Let’s admit it: family dynamics can be huge triggers for those of us with mental illness. Social support can be great, and we all need to know that we have people in our corner when things get bad. However, families are often the breeding ground for the very emotions that make our illnesses harder to manage. So, how do you prevent Aunt Margaret and Uncle Joe from sending you from the living room couch to the therapists’ couch?
Bring a Mental Illness Wingman to Dinner
If your family is anything like mine, it runs on a constant stream of guilt and disappointment. After my mother died, her sisters expected me to be her, fulfill her place in the family so they felt less of a loss. The guilt I felt over not living up to their expectations fueled my depression and anxiety for many years. The guilt also kept me isolated from the family in order to separate myself from any negativity. The therapy experts among us will say that you can never change other people’s behavior; you can only change how you act. So my solution to the overbearing family unit is to introduce a relationship buffer. Enter the Mental Illness Wingman (MIW).
Mental Illness Wingman as Distraction
It takes a cruel person to reject a visitor during the holidays, so consider bringing a coworker or neighbor to dinner as your MIW. Introduce your MIW as someone who has no plans, couldn’t get away, etc., to draw attention away from their intended purpose, which is to get people to act right because company is over. I know that I mentioned the futility of changing the actions of others. However, I believe in Christmas miracles, as well in the ability of a well-placed stranger to provide a new target for the meddling questions that make you want to bawl every year.
In case you don’t want to give the gift of schadenfreude this season, your MIW can also provide an excuse for your early exit from uncomfortable family meals. This situation works for people – like me – for whom guilt is a critical trigger. Admittedly, I’ve gotten much better at not falling victim to the family shame cycle. But when I feel particularly vulnerable, having a pre-planned exit strategy with my MIW minimizes my anxiety: I know that even if my emotion-regulation skills fail to deflect any discomfort, I can just leave the scene of the crime, and with a companion to absorb any fallout.
This year, I’m planning two MIWs: a cousin with a similar predilection for avoiding the family, and my ex-boyfriend who has never seen the Coyne clan in action. My ex has a car.