Beginning with Thanksgiving and throughout the Hanukkah and Christmas seasons, our Carlisle-area families have been busy preparing for the holidays.
Menorahs are lit in windows and many homes display Christmas trees decorated with sparkling lights and favorite ornaments. Outside, neighbors have lighting displays to brighten homes and streets on these shorter days of winter. Opportunities abound for holiday events, visits to the homes of friends and colleagues, and other community activities.
All of this belies the other side of the holidays for families with mentally ill adult members — we are challenged to have “normal” holidays. We try to maintain the traditions, relationships, and caring that families are made for. It is difficult. We often choose not to travel during the holidays, primarily to stay near our struggling family members in the event that we are needed.
We hesitate to invite guests into our homes for the traditional holiday meals due to the inevitable conversations and arguments that often arise due to the nature of the mental illness. We hope that our loved ones make progress on their journey to self-management and independence, but we know that the course of mental illness is neither consistent nor predictable.
Still, around us, we see the trappings of the holiday season — lights and music, people talking about shopping and looking forward to having their family back together. We see the countless holiday movies on television depicting a plot line in which a family struggles with an issue that is ultimately resolved — a resolution that we know will not happen for many of us. We see notifications on Facebook of proud parents of successful adult children who are starting their own families and succeeding in their careers.
The holidays are different for those of us with mentally ill family members and we have to find a way to cope. The season is a time of increased stress and challenged expectations for our families. We are looking for hope and something to celebrate. It is good to know there is a support system out there for us.
The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) programs are invaluable to us and many of us have maintained our engagement in monthly support groups. We know that while the specific circumstances are varied for each family, the basics are the same. We continue to find solace and support in sharing our experiences with others. When we do so, we realize more and more that the “them” who deal with mental illness in families are really us.
As holiday music and television specials surround us, we are searching for the blessings and hope of the season. Many of the updates shared among our support group members may dampen the holiday spirit as we consider the conditions of our loved ones and their not-very-encouraging prospects-we are all directly and deeply affected.
So while the hopes and dreams of this season of the year are in our hearts, the knowledge of our long-term struggles remain with us also. The blessing we do have is that others among us understand and listen. We do have hope that the New Year will be better, and that our loved ones will take ownership of and manage their mental illness. Ultimately, we realize that we cannot do it for them.
Col. Charles D. Allen, U.S. Army, Ret., is professor of leadership and cultural studies at the U.S. Army War College.