How to Deal With a Family Member’s Mental Illness During the Holidays

family Christmas dinner

When I was growing up, my family and I made an annual trip to Tampa, Florida to spend the winter holiday with my mom’s relatives, the Lebanese half of my racial identity. We always stayed at my Teta and Jido’s house (grandma and grandpa in Arabic). There was a consistent source of drama, stress, and hurt during these visits: my Teta. My mother dreaded Christmas because she associated the day with Teta driving her crazy, twisting every errand and conversation into a test of emotional stamina.

For many years I was too young to understand exactly why my grandmother was such a toxic person. Her and my Jido fought nightly, and I could hear them yelling through the walls in Arabic or French. I couldn’t fathom why their relationship was so strained, though. Because she was clearly unhappy, I felt sympathy for her. I didn’t have enough context to place blame.

This situation changed as I matured and progressed through my psychology major in college. The knowledge allowed me to realize Teta had emotionally abused my mother, uncles, and grandfather. I wasn’t close to my grandmother, so I didn’t feel motivated to forgive the pain she had caused.

Her existence was primarily a black hole that swallowed resources and joy from everyone around her. Because she had refused mental health treatment all her life, there was no formal diagnosis for her behavior, and she had shown no improvement.

Based on her rapid mood changes, our family decided she most likely had bipolar disorder. Narcissistic personality disorder seemed possible as well. Teta was not able to admit fault. She blamed everyone else for her problems. Regardless of labels, it was obvious she was very ill and needed the help she shunned. My parents eventually declared we would no longer be spending Christmases in Florida.

It has been years since I have seen my Teta. This holiday, however, we will be visiting her, and she will be meeting my girlfriend. My main source of anxiety is that Teta will unintentionally insult my partner.

I’m still conflicted. Teta has suffered greatly, and I acknowledge that her illnesses contribute to much of her behavior. When she lived in her small mountain town in Lebanon, she thrived. Her family and peers recognized her intelligence and talent. After she was forced to leave, she did not completely recover from the transition.

In America no one had a natural appreciation for her. My Jido constantly uprooted the family and made foolish financial decisions. The ridiculous number of moves put a strain on Teta and made it impossible for her to feel like she had a new home. She was too sick to work, and too proud to accept help for her ailments. Ultimately she was not able to regain the piece of herself she left in Lebanon.

But are health issues an excuse to mistreat family members, especially during the holidays, a time when everyone is trying to relax and enjoy being together?

I wasn’t sure how to process my feelings or prepare for the potential stress and drama, so I conducted some research and asked mental health professionals for advice. Statistically, it’s likely that we all have at least one relative with an unmanaged mental illness and a reputation for sowing chaos during family gatherings. Use these tips to ensure that person doesn’t ruin what should be a break from stress.

Plan a Short Visit or Leave Early

Let’s say you have four days off for Christmas vacation. Your family wants you to spend all of that time with them and your toxic uncle who has an untreated alcohol addiction and will most likely disrupt the relaxation by picking fights and making inflammatory comments about minorities. If you spend all four days around such a toxic person, you will surely return exhausted and then have to go back to work the next day.

Instead, consider spending only two days with that emotionally draining relative. Save the other half of the vacation for restful time by yourself or with a partner. No matter what the timeframe is, remember to make space for a period of decompression.

Therapist Jude Miller Burke, author of The Adversity Advantage: Turn Your Childhood Hardship Into Career and Life Success, suggested limiting visits to certain relatives as well. It might be best if you only spend an hour with the toxic family member. Too much time will give the person more opportunities to cause drama. You can implement this strategy by scheduling activities with a predetermined timeframe, like lunch or a movie.

Try to Laugh About the Family Craziness

There’s no denying that unstable family members can be hilarious. By looking for the humor in their irrational behavior or absurd statements, we can laugh instead of getting stressed out. Talkspace therapist Samantha White came to this realization when she noticed how her brother was able to deal with her parents’ bickering.

“On one occasion I was wilting under my parents’ endless complaining when I looked over at my brother and his wife, who were rolling their eyes at each other, and I suddenly realized that my parents’ complaining was actually funny,” White said. “Like George Costanza’s parents, or Jerry Seinfeld’s or Ray Romano’s parents, family members behaving badly is the stuff of comedy, and sometimes seeing it as comedy is the only way to deal with it.”

My family has mastered the tactic of deriving humor from my grandmother’s bewildering behavior. Once while my father and I were in the car with her, my father asked me about my allergy problems. Teta interjected in her usual dreary, melancholy voice, “I am allergic to everything.” The response was a result of her compulsion to assert that she was sicker than everyone else. Once my dad and I were alone, we joked about how absurd her hyperbole was.

Manage Your Expectations

Have you ever wished your trainwreck family member would work on their issues, that maybe the next visit would be easier? It’s OK to want the best for them, but don’t expect improvement. This mindset might set you up for disappointment. Remember that people can only change if they want to.

If They Are Negative Toward You, It’s Most Likely Not About You

Toxic people often project their shortcomings rather than taking ownership. If your problematic relative criticizes or insults you, their feelings might be coming from their own unresolved issues, according to therapist Asta Klimaite.

Establish Boundaries

In addition to placing restrictions on the amount of time you spend with a family member who has an unmanaged and destructive mental illness, you might need to set other types of boundaries.

“Families that suffer from a loved one’s mental illness have to create new systems that fit their new reality,” said therapist Shannon Battle. “It’s not about what you desire but rather finding a healthy way to establish boundaries that work for everyone involved.”

Here are some other factors to consider when formulating a plan to cope with a family member’s issues during the holiday:

  • Topics that should be off limit
  • Practicing responses to poor behavior
  • What requests to indulge or refuse
  • Seating arrangements
  • Reactions to gifts

Once you decide boundaries, be sure to uphold them. Difficult people sometimes test boundaries to manipulate others or see what they can get away with.

My Plan for Preserving My Mental Health This Holiday

After reviewing the advice, I decided to set aside a little time with my immediate family and girlfriend to mentally and emotionally prepare for visiting my Teta. I realized we actually have a lot of experience with these strategies, so creating a plan should be easy. I will message my Talkspace therapist if there are any stressful incidents.

One of my pieces of advice is to remember to be compassionate. Even though they’re causing you distress, your family member might be suffering in ways you cannot imagine.

If there are positive memories, don’t forget them. When I told my mom how I felt about her mother, she showed me an old photo of Teta holding me as a toddler. Both of us looked so happy. No matter how much I disapprove of her for mistreating my mother, I have to acknowledge that there is kindness in her, that her illnesses do not completely define her.

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