“Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of year”
A Charlie Brown Christmas is my favorite Christmas movie. The music of Vince Guaraldi is one of the reasons why I like the movie so much. Unfortunately, “Christmas time” and the Holiday Season, in general, are not “Fun for all”. For people and families impacted by mental illness, the holidays can be more stressful than they are for the mentally healthy. Often time’s anxiety is created because you don’t know how your mentally ill child or family member will react to the commotion and excitement. Routines will be disrupted, which can be a trigger for decompensation or a decline in a person’s mental health.
I can’t deny that while I’m a mainly optimistic and cup-half-full type of person, my anxiety level is slightly elevated. Our son, Aaron, developed schizophrenia in 1999 when he was 15. Over the past 23 years since Aaron became ill, we have had several difficult holiday seasons.
Christmas 2002 was one of the tougher Christmases. Every mother’s greatest joy on Christmas is to have all her children with her. I don’t need or want any gifts really. I just want to be surrounded by the people I love most, my husband and children. That’s what made Christmas 2002 so hard. Aaron was missing.
From the time Aaron was 18 to the time he was 21, he spent a great deal of time institutionalized at Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Wisconsin. This is far from typical, but the psychiatrists at the public mental health facility in our community did not want to treat Aaron. He is med-resistant. While most people with schizophrenia can lead fairly normal lives with the right therapy and medications, Aaron struggles despite taking a lot of drugs. He is frequently delusional and psychotic, and when he’s not doing well, he requires a lot of one on one attention to keep him safe. Aaron is prone to self-harm when he’s in a delusional state. The psychiatrists in our community did not want to deal with such a sick person, so they sent him to Winnebago.
Believing that the more time Aaron spent with his family, the healthier he would be, we would drive one and a half hours to Winnebago every Friday to pick Aaron up and drive one and half hours back to Winnebago every Sunday to return Aaron. This routine was dependent on getting clearance from the doctors and staff at Winnebago, however. If Aaron was having a bad week, they would refuse a home pass. Unfortunately on December 23, 2002, when we called Winnebago Mental Health Institute to make arrangements to pick Aaron up on Christmas Eve day, we were told he wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital as planned. His behavior was too irrational. The doctor didn’t feel comfortable giving him a pass. In private, the tears flowed, but I remained stoic in the company of our daughters. I didn’t want to contribute anything but joyfulness to their Christmas.
My husband, Mark, and I couldn’t bear the thought of Aaron, just 18 years old, spending Christmas alone at Winnebago. It made our hearts ache with sadness. To ease our grief, we decided to make the three-hour roundtrip drive to Winnebago on Christmas Eve morning to wish him a Merry Christmas in person. We assured our daughters that we would be back in time to get them to church for the Christmas Eve program.
As we drove, I prayed for God to give me the strength to be cheerful for Aaron and to focus on His love in the gift of His son, Jesus. My prayers were answered. I was able to sit with Aaron for a couple of hours and read the Christmas story to him that he had so often recited as a child on Christmas Eve in front of the church. My visit with Aaron eased my aching heart enough to enable me to focus solely on our daughters that evening and on Christmas Day.
The mental health decline Aaron experiences during the holiday season is not uncommon. Several years ago, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) conducted a survey where 64% of people with mental illness reported the holidays made their conditions worse. Having this insight in advance of the holidays and knowing the symptoms to watch for can help mitigate the difficulties a mental health decline can create. I concur completely with one of the respondents to the NAMI survey. They advise keeping expectations low and letting your family know in advance of your limits.
I don’t know exactly how Christmas 2022 will turn out yet. We have learned a lot over the years on how best to help Aaron remain mentally stable. I remain hopeful that if we can keep disruptions to Aaron’s routine to a minimum, he, and then the rest of the family as well, will have a happier Christmas. That is the gift I hope for more than anything else.