Getting Into the Holiday Groove
(Column: Ask the Therapist)
How do I get through holiday dinner with relatives if I have just gotten out of the hospital?
Rita Seiden, C.S.W., Ph.D., Executive Director, Park Slope Center for Mental Health
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To be honest, I think a lot of our readers, professional and consumer alike, would like to know how to get through holiday dinners even if they haven't just gotten out of the hospital. The winter holiday season is the most difficult time of the year in the mental health world. The daylight is receding; obligations are building; and everyone is braced for encounters with family. Those who don't have family feel sad and marginalized. Those who do have family face the coming holidays with ambivalence-at once grateful and full of painful and awkward memories. Holidays serve as a yardstick-Christmases past are measuring or comparison points for where we are now. We were children in this setting, now we may be adults with children of our own-or not! Grandma, who may have been the center of the party while we were growing up, may now be frail or dead. Others may not have matured well or may have fallen prey to life's difficulties. Or our cousin, with whom we competed, may be winning whatever race it was! All of those accomplishments and failures are somehow on display at these family gatherings either by the visible presence of others or by their absence. No being there may shout as loudly as being present.

If you are going to a holiday dinner feeling particularly vulnerable, you may have to do some special preparation. Ask yourself: which would be more difficult-excusing yourself or going? If you decide to go, prepare yourself with some easy answers to difficult questions. Will everyone know you have been in the hospital? If not, don't tell. When asked "how are you" say, "pretty good"; or "better than I was"; or "glad to be able to be here". If pressed for details, smile and say-"just glad to be able to be here-the details will keep for another time." You don't want to lie; but you don't want to talk too much about yourself in a setting where people are not really going to be able to listen. This is true whether your vulnerability is about being hospitalized, or having lost a job, or a lover, or some other major life struggle. If people know about your struggle, just smile and say "thanks for asking, I'm glad to be here." Acknowledge their interest, but don't focus on the details. Details of your losses are not conversation for the holiday dinner table.

Keep in mind that each of us finds family dinners at holiday time complicated experiences. It is not easy to be back in the nest amongst those who know us over many years and in favorable and unfavorable circumstances. Try to seek out the relatives who are the greatest source of comfort or understanding. Look around! Surely someone else also needs rescuing-bring them some soda or something to eat or a kind word ! Feel your own strength.
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