A Carers Perspective: Preparing for Christmas
Digital team's blog
So Christmas Day is almost upon us... and I wonder how many of us have been approaching this with a slight sense of unease and dare I say it even dread?
It's a well-known fact that Christmas can cause untoward stress and anxiety but when a family is supporting someone with a mental health condition these added stresses can compound difficulties and sometimes just plainly and simply make things worse.
I have several relatives who live with Bipolar disorder and I’m heartily sick of hearing perfectly well people say how ‘manic’ Christmas is for them… Ok they might be feeling busy, a bit stressed and doing multiple things at once – but if they had ever experienced mania or tried to support someone having a manic episode I’m one hundred percent sure they wouldn’t refer to Christmas as a ‘manic’ time anymore.
Why don’t we just stop and think what the reality of Christmas might be for other people? How do those ‘perfect’ Christmas messages make you feel if you are feeling far from perfect to begin with? If you struggle in social situations and find mixing with others a challenge; how do you feel when you are invited into large gatherings of people you might not have seen for ages, or who don’t know you or don’t really care about you? Or how do you feel if you are not invited at all? Social isolation at Christmas can be a massive problem for people of all ages from all walks of life with or without mental health conditions. But ask yourself how you might feel if you have a relative in psychosis or on the edge of being sectioned, or who is in a seclusion room in a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit, or being detained under Mental Health Act because of an attempted suicide? If someone said happy Christmas, or wished you peace and joy for the New Year, wouldn’t you feel like throwing something at them? Clearly that’s not a good option, but having the guts to admit things are tough or the strength to admit their wishes were well intentioned, but you don’t have to share your life story with everyone who wishes you well for Christmas, can be useful skills to help us stay well.
I have two jobs. I work as a freelance artist and as a relative carer at The Spectrum Centre for Mental Health Research at Lancaster University supporting the REACT (the Relatives Education And Coping Toolkit) study. We are testing the effectiveness of a new online toolkit in reducing distress and increasing the wellbeing of relatives and friends of people with bipolar or psychosis (including schizophrenia) and we recently discussed the issue of sending a Christmas message to the study participants.
I felt honoured to be able to be sensitive to the needs of others, so I immediately ditched the traditional ‘Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year’ strapline and wondered what words we might use instead. Obviously I wanted everyone to have both of those things, but I also wondered how it might ‘sit’ with me if I was in a difficult situation with one of my relatives at Christmastime. So, I scanned my mind for poignant lines from well-known Christmas carols and poems, and found myself fixing on my Grandmother’s favourite “In the bleak midwinter” by Christina Rossetti
I sat and considered some of the words of the carol over in my head:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
It seemed relevant, everything felt stark and austere and difficult, even water had turned to stone, so how would we get out of that fix! Yeah that felt quite appropriate, and then I remembered the last verse and the sense that even when we have nothing we can still give to others…
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
This Christmas many carers will be doing just that - giving what they can with all their heart…
So, I think it’s totally OK to have a crappy Christmas: I sincerely hope people don’t and that they enjoy some or even all of their day. Whatever your day turns out to be try and find a moment to savour – it might be something as simple as going for a walk or enjoying a mince pie and a cup of tea. It doesn’t matter if Christmas is not perfect or even good, those of us in caring roles really do need to make time to look after ourselves as well as celebrating the joy of being able to love and give our hearts to the many people who really do need us!
The Relatives Education and Coping Toolkit (REACT) study – is a new online resource for relatives and friends who support people with bipolar or psychosis (including schizophrenia.
If you would like to to know more or sign up for this unique research trial which aims to test whether the toolkit reduces distress and increases the wellbeing of relatives visit www.reacttoolkit.co.uk
You can also follow REACT on Facebook or Twitter.