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When Holidays Mean Seeing Relatives Who Are Judgmental About Your Health Conditions

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Having an ongoing mental illness is hard. It can make a lot of people around me uncomfortable, and many people in my family don’t understand. They still think if I voice that I’m having suicidal thoughts, I must just be seeking attention. Some of them don’t understand the reality of going through psychosis and ask, “Does she really believe that?” They may be willing to accept certain diagnoses, like OCD, but when it comes to more taboo diagnoses they choose ignorance because they don’t understand. I have C-PTSD, but no one in my family is willing to take responsibility for their actions and assume my therapist is just placing another diagnosis on me. And bipolar disorder? Don’t even get me started. Bipolar disorder isn’t real. At least, not to some of them. If I prayed or drank more water or exercised, it would go away. I just need to try harder.

Of course, I know that’s not how it works. I know I need medication and to go to therapy regularly. I know that I need to take care of myself. But my family is full of doubts because they have the privilege of not understanding what it’s like to have severe mental health conditions that impact every decision I make.

Then, earlier this year, I was diagnosed with cancer, which is a whole other can of worms. Most people in my family don’t want to accept it. Which, I get it. I don’t want to accept it either. But when I talk about my symptoms and am told to try harder or that it can’t really be as bad as I’m describing, it’s extremely invalidating. The words get in my head and I start doubting myself. Am I being overdramatic? Are my symptoms really that bad? Is cancer treatment that serious?

And this doesn’t count the family members that have completely disappeared from my life altogether. No one checks in on me. I know they ask my mom how I’m doing, but no one calls me directly. No one texts to check up on how I’m doing. Some family members don’t even ask about me. Because sometimes, with big diagnoses, I’ve learned that it’s easier for family members to pretend I’m healthy than to admit I’m sick. Their coping skill is to pretend I’m not dealing with this huge, looming diagnosis. And that’s what gets them through. I can’t tell them how to cope. But it’s also not healthy for me.

So, what do I do with these people who clearly don’t understand my illnesses? Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way.

1) Prepare for the worst.

I know that sounds pessimistic. I totally get it. But let me expand. If I prepare for the worst-case scenarios, I can also prepare for how I plan to cope with them. I can plan on how to get through something that may trigger my PTSD. I can expect to hear negative comments and talk to my husband about, “When this happens, we’re going to leave.” Additionally, I can plan on when I may need to take my anxiety medication — and I can plan to bring it with me. I’ve learned by now that going in blindly expecting things to be “not that bad” when they’re always “that bad” isn’t helpful. Optimism is great. But so is realism.

2) Draw boundaries.

This is a hard one. I mean, a really hard one. This year has been challenging in many ways — one of them being that I had to completely cut a family member from my life. I made it clear that if this family member is there, I can’t be there. I’m going to leave. My family was fine with that before, but now that the holidays have approached they’re trying to make me feel guilty. I’ve learned to repeat the same thing. “My boundary is that I’m no longer willing to see him.” I probably sound like a broken record. But I can only handle so much — especially during a time where I’m struggling with really hard things, such as cancer and chemotherapy.

3) Realize your limits.

I thought setting boundaries was hard, but this one might be even harder. Because in order to set boundaries, I need to realize (and accept!) what I can handle and what I can’t. That means that this year, I won’t be going to my family’s Thanksgiving dinner and will instead be attending my husband’s. Because one of my limits is that I can’t make a whole day out of Thanksgiving and go to two celebrations. I don’t have the physical energy or mental capacity. Additionally, my husband’s family gatherings are less stressful. They’re filled with love and jokes instead of criticism and arguments. My family isn’t going to be happy that I won’t be attending their Thanksgiving, but the reality is that it would be more than I could handle. So, this year, I need to take a step back and do what’s best for me.

4) Put yourself first.

I know it’s not easy to make decisions that you know will hurt your family. I’ve been through it. But the reality is, my family doesn’t understand (or sometimes even acknowledge) my illnesses. The fact that I’m sick makes them uncomfortable. So, quite frankly, I’m not going to put myself in a position where I pretend everything is fine and I’m not affected while they talk about all of the good things they have going for them. I just had to take a leave of absence from work, found out I’ll need more intensive chemotherapy, and am undergoing multiple tests to determine how bad the cancer is currently. I’m not in the mood to talk about upcoming weddings or how well my siblings are doing in school or how my sister just bought a house. That is so great for all of them. But I’m not in a celebratory mood when it feels like my whole world is falling apart and no one ever acknowledges that. So, I’m putting my mental health first. I know being with them would trigger me, so I’m deciding to limit my interactions. It’s a hard decision that I know my family doesn’t fully understand, but it’s the best decision for me.

5) Find people who do understand and stop divulging information to those that don’t.

This tip is way easier said than done. I know that firsthand. But it is possible. For context, I used to divulge everything to my family. They knew every little thing about me. When my mental health was flaring up, when I was on the border of being hospitalized again, when I was having severe symptoms, it was habit to let everyone in on what was happening to me. But the more I was invalidated, the more I realized that it’s not helpful to tell people who don’t understand my illnesses what I’m experiencing. So, I found new people.

I have a spouse who’s my number one supporter. I found friends who also have chronic illnesses that I can find comfort and validation in. It was a huge adjustment process cutting back on the information being shared with my family, who used to be the only people I had to turn to, but it was worth it. Now, I can share information with people who aren’t going to minimize what I’m going through and who offer support — not arguments about whether things are really as bad as I think they are. Even being able to talk about the boundaries I’ve drawn with my family and processing my decisions is helpful. It makes me feel better about doing hard things. And for me, finding that support was huge.

All of this being said, I’m not out of touch with reality. I know all of these things are much easier said than done. But sometimes they need to be done regardless of how hard they are. Because there came a point where I realized it was either me or them. Either I suffered due to my family’s actions, or I could be happier but they’d be upset. It was hard to finally make the choice that I should be putting my own health first. It took years before I was able to make the decision — not to mention a lot of therapy. But in the end, it’s been worth it. The holidays are still stressful because I’m not keen on large gatherings, but they’re easier when everyone knows my boundaries. I can cope through them without having a panic attack after every coming home from every single celebration. And while it took a lot of work to get here, I don’t regret it one bit.

Getty image by Tatyana Maximova.

Originally published: November 23, 2021
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