When Holidays are Hard

Confession time: I have never been a fan of the holiday season. There, I said it. I know, what a Scrooge! Over the years, I have found Christmas time, especially, to be both overstimulating and disappointing. During his time working at L’Arche with individuals with disabilities, theologian Henri Nouwen wrote the following excerpt about his feelings around Christmas (from The Road to Daybreak):

“Everything was there to make it a splendid Christmas. But I wasn't really there. I felt like a sympathetic observer. I couldn't force myself to feel differently. It just seemed that I wasn't part of it. At times I even caught myself looking at it all like an unbeliever who wonders what everybody is so busy and excited about. Spiritually, this is a dangerous attitude. It creates a certain sarcasm, cynicism, and depression. But I didn't want or choose it. I just forced myself into a mental state that I could not move out of by my own force.”

I am sure that Nouwen and I are not the only ones who find themselves disillusioned with the holiday season. Perhaps you find yourself dreading this season, anxious about spending time with family, with the potential for disharmony or the presence of alcohol that you try to avoid. It might feel overwhelming to attend several holiday parties and convey a spirit of joy and excitement when inwardly you feel alone or depressed. You may also find yourself in the holiday season for the first time after the loss of a loved one. You may remember various memories you have with this person and feel grief that he/she will not be present this year. How can you face the holiday season without him or her? Many people experience these feelings; and they are normal. However, there are some ways we can prepare ourselves for this season and even thrive amidst the potential over-stimulation and possible increased sense of loneliness.  

1.       Lower your expectations.

My husband reminds me to do this regularly. Just because it is December does not mean that your family is going to suddenly throw off dysfunction, or that you will find love under the mistletoe or whatever else you may find in a Hallmark movie. Christmas Day does not need to be perfect, nor should you expect as much. Jesus’ birth, which we celebrate, seemed far from perfect, as there was no room for Him at the inn and his first days were in a manger where animals ate. This might bring us comfort, keeping in mind that Christ our Savior was born in such lowly conditions. He understands our loneliness and pain like no one else can.

2.       Keep gifts simple.

The American economy thrives on the holiday season, with people spending money they do not have, with advertisements promising “the perfect gift” this year for your loved ones. Overspending and shopping can definitely impact our mental health, leading to increased stress and anxiety. A key to combating this, if you do decide to buy gifts for others, is to both plan ahead and keep gifts simple. Handmade gifts are always thoughtful to receive, or a simple book or devotional that would be relevant to someone. Remember that gift-giving is not a competition or a reflection of who you are as a person. If you are a Christian, your identity is in Christ and not in what fancy gadget or electronic appliance you gift to those around you. There is no need to go overboard with spending during this season. 

3.       Take time to stop and meditate on the season.

Whether Thanksgiving or Christmas, these holidays have spiritual themes that can often be overlooked on the actual day, with all the festivities. Take time to meditate and even write a list of things that God has blessed you with, including the seemingly small things you might take for granted. The month of December is a great time to find an advent devotional, guiding you through the birth of Jesus and what His birth, life and death mean for you and your life. Keeping your mind on these spiritual aspects of the holidays can aid your emotional health by guarding your thoughts on what is true and holy, instead of what worldly influences would try to convince you.

4.       Have a plan for how much sweets and alcohol you will consume. 

With all the parties and festivities, we may find ourselves tempted with sweets and alcoholic drinks. If our habit is to cope with feelings by over-eating or drinking alcohol, it is imperative that we have a game plan for how we will approach these tempting situations. Maybe set a limit for yourself, such as one dessert at each party or zero consumption of alcohol. Practice mindful eating, only eating until you are full and being aware of how you are feeling as you consume your food. If you will be around family or friends who drink alcohol, be okay with declining and be prepared for how those individuals might respond. 

5.       Set limits on situations and people that cause you stress.

It is okay to say “no” to some parties, especially if you find yourself with a packed schedule. Similarly if you find that you must be around people that negatively impact your emotions, it is okay to step away, whether that means going for a walk, going to pick up something at the store, or tending to something in the kitchen. You are also allowed to set a verbal boundary, such as, “Your comment hurt my feelings.” However, it may be less stressful to just remove yourself from a situation or person causing you distress, as more often it has to do with them and not you. Prepare yourself mentally if you know that these types of people will be present at your functions, and set low expectations for how they will potentially talk to you or treat you, so as to avoid lashing out in anger during a gathering. Remember that your identity is in Christ and not in what a relative thinks of you or how you compare to that relative. 

6.       If possible, make plans with people that uplift you. 

If you find yourself back in your hometown, try to make plans to see people who have contributed to your spiritual life or who you just find encouraging to be around. Similarly, if you choose to not be with family for the holidays, reach out to friends who you trust and see if they are available. You could also host a gathering at your house for people you know who may be lonely, whether due to being apart from family, their family is deceased or poor familial ties with their biological family. If you find yourself afraid of potential loneliness during this season, there are always others around you who could use friendship and you could be exactly who God uses in their life! Perhaps seek to create new memories if you are struggling with missing people and experiences from the past.

Henri Nouwen continued his reflections on Christmas with the following:

“Still, in the midst of it all I saw--even though I did not feel--that this day may prove to be a grace after all. Somehow I realized that songs, music, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and many sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying ‘yes’ to something beyond all emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying ‘yes’ to a hope based on God's initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God's work and not mine. These things will never look just right or feel just right. If they did, someone would be lying. The world is not whole, and today I experienced this fact in my own unhappiness. But it is into this broken world that a child is born who is called Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, Savior.

 “I look at him and pray, ‘Thank you, Lord, that you came, independent of my feelings and thoughts. Your heart is greater than mine.’ Maybe a ‘dry’ Christmas, a Christmas without much to feel or think, will bring me closer to the true mystery of God-with-us.  What it asks is pure, naked faith.”

I pray that you each are able to meditate on the fullness of Christ’s love during this season, despite your current situation or feelings; for He is our Emmanuel, God with us. 

Loving the Family Member with Mental Illness

When thinking back on my time as a counselor and art therapist in a community mental health setting, I distinctly remember dreading the “PLC” or “Planning and Linking Conference” with clients’ families. We would meet in a room: the client, the client’s family, and another of one of our staff, to discuss the client’s progress and goals with their support network. I remember these meetings at times being awkward, as each individual came with differing expectations. I would be ready with my optimistic smile and list of progress that the client was making, while the client’s mom would be ready to share how her son still doesn’t leave his room or talk to her, and is this program even working? The client would often sit quietly, looking uncomfortable with the incongruity of perspectives in the room.

I realized later on, the difference between myself and the family members essentially boiled down to familiarity. I saw clients at work, where I was paid to work with them, and then I went home and had my own separate life. Alternately, the client’s families saw them every day, saw them at their worst, and had a history of hurt and disappointments to sort through. Even though they loved their mentally ill family member, it was frustrating for them when progress did not come quickly or not at all. It is hard to be objective and detached when watching a son or daughter sit in a room all day with no motivation to do anything; it is painful to see a mother relapse into substance use, only to be disappointed yet again after a period of sobriety. 

If you find yourself trying to cope with a family member’s mental illness or substance abuse, it can be an extremely difficult and arduous process. You may feel tired, cynical, and may even have difficulty liking your family member on some days. You may wonder if God hears your prayers for your loved ones, and wonder if things will ever change. These are all normal responses. However, there are some shifts in perspective we can implement that can help us in this process. They are not going to “fix” our loved one’s mental illness, but may help us as we seek to love our family member well as we walk alongside them. 

1. Adjust your expectations of the individual. 

It can be extremely frustrating to see an individual who once functioned in the workplace and society to now sit in a room, doing nothing, saying nothing, with no motivation to participate in the world. You may feel anger, and wonder why they are so lazy when you know that they are capable of contributing or you may feel embarrassed when they act socially inappropriate. However, mental illness is complex, and oftentimes, social inappropriateness, lack of motivation or inability to experience pleasure (also termed avolition and anhedonia) are symptoms of the mental illness and brain dysfunction. You may find yourself less frustrated if you lower your expectations of the person and realize that they simply may not be able to function at their full capacity at this time.

2. Celebrate small successes. 

It can be easy to focus in on all the things the individual is doing “wrong,” like “they are not acting appropriately,” or “He still doesn’t look for a job.” However, once we create realistic expectations, we might be able to better celebrate small victories, even if these simply include the individual showering regularly or being able to engage in a reality-based conversation. Focusing on strengths is a key part of psychiatric rehabilitation, as well as encouraging the individual to utilize those strengths to reach their rehabilitative goals.

3. Seek to show grace.

Just as we enjoy being shown grace by others, seek as much as you can to show grace to your loved one. There might be years of disappointments and hurts, especially if the individual has had periods of psychosis or substance abuse. It might be helpful to remember that God continually shows us grace upon grace when we sin, so how much more can we show grace to others? This can be difficult, especially if we are used to focusing in on the individual’s shortcomings, or if the individual has been hurtful to us without repentance, so we can pray for the Holy Spirit to help us to grow in grace and love for the individual. 

4. Seek to forgive.

Similarly to showing grace, forgiving the individual with mental illness can be very difficult, as the individual often has no concept of how much they may have truly hurt you. They may never ask for forgiveness for the chaos they caused during a manic episode or the times you have visited them at the hospital or the money you paid for their therapy. They may never apologize for the names they called you when they were unwell. There may be a high and thick wall between you and the individual that you feel can never be broken. However, the Holy Spirit is ready and able to help you forgive that person, both to help the relationship but also for your own mental health. Bitterness can only distance you from your loved one and it can even make you depressed. 

5. Embrace structure if possible.

Structure can be especially helpful for individuals who may be distracted by hearing voices, seeing things, or feeling depressed or anxious. If you have small chores that you need help with, invite the individual to engage in the activity and help you with it. There are also day programs available that can give individuals structure and peer support. The individual might claim they don’t need a program or that they don’t want to go, but you and your support network can encourage the individual to attend, especially after a visit to a program and possibly meeting other peers while there. Also, encourage the individual to participate in church events, especially if your church is a welcoming environment for individuals of all abilities.    

Just a note about encouraging the individual to engage with social activities: If you find yourself anxious about your loved one behaving inappropriately or saying inappropriate things, it might be helpful to give someone a head’s up about the situation and your anxiety. You could explain, “He can be very talkative in his manic episodes and sometimes distractible.”  People are actually more understanding than you would imagine and often your loved one’s behaviors are more embarrassing to you than they really are. Try not to let your anxiety about social settings impede with getting the individual out into the community. 

6. Have a support network and a plan for crisis. 

It is imperative that you have people on your team to support you. If a loved one becomes psychotic or a danger to themselves or others, having a team, either a spouse, sibling, or support group, can help you get through that period. It is also helpful to plan ahead for a crisis situation. There are several “Crisis Plan” worksheets available online where the individual can write down diagnosis, medications, doctors’ phone numbers, triggers, and things that help the individual to feel better. 

Holding Every Thought Captive

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:5

“As a man thinks, so is he.” Proverbs 23:7

“And be not conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, for your proving what is the will of God—the good, and acceptable, and perfect.” Romans 12:2

During my senior year of college, I had to create a senior exhibition art piece. I cut strips of tracing paper and wove them together over a wire frame to create a gown made out of paper. My goal of the exhibit was to depict how we as humans are more than our thoughts, although we give our thoughts more power over us than they deserve to have. I used the material of strips of paper to depict thoughts, to show how fragile and temporary our thoughts are, but how when woven together, these same thoughts can become a whole powerful being. Our thoughts are just thoughts, but when we don’t regulate them or hold them to God’s truth, those same thoughts can affect our entire being. 

In the field of mental health, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence based practice that has been shown to help individuals with varying mental illnesses. Dr. Aaron Beck, the creator of CBT, taught that thoughts affect our feelings, which in turn affect how we behave. However, Scripture has taught, long before Dr. Beck, that we are to hold our thoughts captive to the truth of God’s Word and who He is. Despite the command to hold every thought captive, most of us rarely stop to examine our thought life, and are actually unaware as to how keenly if affects how we feel and how we act. 

One key to holding our thoughts captive is to simply stop and examine them, or in CBT lingo, “Catch the thought.” We are often too busy to do this. Here’s an example: You might be getting ready to go to a social outing but are feeling increasingly anxious. In your state of anxiety, you shout at your husband and raise your voice in frustration at the child who has mismatched socks on. If you were to stop in this situation, you could “catch” or identify some thoughts that contributed to feelings of anxiety. One thought might include, “People at this social function will judge me or dislike me,” or, “I’m going to see such-and-such a person and I really don’t like that person and how she talks to me.” In the moment of getting the family out the door, you might not even be aware of these thoughts but rather just caught up in feelings of anxiety. Catching our thoughts is a process that takes practice, and over time, we may find that there are certain thoughts that come up often in our lives. 

Another key to holding our thoughts captive is to “check the thought.” We want to ask ourselves if a specific thought is true, or ask if we have evidence that this thought is actually correct. And if it is in fact correct, is it also helpful to us? Does it bring us closer to God or farther from God and His character? If we find ourselves jumping to an untrue assumption, are there alternate explanations for this situation? In the situation above, if we examine the thought, “People at this function will judge me,” we would have to admit that we do not know this to be true. Even if there might be one person there who makes you feel small, is it helpful to generalize them into the entire group of people who you will encounter? This thought is simply not helpful. For the thought about the condescending person you’d rather avoid, are there other ways to think about this person? Identify any of their positive qualities, or consider if perhaps they might talk to you in a condescending tone in an attempt to feel better about themselves.

The third key to holding our thoughts captive is to “correct the thought.” Dr. Beck would argue that with time and therapy, we can correct our thoughts. However, we cannot truly do this without the help of the Holy Spirit working within us. Even so, it is definitely an act that we need to continually cultivate and practice! So how do we correct our thoughts? Well, Scripture tells us to “renew our minds” (Romans 12:2, Ephesians 4:23) and “think on that which is true, noble, right and pure” (Philippians 4:8). We must continually bring our thoughts back to Christ and His work of redemption. We need to be in the Scripture daily and in prayer. The more we are immersed in God’s Word and in communication with Him through prayer, the more we will be able to identify lies from the devil in the form of untrue and unkind thoughts. We should also be part of a fellowship of believers, who encourage us in the faith, remind us of truths when we are weak, and point us back to Scripture when we embrace untrue thoughts. 

Our thoughts are just thoughts, but they can have so much power if left unchecked. We have so many thoughts in a given day but they do not have to define us. Our identity is found in Christ and we can keep going back to this truth, day after day after day.