Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ten Survival Tips for that Family Reunion

Well, it isn't over until it's over, but as the first snowfall blankets Chicago, most of us are settling in for the holidays, glad to see 2013 go.
First snow, not so great

A patient asked me only yesterday when it occurred to her:
"Wait! If Chanucha is over early this year, then what do you guys do during the Xmas season. And what will you do on Xmas?"
She did look worried.
Poker on Xmas

On the day of, many of us eat Chinese food, play poker, or go to the movies, which sounds good to me.

And while others are making cookies, decorating the tree, and wrapping gifts in preparation, I'll probably do what I'm doing now, wrapping up therapy with sad people. Really, confused people. The holidays are tough on everyone.

Indeed, it was a crazy pre-Thanksgiving. The games began in October, well before Halloween. People worried about Thanksgiving in November. The family reunion head games.

Every year during this season to be happy and jolly, peaceful and thankful, at the top of the list of things to talk about in therapy is the question, a conundrum really:
"How In the h__(world) am I going to deal with my (extended) family and still manage to stay sane?"
We have stress without family reunions, to be sure. Some of us would rather skip the whole thing, use the time off of work as mental health days.

But invisible loyalties are very powerful, as is the guilt that drives our compliance, our trek across town, across the country to see family, perhaps to go to church like in the old days, visit old friends. We go, brave the stress. Even if the family isn't a particularly warm and fuzzy family, it feels right being a family. And we have so much to talk about. If only we could find a way.

There could be a fairly simple (not) protocol to consider, a humble strategy. Ten points.

(1) Begin by considering what you have, as not the absolute worst thing to have. At least there is something to complain about when we have family.

I tell people to think of children who survived the Holocaust who have no memories of their parents, or very few left, and grandchildren who never met their grandparents. Nothing to complain about there. And millions, face it, lose family in one way or another. No reunion. No stress. Would you trade? Perhaps, and nobody would blame you, certainly not me. But sometimes this shoe fits.

(2) Assuming this is a non-negotiable, you are going to see family in the next few weeks and you do hold significant grudges, see if it is at all possible to forgive and forget. You may need to air those grudges out loud to many people before you go, or in therapy, or even make a list. It is good to let go of the baggage, at least try, and talking is one way of letting go.

(3) Think of it, that inventory, that list of grievances based upon real life events, as a bad dream, many bad dreams, and file the memories.  File the angry memories full of hurts into mental envelopes that represent a stuck part of childhood, when the ego was too immature to handle the stress. You're older now.

(4) If you a sibling or a parent has spurned you, reconnect with others, or maybe an old friend in the neighborhood. It would be a shame to let the past wreck the precious few days off ruin a chance to see people you like. Latch onto your allies and make believe it never happened (see above about bad dream), whatever it is you're angry about, if only for a week or so. Give yourself a break. (Talk to your therapist about ways to cope with obsessive thoughts. Or Google it.)

(5) Think. It isn't good to judge people. Human error is a part of life. We don't know the whole story, can't understand, not what happened then, maybe not even now. The motivations of others are a mystery unless we ask, and even then sometimes. The family reunion is the best opportunity to ask about those motives, to get new information, to understand people who share our DNA.

It is a small handful, that group we consider family, and they tend to be the subject of therapy. So get more information. We'll  use it. Think of it as an informational interview.

(6) The informational interview may not be possible, obviously. Being in the same room does not mean that everyone is going to just open up and talk to one another. Best to script a few conversations ahead of time. The time together will surely be more fun, if we make the effort to ignore the past and pretend everything is okay.  Make small talk. Prepare a list of things to talk about ahead of time.
"Have you tried the sushi?  It is amazing."  "How about those Bears!"
 (7) If it is possible, if time together with family does miraculously become something of an extended family encounter group, then listen more, talk less. It is likely there is a vast amount of knowledge that you do not know about the person you wish wasn't coming to Grandma's this year. For all you know, this person has been through chemo three times. Still feel the rage? If yes, get therapy.

(8) To engage someone in a conversation of the past, difficult moments in childhood, it is best to keep it general. Rather than say,
"What were you thinking when you threw me down the stairs and when you hung me out the window?"
Best to ask, 
"How was it for you in that house thirty years (whatever the number) ago?  I was so miserable. I thought you hated me."
 Even that could be too specific. Start with the first sentence, see where it goes.

(9) To avoid any conversation about the past, if that suits you better, stay busy, help out, and bring a book or a tablet. It is likely that all of the above will be mute because everyone will be glued to an electronic gizmo anyway. We live in a wonderful age.

(10) Cater to those who have personality disorders. Resistance is futile. If someone is narcissistic, you won't be fixing this. Let this person have control, flatter to the degree that is necessary, and you might be able to hear some fabulous stories, a spin on what happened that year(s) Mom forgot her birthday.

That can be difficult when the negativity, the jealousy, the anger, is palpable. Refer to all above and bring out a deck of cards, or play checkers with someone. Or if necessary, Solitaire.

Better yet, join us for poker and Chinese.



Purple said...

Woah, it's like you were inside my head when you wrote this-LOL. This whole post is a sad, but accurate representation of the holiday chaos this season represents for me. If I could hide under the bed, like my cat does when she's scared, that's where I'd be until January. I find there's a lot of pressure (for me anyway) to be someone I'm not and to pretend that the past didn't happen, is not easy. But I do, because I have to. Mostly because it's important for my own healing journey.

Great post, as always! :)

Charity said...

LOL, well put Purple and good posting.

Gary said...

Great blog - like purple said its like your in my head! Enjox xmas all :)

Better Things-- Seeing Ghosts