Sometimes, stigma creates discomfort or opportunities for conflict during family gatherings. But I’ve always believed that the holidays are a time for hope.
Holiday meals with my family usually include an empty setting at the table. That place is not there to honor someone who has passed away or a member of the military who is stationed overseas and couldn’t make it home for the holidays. It is reserved for a family member, my brother, who comes to all our family celebrations, usually bearing gifts he made himself. He actively participates in most of the festivities and is full of spirit for whatever occasion we happen to be celebrating. But he never sits down to eat with us.
My brother has a thought disorder that makes it hard for him to express himself clearly. For years, we encouraged him to join us at the table, but he always declines, sitting out the meal in an adjoining room. Sometimes we are tempted to skip the family tradition of the empty place setting. The table can get crowded, and chairs are at a premium. But my mother insists on setting the place, and rightly so.
I tell her, “Leave him alone. He doesn’t want to eat with us.”
But she keeps insisting, holding onto the hope that he will sit with us. A few times, on his birthday, he even has—though I haven’t seen him actually eat a family meal since we were kids together. Sometimes my mother’s hope seems misplaced to me, a refusal to accept the truth that some things about my brother will never change. But, as a parent myself, I understand why she continues to harbor hope. Few parents are able to stop hoping for their children, no matter their age or circumstances.
My brother is not the only person in my family who has struggled with his mental health. Most holiday meals see several disorders represented at the table: bipolar, addiction, schizophrenia, and depression, just to name the major ones. My family may be unusual for the number of its members who live with mental health conditions. But we are not alone. In families across America, the more people gathered at the table, the greater the chances that one or more of them will live with a brain-based disorder.
One in five Americans experiences a mental health challenge at some point in their lives . Virtually every family in the country is affected (NIMH / NAMI).
Having ore mental health conditions at the table can create more opportunities for conflict, misunderstanding, and disruption. Moods may be elevated or depressed, and those of us with social anxiety, phobias, eating disorders, or addictions may struggle even more at this time of year. The high levels of activity and excitement serve to heighten many of our symptoms. But it is worse to be isolated, excluded, and alone when the rest of the world is celebrating.
In my family, we’ve experienced our share of holiday disasters as well as triumphs. Some of the disasters were probably unavoidable, but I’ve always believed in the possibility of improvement and that the holidays are a time for hope. Making a place for everyone can result in a really crowded table setting, not to mention chaos, drama, and occasional bad feelings. But it also sends a message of inclusion, hope, and acceptance—which everybody needs, not just those who live with mental health challenges.
Chances are there will be an empty setting at our Thanksgiving table again this year. But, who knows? There’s always the chance that this year will be different and the empty seat will be occupied.
Jay Boll is Vice President of Laurel House, Inc., and Editor in Chief of www.rtor.org, a website for families that helps people find resources and support for their loved ones with mental health disorders. He writes about his family’s experience of mental illness in his blog The Family Side. In over 25 years at Laurel House, Jay has worked with hundreds of people living with serious mental health conditions and run multiple programs in psychiatric rehabilitation, including the Thinking Well program, which he adapted from the Neuropsychological Educational Approach to Cognitive Remediation (NEAR). Jay is a former Peace Corps Volunteer with five years of service developing housing, vocational training, and education programs for homeless youth in the Central American nation of Honduras. He has also lived and worked in Zimbabwe, Africa.
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