Why Is Family So Stressful for the Mentally Ill?

December 28, 2011 Natasha Tracy

Happy holidays, all. I am back from my family sojourn and feeling exhausted from it. Which is odd, actually, because nothing stressful happened. I worked, we ate, we played cards we pretended to be happy (some more than others) and the holiday passed by.

And a giant "meh" was heard by all.

And yet still I find myself crippled with exhaustion and stress post-holiday. Why, exactly, is that?

Breaking with the Normal Routine

One could suggest that simply breaking with my normal, controlled routine is enough to cause havoc with my mental state. And one would be right about that. I'm very much used to a daily routine and control over what I do and do not do on a daily basis. And this sort of routine and control is lost when sleeping on a Murphy bed / medieval torture device in someone else's house.

And change is bad. I don't care what people say.

RF247304Acting Happy

But I think the big thing with the holidays is pretending to like them for the benefit of those around me. Don't get me wrong, I theoretically like the holidays - who doesn't enjoy presents and feasting - but I just don't care for them much in reality. In reality I'm a pretty depressed person who doesn't really like much of anything and the holidays certainly fall into that category.

All the holidays represent to me is a lot of work pretending to be happy and normal and someone that other people in my family would actually like and relate to. Ugh.

Mental Illness and Pretending

And this type of pretending, this type of acting, really is tiring for the soul. Most people have no idea what it is to orchestrate every blink to ensure that others don't know how you really feel. But people with a mental illness know. They know what it is to hide their every thought from those around them. They know what it is to shoehorn into normal. They know what it is to pretend to care about tinsel and lights when all they really want to do is curl up in a ball and wait for it all to be over.

This is no one's fault. It's just how I feel. Everyone else can be the greatest version of themselves they could ever be and it would make no difference to me at all. Because it's not about them; it's about my brain. But no one understand that. They assume that unhappiness on my part is a problem. It's them. It's the holiday. It's the cranberry sauce. It's whatever.

But it isn't. It's just a daily event. My daily event. My daily life.

So there is nothing left to do but pretend. But to pretend that everything isn't a mess of sadness and crazy. It keeps everyone else happy and going and takes the spotlight off of what no one can do anything about anyway.

But it all leaves me tired for days. To the holidays? To the sleeping I say.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2011, December 28). Why Is Family So Stressful for the Mentally Ill?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, February 25 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitter, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

December, 12 2012 at 7:19 am

I just found this article and I want to say thank you. Thank you for summing up exactly how I feel in this type of situation and why it's not my choice to feel that way, but it also isn't something I can simply change either.

April, 7 2012 at 12:46 am

I stumbled upon this blog as I tried to read/find a way of explaing my sister's attitude to my mental illness and her complete lack of any kind of empathy or compassion. The bit about holidays is what really caught me eye - holidays for me are torture - I hate all of the superficial BS that is all about spending and eating and hearing about what a wonderful time other 'normal' people are having. For me, My sister's idea of Xmas starts around the middle of the year - sometimes as soon as the after xmas sales start. For months and months I have to listen to detailed plans on what all the hundreds of friends, relatives, neighbours and even casual aquaintances are getting for gifts and how she is planning to spend the day. If I dare to look anything other than spellbound I get a very sharp rebuke and a subtle warning that I'd better get on board with all the BS or I can take a hike. I either go along with it all with a happy look on my face and agreeing with her constantly or I get a nasty 'what's wrong with you? and 'if your going to spoil my holiday's then maybe you should just not meet me or stay away. And god help me if I don't look/act/pretend to be so happy I could just burst when I do have to open said presents (that I've told her repeatedly I don't want) and praise and thank her over and over again. She tells me that I am abnormal - that all 'normal people' love xmas and easter and other holidays. She was really annoyed at me at xmas because I was going through a bad depressive episode and I just couldn't face the crowds and those bloody presents. I could barely get out of bed and she acted as if i had purposely ruined all her fun. I truly think that deep down she doesn't 'believe' in mental illness - its just used as an excuse to get out of things you don't want to do. It was during the episode prior to that that she let the mask slip and i saw what she really thought about 'my illness'. I think she thinks it is all self-inflicted and that if I really wanted to I could snap out of it. It's this complete blindness to the pain is what hurts the most. and what hurts more is hearing from others what a kind, compassionate, caring friend she is. So it's easter and the whole money-wasting machine started the moment easter eggs went on sale in Late January/early February and it happens to coincide with my 3rd bad episode of depression in 6 months. This one has been so bad that I am seeing a pyschologist for the first time and the dr has switched me from one high-dose antidepressant - cold turkey - straight on to another. I am going through the worse withdrawal and start-ups I have ever felt and the thought that this might go on for another 2-4 weeks is almost unbearable. So my sister rings me at 9.30am and is all nasty when I told her that she had woken me up (after not being able to go to sleep until 3.30pm) and was more than a bit groggy and unenthusiastic and she became hostile and theatened that 'it's never a good time to ring you as you are always asleep' and if she was bothering me then the alternative was to not ring me anymore at all". I had to hold my tongue from saying what a huge loss that would be as she had only briefly called me twice in the last 17 days to see how I was. I wanted to scream at her that I have a major depressive disorder and that I am mentally and physically sick. I can't 'cheer up' or 'snap out of it' or even pretend to be all fluffy sweetness like something out of a walt disney movie. I am suffering. i am in such pain that if It wasn't for my loving supportive partner I don't think I could bear it. So I've spoiled easter with my irritating mental (imaginary) illness and my brother has spoiled easter because he cancelled the party and she was furious and she woke me up to take it out on me) now I've ruined all her easter plans and all I can think of is how selfish she really is and how superficial. I'm sorry for the rant folks but i have no one to talk to - I'm trying to spare my poor partner any more stress as i know how worried he is. His family also believes that mental illness is BS and used as an excuse for bad behaviour. When are people going to accept that mental illness is not something that is chosen - its not a lifestyle choice, and its certainly not something that someone would ever decide to experience just for the hell of it or to escape from an unhappy life. Do I have to visiby bleed from my ears to 'prove' that I'm sick? Jump in front of a train? She hurt me on such a deep level (even though I know all my thinking is screwed up and distorted) that I simply wish she would just cut me loose. At least then I would NEVER have to suffer through bloody holiday's ever again! I read a book many years ago called "Toxic Parents" and it suggested that some parents are so toxic, so poisonous, that for the sake of your mental sanity and health is is better to cut them out of your life as they are nver going to change their abusive behaviour. I vote for cutting out all bloody holidays (and annoying, consumer/brand name whores) who make our lives (and our mental illnessess) so painful.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Linda Lucille
September, 28 2019 at 12:31 pm

Leslie, I’m no expert but this sister sounds possibly may have Narcistic Personality Disorder. The superficial ba, the blaming you, the complete lack of empathy. You might consider blocking her, or learning “grey rock” techniques to shield yourself from narcistic abuse. We don’t need that bs when we’re dealing with our own healing. That’s just my opinion. And it is truly crazy that some people feel they have the right to “not believe in” mental illness. If they had never had appendicitis would they think people who do are faking? Or if they’ve never had a headache, therefore don’t believe headaches are real? That is just willful ignorance.
Hugs to you and good vibes for your healing.

Grahame Lawson
March, 23 2012 at 12:38 pm

Am with family - mother and Father - most of the time. My father and mother fight. It gets to me but when i defend my mother, my Father finds ways to get back at me. He has sent me hospitals and once to jail because i couldn't make it home on time - he was acting as my surety. Him going behind my back to make executive decisions has been very painful for me and i guess i'm getting him back now - so i believe the illness is often borne by those who can't defend themselves.

March, 21 2012 at 4:51 am

I am so glad to have read this....I dread holidays and it is so good to know I am not alone. I become so anxious then depressed. And I too, wonder will I EVER get better?

March, 20 2012 at 12:36 pm

As the mom of a 38 year old male who is delusional and paranoid, we try to downplay any holiday. Last Christmas his brother went to spend time with his girlfriend, so we 3 went to the beach then had a holiday meal of fresh fish ate outside on the water. He thought it was a wonderful day without all the holiday hoopla. Believe it or not, some families try to understand and do their best to make holidays enjoyable but not in a tradition way.

Natasha Tracy
January, 1 2012 at 9:46 am

Hi Rachel.
Church can absolutely be your family as can friends. Thanks for bringing that up.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 1 2012 at 9:45 am

I hope that works for you and I hope that helps. You're a kind and generous person to take his needs into account like that.
- Natasha

January, 1 2012 at 7:40 am

I have to pretend to be normal every time I go to church.
But as the old song goes, "When you fool the people you fear, you fool yourself as well." At least it works for me. Most of the time.
The church I currently attend has a lot of eccentrics. So I usually feel loved and accepted. :)
I know this blog is about family, but for me, church is a lot like an extended family. I think it's that way for most people who are serious about their religions.

January, 1 2012 at 6:53 am

"my family will never be what I dream them to be, my mental illness is not the cause of the dysfunction and it is okay. " hi Lucien, you spelt out what I have been feeling lately.

December, 30 2011 at 11:09 am

I know you're right. Tim tries so hard to be upbeat and cheerful, even though he knows he has permission to be himself, but he wants everything to be perfect for everyone else. Sometimes that means he falls apart when he goes back to his RTC, as he "releases" all he's bottled up. We try and make the holidays as low key as possible - this year, it was PJ's all day, games and movies - so that he doesn't have to try.

December, 29 2011 at 8:37 am

Thanks for the reassurance Natasha!

Natasha Tracy
December, 28 2011 at 1:24 pm

Hi Jeff,
Yes, there is hope. Whether you're suffering from depression, or something else, yes, there is hope. Nothing in life ever stays the same, and neither does mental illness.
Your struggle matters. You matter. And yes, it will get better.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
December, 28 2011 at 1:23 pm

Hi Baeb,
I'm sorry you're in that spot, it's absolutely difficult for those around the person with the mental illness too.
It sounds like you know it, but it's important to remember it's not your fault. He's just dealing with an illness, like any other. Unfortunately, it's hard not to feel helpless.
Perhaps though, together you can come up with a strategy that minimizes the discomfort. He has something many of us don't - a person that understands, so that goes a long way already.
- Natasha

December, 28 2011 at 1:20 pm

Years ago, in a land far, far away I was just coming out of the mental hospital. I was fragile and my Pdoc asked my family to come in for a couple of family sessions. I was horrified as my family took the fun out of dysfunctional. Anyhow after two sessions my doc told me about "Expressed Emotion" I took down what he had to say that day, in shorthand, and here it is; "One of the main contributors to relapse in psychological disorders is expressed emotion. Expressed emotion is the critical, hostile, and emotionally over involved attitude that relatives have toward a family member with a disorder. The expressed emotion can be high or low.
I don't do family holidays anymore, the drink, get abusive and its ugly and very embarrassing. No matter who fights, who drinks, I am always to blame. The holidays add their own kind of fresh hell to those who struggle with MI. I too keep a happy mask on. I don't share w/my family as they use the info later in arguments or worse, forced hospitalizations.
I float in now, usually early to mid afternoon. Drop gifts, hugs and then I have to go. I come home, order Chinese and watch old movies. 5 years I have been doing this and my holidays are smoother. They still feed on each other but I am not there to witness nor be a part of their ills.
I am happy the holidays are over. I agree, change is never good. I control my environment and in return I get some sense of well-being. I realized a while back (43 B.C. LOL) that my family will never be what I dream them to be, my mental illness is not the cause of the dysfunction and it is okay. I also realized I need to make me and my mental well-being top priority.
So for everyone out there in cyber land who has a mental illness take a read into Expressed Emotion (new tab, google it) and have a great year. Remember your mental illness did not create dysfunction, it was already there. Happy New Year all!

Natasha Tracy
December, 28 2011 at 1:20 pm

Hi David,
I use the "I'm working," one a lot. Which is not untrue, but perhaps not as true as I suggest.
- Natasha

December, 28 2011 at 12:34 pm

My husband has MDD - he intensely dislikes the holidays. He also puts on his happy face and pretends because he feels he has to. So sad and so difficult to know how to deal with this. Go without him & try to enjoy the holiday doings, or stay home with him and keep hiom company? Make excuses - tell the truth, he's too depressed to attend? What? I wish I could help him.

December, 28 2011 at 11:31 am

This writeup is a great description of my version of the holidays! I hate having to put on the fake smile and cheery disposition. So, I avoid taking part in the holidays as much as possible. Sad to say but I totally relate to what your say: "In reality I’m a pretty depressed person who doesn’t really like much of anything and the holidays certainly fall into that category." It's terrible having this existence. I get so tired of fighting it all the time. Will it ever end? Is there any hope?

December, 28 2011 at 9:38 am

That is soo me,I always have the happy mask on because you don't want them to know or feel upset by any off your feelings so its easier at the time to hide,I say tears of a clown as I am always trying to make ppl happy yet I'm crying inside.Iv been in bed all day with my back pain etc but its the daily mental fight I find so hard!Its good to know I am not alone,you are helping so many ppl with your blogs,thanku for helping me xxx

David Edwards
December, 28 2011 at 9:03 am

another that just occurred to me is that the Family Joker[sic] is often present and in search of any easy target for their mailicious spite expressed as "Hunour"

David Edwards
December, 28 2011 at 8:18 am

Yes, more than everthing else it's the pretence, maintaining the apparent compusre because tou jnow that Family cannot cope with the skeletons or anyone who disturbs the Happy Family myth. I used to cope with mine by (a)always having a strategy for rapid exit (b) having an attention diverting companion (c) having a secret stash to use when I went outside for cigarette (b) failing to attend because I was working [work justifies almost everything for my lot]

Leave a reply