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What to Consider Before Throwing a Surprise Party for Someone With a Mental Illness

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Surprise parties are fun for everyone, right?


While many people enjoy the surprise element, some can shy away from the practice. Coming home to a darkened house, only to be greeted by bright lights and loud noise, can be an alarming experience.

For a person with a mental illness, it can sometimes be a nightmare.

My husband once decided to throw me a small surprise party. We and another couple were cleaning up an old house while a few friends gathered back at home.

One of the people had actively discouraged him from having the party. My friend had experienced depression and dissociative identity disorder (DID), and knew how difficult such an event would be for him. He also knew about my depression and some of the incidents associated with birthday parties in my mind.

For instance, when I was a young teen, my “best friend” at the time and I were supervising a party of younger children. During the game of Pin the Tail On the Donkey, while I was blindfolded, she kicked me in the butt. Literally. In front of all the kids.

It was the occasion of my first major meltdown. For years afterward, I would not even admit to having a birthday, much less let anyone celebrate it.

My friend had experienced similar traumas involving groups of children, humiliation and abuse. He was not able to cope with surprise parties and thought I might freak out as well.

Fortunately, decades had gone by since my traumatic party experience. I had been diagnosed and properly medicated and counseled about my issues. My husband knew me well enough to realize I could tolerate a small, low key surprise party. And so I did.

Still, my friend was right to be concerned.

Common events at surprise parties are triggers for many people. Another friend of mine has panic attacks when there’s lightning. Would flash photography set her off? I don’t know, but I don’t want to be the one who finds out. If the party is held in a restaurant, a person who hates being singled out in a crowd of strangers may have problems. People hiding in one’s home could cause flashbacks of a home invasion. My startle reflex is hypersensitive and could easily be triggered by sudden, unexpected shouts of “Happy birthday!”

Even opening presents in front of others can be difficult if one has trouble with socializing, having the “appropriate” facial expressions or having spontaneous conversation.

So how do you give a surprise party for someone with certain types of mental illness?

I believe you shouldn’t.

If you think you must, ask the person what kind of party he or she would prefer, and abide by those wishes. You can suggest a surprise party, with the time and place being the surprises, but again, abide by the person’s wishes.

It can be helpful to prepare a small, low key surprise rather than a party. Give a present a day or two before the actual date. Pack a slice of cake in the person’s lunch. Or take the person out to lunch. (Warn the restaurant personnel not to march around singing and waving balloons, if you mention that it’s a birthday lunch at all.)

Another helpful tip is to not have party games, unless they are non-threatening ones like MadLibs or trivia. Forget ones involving physical contact like Twister or ones that involve sensory deprivation like “Blind Man’s Bluff.”

You may wish to avoid serving alcohol, especially if the honoree doesn’t drink because of psychiatric medication. Booze-fueled parties can become loud and rowdy.

Make it short. Personally, spending an hour with a group of four or more — even if they are all my friends — is about all I can take. And then I want to lie down afterward.

Personally, I could live my life happily without ever having another surprise party thrown for me (even though the one my husband threw would have to be called a success). Nor will I be upset if I never get invited to another surprise party. I’ll be too busy worrying what it might be doing to the honoree to enjoy myself.

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Thinkstock photo via KutcherAV.

Originally published: June 20, 2017
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