Holidays are Challenging for the Mentally Ill

by Tammy Potts O'Kelley

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            The holiday season is once again upon us. Do you feel the tremendous pressure and strain of dealing with “the most wonderful time” of the year? As a 14-year survivor of BiPolar Disorder, I feel your pain! For many, the holiday season truly is a wonderful time of gathering with friends and family, attending Christmas Cantatas, as well as endless decorating and cooking. But for those of us suffering with mental illness, it could be dubbed “the most stressful time” of the year. So what are we to do?

            I have found that making a few simple adjustments in my care have helped me to survive the holidays and even gain some enjoyment out of the endless parties and festivities. These are simple yet important steps that may be the difference between joy and misery.

            First, make an appointment to see your psychiatrist/therapist sometime shortly before Thanksgiving. This is a great time to discuss how you are feeling prior to the holidays. You may also want to schedule any routine blood level tests, or discuss any issues or questions concerning medications during this visit. It also gives the doctor a first-hand gauge of your moods going into the holiday season. Before leaving, go ahead and schedule a follow-up visit for early January. Again, a recheck after the stress of the holidays is important for both you and your doctor.

            Second, diligently take any and all prescribed medications as directed by your physician. It’s easy to get wrapped up in holiday festivities or bogged down with depression and miss doses. Whether you are manic or depressed, this is the sure path to a miserable season, not only for you, but for family and friends as well.

            Thirdly, decide on a budget for holiday purchases prior to Thanksgiving. Put it on paper and no matter what happens, stick to it! This is especially important for BiPolar patients as we have a tendency to overspend during the holidays. When you are tempted to make a purchase that you cannot afford, think of the long-term effects of your choice.  You may want to ask a spouse, parent or significant other to assist with your holiday financial planning. Whatever you do, keep in mind that your choices in December will have consequences in January.

            Fourthly, learn to say “No!” to family, friends, and co-workers. You don’t have to cook, buy, prepare and decorate for every event and it is not in your best interests to try. Although saying “no” is uncomfortable, it may well be your saving grace. Pick the most important and meaningful events that you would like to participate in and very kindly refuse the rest.

            Fifth, if you don’t feel like decorating every inch of your house and listening to an incessant stream of sappy Christmas music, don’t do it! For many years I felt the pressure to act happy, decorate and sing carols just to make everyone believe I was “okay” - when inside I was an emotional wreck. For several years, I put up a simply decorated tree and placed a few candles in various places throughout the house. I refused to listen to carols when I was feeling down. Guess what? No one hated me. In fact, many folks admired that I chose my personal happiness and well-being over the extravagance of many of my neighbors and family members. Believe me, when January rolled around, I was content with the choices I had made!

            Sixth, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back for making it through another year. Did you have successes or meet special challenges this year? Write them down in your journal. When you feel the holiday pressures gnawing at you, read about your successes and let the pride of your accomplishments give you joy. Did you make a few blunders throughout the year? Write them down as well – then tear out the page and throw them away. Nothing causes more anxiety going into the New Year than doing so while still contemplating the mistakes of the past year.

            Seventh, if you need help getting through the holidays, ask for it! There are many organizations now offering holiday assistance and counseling. You might begin with a call to your doctor … a friend … a local Mental Health Association Helpline … a religious leader in your community … or you might attend a support group meeting. As former president Jimmy Carter once said, “You can do what you have to do, and sometimes you can do it even better than you think you can.” Now get out there and have a happy holiday season – I know you can do it!


Written by:

Tammy Potts-O’Kelley


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