Christmas season a trial for those with mental illness

Austin Mardon

AUSTIN MARDON
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
December 29, 2014

I dread the holidays. It's supposed to be the happiest time of the year, but yet we know that more people attempt suicide during the holidays.

We all want the perfect holiday, with the perfect tree surrounded by professionally wrapped presents. What we usually get is something closer to a crooked tree with half the lights out, and some presents wrapped in newspaper because we ran out of the pretty stuff.

We want to host the most talked about Christmas party, but not because it led to news cameras and a police chase.

So how do we get so crazy at this time of year? My wife says that she gets homesick for a place that doesn't exist anymore, or maybe never did. I think we all get like that.

For someone like myself, who already has a serious mental illness, it can be doubly dangerous. My wife has a saying for that too. She says that it's like putting stress on a bridge that wasn't up to code to begin with. If that's the case, I guess my schizophrenia makes me a rickety foot bridge over a raging river.

I have a circle of friends who also have serious mental illnesses. Every year during the holidays, I see the pain they go through. Ironically, the ones who are alone seem to suffer the least. Those with large families are often the hardest hit with depression.

I see friends who are faced with seeing siblings another year older and farther along in life, while they have remained stagnant. They sit at a large dinner table where relatives talk about new jobs, new homes, new cars or even new children, while all they have to add to the conversation is that they have remained stable and haven't been hospitalized.

Of course, for many of them, their illness isn't allowed to be mentioned. It's often the family's dirty little secret.

We open our home on holidays for those without a place to go. It started because my wife's family is thousands of miles away. This year we had 36 people for Thanksgiving.

Several of my friends went to their family's celebrations before coming to our house. They didn't need any additional turkey, but rather needed to decompress. They needed to be around others who understand how hard it is to have a scary illness. It's hard to feel like a failure or an embarrassment.

SANE AND STABLE

My job is to stay sane and stable. I comply with my medication regime. I stay out of the hospital and try to be a productive member of society. To someone with schizophrenia, that can be the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest. When viewed against a family's ordinary expectations, that can seem well below the mark.

Families aren't the only thing that can cause depression during the holidays. It's a time of year where we can eat a bit too much sugar, drink more than a usual amount of alcohol and spend too much money. Those are all things that can make a normal person depressed, but for someone with a mental illness on psychiatric medications, they can be serious.

Many psychiatric medications can cause elevated blood sugars and we have to be careful to watch for the development of diabetes. Those meds also don't mix well with alcohol.

MAGNIFIED EFFECTS

On the mild end, alcohol can magnify the effects of our meds. On the far end, alcohol can cause our medication to become toxic or cause a psychotic break.

The mentally ill often live on small fixed incomes. That income doesn't increase just because we want to buy Christmas presents. I had a friend who did something stupid in order to get Christmas presents and spent six months in jail for his mistake. That would certainly cause me to be depressed.

So the holidays can be especially hard on those with mental illnesses. What we can do for ourselves is to make sure we take care of ourselves. We can enjoy the season in moderation. We just need to make sure we don't get too busy and forget to take our meds.

LOOK AROUND

Those of us, like my wife and family, who love someone with a mental illness, need to remember how hard the holidays can be on us. We all need to remember that togetherness is more important than presents or place settings.

We have to remember to slow down and look around. We don't want to accidentally pass by someone having a hard time. A smile, a Merry Christmas or an invitation to dinner might mean the world to someone who is suffering.

(Austin Mardon was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada this fall. He has suffered from schizophrenia since 1992. His biography is titled Tea With the Mad Hatter and is widely available, including at lulu.com.)