It starts with identifying our needs and communicating them clearly, so we can keep our mood stable and enjoy the festivities.
We can create a holiday plan that serves us for years to come, starting now. Let’s focus on what we need and how we want to feel during every holiday season. It’s possible to have stable and joyful holidays when you have bipolar disorder.
(This plan works for family members and partners as well. You simply become the observer and come up with a plan that works for you.)
What do you want to happen this holiday season? Do you need less hustle and bustle or more contact with people?
Now is a good time to look back on past holidays and think ahead to the rest of the festive season as you create your plan.
Ask yourself the following questions:
“Who drains me?”
“What have others said about my behavior that I can change?”
“Where do I want to be for the holidays?”
“What is my financial plan for the holiday season?”
“What always makes my holidays better?”
Once you examine what worked for you in the past—and what didn’t—make a list of what needs to change.
Make this the year you get started on creating a holiday experience that promotes stability.
Make this your year of observation instead of trying to make big changes all at once.
Change isn’t always easy. Others might be confused by or upset about what you need to do to be stable, but if you’re clear on what you need and you clearly share why you’re making certain decisions, you can find a balance between stability and still being a part of the festive season.
My Story: Good & Bad Holidays with Bipolar
As a person with bipolar disorder, it’s easy for me to get overwhelmed and upset by too much activity; and yet, if I’m not a part of the social aspect of the holidays, I tend to get lonely and depressed. It’s a vicious cycle that takes a lot of thinking and planning to organize every year.
I’ve had SO many bad holiday experiences that were due to my bipolar. It’s frustrating to never get a holiday from this illness, but I have learned to plan ahead and make my holidays as stable as possible.
And remember, it’s not too late. It all starts with making observations, which you can do this year.
A Big Change: Buying & Giving Presents
My first change? I decided to stop giving presents to everyone in my life and asked that no one give me presents.
I made it clear that I would still buy presents for children, but, in terms of my friends and family, I opted out. This is a bit more common now, but when I did this in the mid-90s, it was definitely different!
My reasoning? I was spending money I didn’t have and receiving gifts I didn’t need. I remember sitting on a couch one year, surrounded by presents that were nice and thoughtful, but did I need them? No. It was just too much. And I had spent weeks trolling the stores, trying to find gifts for the people in my life.
I had spent more money than I wanted to and ended up buying stuff that no one needed.
Asking Questions & Modifying Plans Over Time
When did buying an excessive amount of presents become a necessity for the holidays?That was my first question. Why should a person spend money on presents when the money is needed for personal survival? Is it a present if it’s bought on credit? All of this went through my head, and, one day, I just said, “No more.”
It changed everything.
At first, I took my no-present plan too far and felt left out during the Secret Santa and White Elephant gift exchanges, so I modified my plan over the years. I now participate in small gift-giving.
When my nephew David was born, I definitely had a great time buying him holiday gifts, but I kept it simple, and he knew my plan. I explained that my attention would come from dinners together, movies, and having fun all over our city, but it would not be expressed in extra presents. This helped my bipolar disorder greatly.
How to Stick to a Holiday Plan When Kids Are Involved
I just called David, who is now 20 years old, and asked what he remembered. Here’s what he said: “You were really open about it. You said that shopping was stressful for you and the bipolar and that I would get one present and everything else would be hanging out and having sushi. You said that presents felt like a big task. It didn’t bother me. We always did a lot of stuff together anyway.”
But Julie! I like giving presents! I want to get presents!
Please know that I’m NOT telling you to stop giving presents. Instead, I’m suggesting that you examine what makes you happy during the holidays and what drains you emotionally and financially. Then, change what you can.
For myself, it was presents and cooking holiday meals. It might be something different for you. What you decide to change depends on your circumstances. I want to teach you a system that can be used in any situation to make the holidays more stable. With that in mind, here are three changes you can make to create more stable and joyful holidays:
Say no when you need to and create a script you can use when you say no.
Say yes when it’s in your best interest. Focus on socializing instead of isolating.
Be ready for pushback and ask for support from those who understand your desire to be stable.
#1 Saying NO
Depending on your situation, you might have to get comfortable with saying no to people who ask a lot of you during the holidays. I have an example of this in Getting It Done When You’re Depressed:
A person is asked to bring their “excellent food” to the company party. It’s a lot of work and, every year, it creates frustration and a lack of joy during the party itself.
In the example, the person anticipates being asked to bring food and has a script ready that kindly says NO. (In this case, a script is a kind and firm response you create in anticipation of being asked to do something you don’t want to do.)
Here is an example:
The request: “We would just love it if you would bring cookies for the holiday party this year! You’re such a good baker!”
A scripted response: “Thank you so much for complimenting my food. I’m glad people enjoy it. I’m not baking this year, but I will definitely be at the party. I can bring drinks.”
It gets easier each time you say no without overly explaining your reason why … unless you want to explain why!
You can be kind about it, but you can also be firm. This is about your health. It’s not selfishness or unkindness to search for stability by saying no.
Maybe it’s different for you and you actually need to say yes more!
#2 Saying YES
What about saying yes if you tend to say no too much and then end up lonely on the holidays?
This year, choose an event that you normally say no to and say yes this time. The only goal is saying yes and going. You can then relax when you get there, as you have already made the change needed. Nothing else has to happen except turning up.
The less pressure you put on yourself to have a good time, the better.
Ask yourself the following questions:
“Do I really want to be alone this year?”
“Do I need to be with people?”
“What are my options?”
“What can I set up now?”
Once you choose something, make a pact with yourself that you WILL SAY YES, no matter what, and then go to the event, whether it is in-person or online. That is the only goal.
It will get easier each time you do this. Here is what I have written on avoiding isolation; these strategies help at any time of the year but are especially important during the holidays: “The End of Bipolar Depression Isolation.”
Ending Bipolar Depression Isolation
It’s so important that we don’t let bipolar make our decisions for us. Take time now to think about what you want. Think about where you want to be and where you need to be during the holidays that you celebrate.
Life online means that you CAN be with others all over the world, no matter what is happening in your life.
#3 Be Ready for Pushback
I remember when a few of my friends also decided to stop giving presents to everyone and instead toned it all down with just a few present exchanges or gifts for children. A friend’s in-law said, “Do you hate your family! Are you trying to punish us!?”
You’re smart enough to think about this possible pushback ahead of time and figure out who might be the one who doesn’t want you to change. This is the person you talk to first and share why you’re making changes—it’s for your health.
Ultimately, the holidays are about you and your bipolar stability.
What Do You Need?
What about you? Do you need to say no more or yes more? Are you thinking ahead of where you want to be on specific dates and whom you want and need to be with?
You’re the one who experiences the holidays. You’re the one who needs to be stable to handle all of the stress and expectations during this time.
My goal is to give you a few options that might work, but, ultimately, I want you to think now about what you need in the next few weeks or days. You can then use this year to make small changes and obverse what works and what doesn’t.
Change is possible. Holidays can be joyful and stable. Make this year about transitioning into holidays that work for you.
Julie A. Fast is the author of the bestselling mental health books Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner, Getting It Done When You’re Depressed, OMG, That’s Me! (vol. 2), and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a longtime bp Magazine writer and the top blog contributor, with over 5 million blog views. Julie is also a researcher and educator who focuses on bipolar disorder prevention and ways to recognize mood swings from the beginning—before they go too far and take over a person’s life. She works as a parent and partner coach and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, pharmacists, general practitioners, therapists, and social workers, on bipolar disorder and psychotic disorder management. She has a Facebook group for parents, The Stable Table, and for partners, The Stable Bed. Julie is the recipient of the Mental Health America excellence in journalism award and was the original consultant for Claire Danes’s character on the TV show Homeland. Julie had the first bipolar disorder blog and was instrumental in teaching the world about bipolar disorder triggers, the importance of circadian rhythm sleep, and the physical signs of bipolar disorder, such as recognizing mania in the eyes. Julie lives with bipolar disorder, a psychotic disorder, anxiety, and ADD.
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