Surviving the holidays

An essay on staying sane during family gatherings

About the author:

Anthony Siino, assistant editor for Sacramento News & Review, is a former Chico resident.

Holidays aren’t the bucket of cheer that everyone makes them out to be. It can get pretty depressing—especially if you’re somebody like me, who’s already clinically depressed.

After many years of grappling with existential terror in the midst of merriment, I’ve developed strategies for keeping my sanity while attempting to maintain meaningful connections with my loved ones. I share these now in hopes of preserving your sanity as well.

Keep travel tension low

It’s the seventh hour in a car that isn’t yours. The sky is as dark as your thoughts about this Christian country-rap album currently on its fourth playthrough. You’ve got about three minutes of juice remaining on your phone, your headphones somehow were abandoned about two states away, and your best solution is starting to look like rolling yourself out of the window. It’s really not that bad, of course. It’s just the fact that you’re enclosed in a tiny box full of sounds that you can’t control with people who insist on asking nosy questions—you know, like, “What’s going on with you these days?” and “Are you OK back there? You haven’t spoken in three hours.” When you start to feel the creep of dread, stare out the window, embrace the void and drain that existential pus into the American landscape that rushes by you. Or, if you’re not that far gone, a pillow and a sleeping pill can do the trick.

Protect your perspective

Once you arrive, it’s wise to maintain civility. Yes, you may think Santa Claus is a tool for an unending capitalist con, but your family sees the holiday as a good excuse to see your stupid face, and perhaps rightfully so. When you get irritated because somebody asks when your single ass is going to start having babies, let it pass and return to luxuriating in the shade of your brother’s whiskey collection. If you’re not the drinking sort, find a way to root yourself at a moment’s notice. Worry stones, breathing exercises and busy work will serve you well. Remind yourself of your love for those around you and appreciate it.

Establish your brooding hole

You’re bound to be exhausted by now. The travel and also the burst of energy when everybody greets each other offer infinite opportunities for minor irritants to build into a full-scale anxious meltdown. Inevitably, the tension will split your head wide open and you’ll start thinking about how it would feel to take a carrot peeler to your forearm. This is when it’s time to admit that you’re only human. If your family is the understanding sort, chat with your host about where to stow yourself when you need a breather, preferably a space with a lock on the door. When you disappear, let at least one person know—nothing is worse than stealing away only to hear people loudly wondering what abyss you wandered into.

Set your boundaries

It may be worth the effort to set reasonable expectations with your loved ones as openly as possible, whether that’s as blatant as admitting that you’re having an anxiety attack or as subtle as suggesting that everybody should watch a movie so that you can have a few minutes of relative peace. Find a way to ease your folks into the idea that you need a breather sometimes. And if they won’t give it to you, take it however you can. Gracefully divert conversations on troubling topics before they get heated—or they wound you. Offer to help in the kitchen when the living room gets too rowdy. Tell somebody who’s too heavy on you to lighten up. Know your limits and let others know how they can respect them.

Build good rapport with a confidant

You likely have an established outlet in your family, somebody who lets you be completely open about whatever thoughts are on your mind. It’s easy to lose that rock, though: Sometimes that person didn’t make it to the gathering this year; maybe that person took to the nog a bit too heartily. Sniff out sympathetic parties who can tolerate you at your worst, and find an activity that you and your confidant can engage in that openly signals to everybody else that you’re having your own time together. Slipping out for a surreptitious smoke, volunteering for the next liquor run, hiding in another room to play a few rounds of Street Fighter—all of these are valid ways to take the pressure off while also allowing you to have quality time with at least one family member when you can’t hack the whole herd.

Love yourself

Have the respect for yourself to know when you’re being pushed—and when you’re pushing yourself—too hard. Stay on your meds and carve out the time and space to sleep well. If you feel the need to leave, leave, and if you feel the need to stay, stay. You know what you need to do. And don’t forget to eat everybody else’s food—if this holiday season is gonna wrench you into a bubbling pot of neuroses, you may as well squeeze out some value before going back to your regular ramen routine.