Family, drama and so much booze

On Thanksgiving, mental health and making it through the holiday season alive


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 myriad 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 got abandoned about two states away and your best solution is starting to look a lot 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 you 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 an unnameable dread, stare out the window and allow an inward acceptance of the void to drain that existential pus into the ceaseless river of American landscape that rushes alongside 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’ll be wise to maintain civility. Yes, you may hate Thanksgiving for its simplistic whitewashing of our genocidal history. Yes, you may think Santa Claus is a tool for deadening the rational agency of children in the name of an unending capitalist con. But your family sees these holidays as a good excuse to make time for your stupid face, and perhaps rightfully so. When you get irritated because somebody decided to ask when your single ass is going to start having babies, let it pass over you like an ill yet faint breeze and return to luxuriating in the shade of your brother’s whiskey collection. If you’re not the drug-abusing 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 authentic love and joy for those around you and appreciate it when you can.

Establish your brooding hole

You’re bound to be exhausted by now. The travel followed by an immediate burst of energy when everybody sees each other for the first time offer infinite opportunities for minor irritants to build up into a full-scale anxious meltdown. Inevitably, the tension—eustress or distress—will split your head wide open and you’ll start thinking about how good it would feel to take a carrot peeler to your forearm. This is where it’s time to admit to yourself that you’re only human. If your family is the understanding sort, then chat with your host about which nooks and crannies you can stow yourself in when you need a breather, preferably a space with a lock on the door. When you do disappear, it may be a fine idea to let at least one person know—nothing is worse than stealing yourself away only to hear the outside voices loudly wondering what abyss you wandered off to.

Set your boundaries

Depending on how tolerant your people are, sometimes you can get away with simply saying, “Excuse me for a moment while I contemplate death.” Not everybody’s cool with that. It may be worth your 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. Whatever your comfort level is, find a way to ease your folks onto 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 before 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 the hell up, if you can get away with it. Know your limits and do what you can to have others respect them.

Build good rapport with a confidant

You likely have an established outlet in your family, somebody who lets you get away with being completely open about whatever Satanic thoughts are on your mind. It’s easy to lose that rock, though: sometimes that person didn’t make it to the gathering this time around; maybe that person took to the nog a bit too heartily. Don’t be afraid to sniff out the situation for sympathetic parties that can tolerate you at your worst, and do find an activity that you and your support 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 meaningless rounds of Street Fighter—all of these are valid ways to take the pressure off while also enabling you to have quality time with at least one family member in moments 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 space to sleep well. If you feel the need to leave, leave, and if you feel the need to stay, stay. Above all else, you know what you need to do. And don’t forget to eat everybody else’s food—if this shit’s gonna wrench you into a bubbling pot of neuroses, may as well squeeze all the value you can before you go back to your regular ramen routine.

Check the Related Stories box above for SN&R’s additional tips for surviving the holiday season.