Mental Illness During the Holidays

This is the first in a series of posts I want to write this year, about dealing with mental illness during the holidays. We can’t talk about this enough, everyone. It can be really hard to maintain a cheery mood or help in all the ways I want to help, even with cooking or keeping the baby occupied. That’s ok. This day is about gratitude for what we HAVE, not what wish wish we had. My husband and our son love me just as I am, and I’m not going to spend today imagining a “better” wife and mom for them. They don’t want anything but me. I don’t want anything but the family I have. That includes the nuclear family that was “the family” before Nathan and I started our own.

I love every member of my family, just as they are, including every amazing talent, personality trait, flaw and decision (even the painful ones).

My dad has made some decisions that have left me at a loss. The details aren’t important. The point is that I just have no idea how to interact with him without participating in toxic behavior. Not just unhealthy, but toxic. This stuff will eat away at me, inside, if I let it. I wish with all my heart that I could protect my own mental health without hurting my father’s feelings. I don’t want him to feel pain, ever.

The thing to remember, when you are facing life with a mentally ill parent, is that you cannot “make” anyone happy. I can’t make my dad feel anything. I am not making him feel whatever he is feeling about the distance that’s growing between us, right now. I could not “make” him feel “better” if I tried. And I know this, because I have spent a lifetime trying to make my dad happy. We shared happy moments! I just didn’t use my willpower or “good” behavior to make them happen. They happened. We made them happen together. That’s what I want to celebrate today.

First, a shout out to my mom. She gets to host my sister, today, and of course, my awesome brother-in-law and my incredible niece and nephew. She has worked hard to make a welcoming home that we can always visit. I’m proud of you, mom! I have loved our Thanksgivings together, in my adulthood. I loved our Thanksgivings with your family.

I haven’t actually spent a holiday with my father since I was nineteen, but he had sole custody of me, ages fourteen through eighteen. Even after that, I felt close to my dad on holidays, even when it was hard to feel close to him at other times. He’s sick, and because I can’t begin to describe how his mental illness has changed the course of my family’s lives, I will do what I would do on the phone with him, if we could talk, today. I will talk about our successes. They weren’t that rare. A mentally-ill parent during the holidays really complicates an already tense time, but my dad received inadequate treatment, with no proper diagnosis. Honestly, I’m so impressed with what he pulled together during his years as a single parent, that I want to tell you about one of those Thanksgivings. Remembering all of it–the painful and the joyful–is important in how I cope with my own anxiety and depression during the holidays. But I can choose to sort of nod at the painful memories and retell the stories that help me remember joy.

When you’re cooking for two, on Thanksgiving, it’s really pretty comedic. I think that the day I’m remembering is the first Thanksgiving we did together, just the two of us. I really wanted the traditional foods we’d be having if we were spending the day with extended family, but even just a turkey breast is enough to feed quite a few people. I also asked for and helped make mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and I don’t really remember what else. I’m sure I made pie. I insisted on making cranberry sauce from scratch, but I didn’t time it right. When everything else was ready, it was still warm. If you’ve ever made cranberry sauce from cranberries, you know that when it’s warm, it’s soup. It really does need that time in the fridge! Who knew? We put it in the fridge and decided to get it later in the meal.

Then, we went to a movie. It seemed like a great tradition to start. We had seen so many movies together. There were a few days I remember eating mostly popcorn and chocolate (Hershey’s, with almonds) and watching, for example, all three of the Star Wars movies that existed at the time. There was a Star Trek movie day, once. I think that we went to see Anna and the King, which makes sense, because IMDb says that it came out in 1999, and that lines up. We ran into friends. The movie was ok. We left, smiling and happy. On the way home, I remember saying that I finally had room for dessert! I opened the fridge…

and there was the cranberry sauce.

I know, it’s not the funniest holiday story ever, but we laughed so hard. I had been so insistent on having that special cranberry sauce. Obviously, I ate some with a spoon, right out of the bowl I had stored it in. Then we had dessert. And watched another movie.

It was a really great day. Given the fact that my biggest fight ever with my mom was happening at the time, and that she had moved out only months before, although I learned latter that she hadn’t meant to leave that way. But I felt like my life was in shambles. My dad must have felt pretty awful, too, but he put on a smile that day. We happily at a lot of starch and no memorable vegetables. He did a great job fitting a huge turkey breast in a convection oven–we couldn’t fit a full-sized oven in that kitchen. I can’t believe how happy we were, on that day.

Good job, Dad, on Thanksgiving, in 1999. It was a rough year, but a great day. I’m feeling All The Feelings today, but I choose to focus on my dad as I remember him on that day. I sincerely hope that he is having a happy day. I hope that he knows that none of my decisions have been made in anger. I hope he knows that there is nothing but love in my heart.

I am thankful for the good days I had with my dad. I am thankful that I do get to talk to my mom, stepfather, sister, brother-in-law, nephew and niece, not to mention the AMAZING family I married into. My life is full of kindness and warmth. My heart is full. I will cry a little, today, because I miss my dad, and don’t know what to do to help that relationship move forward. But mostly, I will feel warmth and joy.

Here’s some joy for you–the thirteen-month-old Walter wearing the AMAZING hat that his Grandma Teri made for him (Nathan’s stepmother–lucky kid has so many grandparents).


The hat that IS a turkey. Nicely done, Grandma!
The hat that IS a turkey. Nicely done, Grandma!

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