get out of there and go hide in your bed for a few days or even weeks. Going to a party when you feel depressed can be even more lonely and painful than staying home sometimes.
This year, I kept things simple and low-key. My family and I had burgers with a few classic sides (potato salad, beans, regular salad) and some new and exciting things like smoked brie and those grilled vegetables I mentioned above. My father and brother handled the grilling, and I made the potato salad two hours early so I wouldn't be multitasking too much. We didn't bother with fireworks; instead we settled in for a movie.
I am very lucky, as I've said before, to have a family who is so supportive of me, but I know that there are many others who do not have that. Many people have family members who are judgmental of our illness or simply do not understand what we're going through, and despite their best intentions, actually make us feel worse. This can make holidays even more stressful, especially if you feel obligated to spend time with family on any holiday.
My piece "What Will You Do if I Think Out of Tune?" is about the importance of understanding, accepting, and communicating that those of us with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder think in a fundamentally different way from those who do not suffer from mental illness. However, I must also acknowledge that there are some people who will not accept this, and who will continue the patterns of behavior that hurt us.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a good and loving family, and even those of us who do sometimes have families that do not understand or know how to show support. If you fall into either category, there is absolutely nothing wrong with keeping a bit of distance. Picking and choosing what holidays to spend with family (for example, deciding to go to Thanksgiving but not Christmas, or vice versa) could help immensely to reduce the pressure. There is also the option of making your own family-- friends who are supportive, significant others, members of one's church, or others with mental illness from support groups might be better for you to be around, especially during a time of year that should be joyous.
Figuring out what causes you stress is a big part of treatment for bipolar disorder in particular. Once you've identified the things that stress you out, the best thing to do is to avoid them. Maybe we can't avoid our families forever, or shopping for gifts, cooking, and cleaning, but we can always take steps to minimize the stress. If you hate malls and crowded stores as much as I do, start shopping early or do your shopping online. If cooking drives you up a wall, ask someone else to be your sous chef (or offer to be their sous chef and let them take charge of the lion's share), make whatever you can ahead of time, or even go out to a restaurant.
We have more than enough to deal with in our own heads, and holidays are meant to be a happy occasion. Just because we suffer from mental illnesses, it doesn't mean that we should have to endure holidays instead of enjoying them. So I wish all of you who read this a very happy and safe Fourth of July weekend with a minimum of stress.