Christmas and Mental Illness: Family

My family situation has changed a lot over the past six years. When my parents were together we spent either Christmas Day or Boxing Day at home, and then the other day at my Dad’s parents. The last years of life being this were quite difficult for me because of my anorexia, and I relied quite a lot on my Mum. All year round I tried to manage on my own, but once faced with Christmas dinner and extended family, I needed her. She would stop people trying to force food onto my plate and help me to cope.

When my parents separated we continued to do this, except obviously without my Mum, and then my Dad remarried (to the loveliest person in the world) and so she would go with us; one day at home with Mum and her partner, one day at my Grandparents with Dad and his wife. It was different, and hard in some parts, but it was also nice.

However shortly after Christmas 2015 we stopped having contact with my Dad, and consequently his family. Last year was the first Christmas not going to my Grandparents, it was the first year of going home from university and my sister having her own place, so I stayed at hers, and the first year I was really struggling and under the crisis team where I live now.

When I went home I was experiencing really difficult thoughts, but I was managing them by delaying the idea of acting upon them. I thought “I will see how I feel once I go back to university in January.” I thought we were all managing quite well. On Christmas Eve my sister and I both cried, and Mum cried because we cried, and we worked through it together. We did not really talk about the absence of my Dad because it was too difficult, but we were there for each other.

Then a few days after Christmas my sister and I had an argument like we have never had before. I think everything just got too much for us both, and due to us both having mental health problems we just could not manage it. The argument turned violent on both our parts, which has never happened before and has never happened since. The police were called and we were both taken to A&E; myself because I had broken my big toe and my foot was also badly cut, and my sister because she had hurt her own head after she chucked me out of her house.

Rather than staying at home for another week and getting the coach I had booked back, I booked a coach for the next morning. I came back to university early, with nobody else around. I had all of the medication I had not been taking for the previous three months and on the 30th, I took them all.

I do not remember anything. I woke up on the 1st or the 2nd with a catheter in. I was distraught. I was really distressed about the fact I had no clue what had happened, how I had got there, how I had behaved, and that I had had medical treatment that I was oblivious to. I got up and tried to walk, and my legs kept collapsing and I kept falling to the floor. I wanted to get out of the hospital and yet there was no way I was going very far.

I cannot really remember how I felt. I had been planning it before going home, but then after what happened at home I just… I knew I was going to do it. I came back to university and knew I was going to be alone for the New Year and I felt so, so alone. I have never felt so alone. I think what pushed me from wanting to do it, to doing it, was probably feeling like I had nobody to turn to. Even if I had wanted to seek help, even if I had felt brave enough to, I would not have felt like there was anyone. Not family, not friends and not professionals.

I am really anxious about New Year this year and I feel like I will probably cry a lot.

But, things are different. I am doing better. I pick myself up so quickly from blips. I have really good support. I still have not seen my Dad, but on Christmas Eve I am going to. New Year… I will celebrate it, as hard as it is to feel like doing so at all.

The thing about family when you have mental health problems, and especially when they do too, is that when you are able to support each other (which we do most of the time), it works really well. It can save you, it can keep you going and you can feel like you really are in it together. My sister once told me that I am like oxygen to her and that she probably would not be alive if it was not for me. We call ourselves the three musketeers; me, my sister and my mum.

But the problem is, when something goes wrong, when you are to the point where you are no longer able to support each other for whatever reasons, it can become really difficult. Families generally speaking argue at Christmas (lets be honest). But it gets really magnified. Christmas is such a wonderful time, but when your family has these kind of issues going on, it is also really hard. You try and be positive about it. I always think “OK, so my family situation is different and a bit messy but I am going to enjoy it with the people I do have and despite the mess”, and you try so, so hard to do that.

I am extremely lucky with the family I do have. We have a small Christmas. We do not make it into a big deal. We focus on spending time with each other and finding our own little bits of happiness within it, and I love that. BUT, that does not stop the things that hurt from hurting. You try and ignore those bits, because you want to make the most of what you do have… but sometimes trying to ignore that and push it away is harmful.

And even though I know this, I still know I am going to want to ignore those bits. I am going to be 100% happy, wonderful Natalie and I am not going to let myself get upset. I know I will struggle coming back to where I live. For the first time ever I am not in denial about how difficult I find coming back. But I feel like when I come back this year I have the right support. I will be able to vent a bit, get upset… or whatever else I am feeling.

It is really important to try and have someone around who can help you. I could not let many people help me when I was ill with my eating disorder, but I had my Mum and I let her help at Christmas when lots of family were around who thought that the best thing they could do was try force dessert down my throat even when I said “No thank you.”

It is difficult to express to someone any negative feelings you have, especially at Christmas because you do not want to bring the mood down… but it is important to have someone. It could be one family member, or a friend. Just someone. You might never have let them in before, but it could help to tell them even just a little bit; tell them that you might struggle. You never have to tell them everything, you do not have to tell anyone everything, but saying just something might help you. And there are lots of other ways to get support. A lot of mental health services will be shut, but you can make sure you get a bit of support before and after, and there are lots of helplines that will be open.

I have never called a helpline, so I know how much people can feel like that is not what they want to do. But at this time of the year when things can be very hard and other support is more limited, I think it becomes an even more important option for some. I mean, what is the harm in giving it a go?

I think the biggest thing I have learnt is that if you do cry on Christmas Day, as horrible as it feels, as much as you just want to be happy because you feel like you should be, it’s OK. You can actually be sad and cry, and also be happy and enjoy things.

Families are complicated at the best of times. Mental illness is equally complicated and difficult. The two combined at the time of year when it feels like you should be nothing but festive and cheery… it is OK to struggle. There is nothing wrong with it, and I can promise you that you are definitely, a thousand percent, not alone.

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