There is an easy consensus among families and caregivers that Christmas time is one of the most challenging times of the year for a loved one struggling with a serious mental illness. Milestones missed, loss of health, and unmet dreams are keenly felt amidst the holiday cheer and festivities.
As if grappling with these emotions isn't enough, there is also the formidable reality of psychotic related symptoms that individuals endure. This can be daunting and confusing for family and friends as they desire to help their loved one. Here are a few tips, definitely not all encompassing, that we've learned over the years:
1. Watch your expectations
Perhaps your family has a long history of Christmas traditions that include attending a show like the Nutcracker, visiting Aunt Jane and your 15 cousins, baking holiday cookies all day, family outings to pick out the perfect tree. O.K., I know not every family does these things, but what can you let go of this year? As much as we cherish beloved traditions, maybe it's time to consider making new ones.
Maybe it's time to consider creating little moments now, and to reset those expectations. Keeping a simple schedule that includes more one-on-one time, going to places where the crowds are low or non existent. Sometimes a trip to a coffee shop or a short hike together can make all the difference in a day. A lot of little moments can add up over the years to build many big memories for your family. Enjoy each one of them. Also, don't be shy about asking other trusted friends or family members to take your loved one out to coffee too. Who can't give up an extra 20 minutes out of their week?
2. Give your loved one space.
Being around people at family and church gatherings, even familiar people, is stressful for someone with a psychotic brain illness. And that is putting it mildly! Be sensitive to this and don't be alarmed if they cannot endure a seemingly small thing like sitting at the dinner table for the entire meal. If you are able, create a quiet, pleasant, clutter-free space in your home for them to have as a personal retreat to go to as often as they need.
Something as small as a family dinner can be exhausting. Don't be surprised if your loved one sleeps for extended times after such gatherings. In fact, it is restorative and much needed.
3. See the person, not the illness.
Keeping tips #1 and #2 in mind, don't forget that the illness does not define your loved one. Look for ways to include and to encourage. Our loved ones grapple with a myriad of unpleasant symptoms almost every moment of every day. How often do they hear encouragement? Who doesn't like to be encouraged? Be on the look out for ways to encourage and see what a difference it can make.
4. Don't freak out.
Everyone of us have good days and bad days. If your loved one has a string of bad days, don't panic. Keep in touch with your loved one's doctor, but also keep in mind that you could just be one good night's sleep away from a good day. If you live in an area where you do not have access to a doctor or clinic, come up with a crisis-plan ahead of time, make sure you have important phone numbers easily accessible. Include people in your trusted support network. You cannot be too prepared and it will give you peace of mind.
5. Feed your soul.
It is important to take care of yourself especially during the holidays. Warm baths, quiet walks, a good night's sleep, or watching your favorite Netflix shows are nice, but nothing can nourish your soul like reflecting on the true meaning of Christmas. We really like "The Gospel Coalition's" list of new resources for the Advent Season here.
A few final thoughts, we realize that many families are not even in a place of stability due to lack of critical resources and cannot even begin to apply the above suggestions. Please know that our prayers are with you this holiday season and we hope that there may be one or two things you can glean or apply to your situation.
May this post serve as reminder to others in our nation, to be aware of so many who are suffering this year. So many who are visiting loved ones in prison, psychiatric wards, or cemeteries and they may just be battling to breathe with every moment. Our hearts are with you and we long for better days ahead for you. This is why P82 Project Restoration exists, to begin to make a difference...one life at a time. God bless you this Christmas. You are the hidden champions and heroes in our communities.