Holiday stress has a little something for everyone: crowded malls, year-end bills, loneliness, family expectations. People, places and things all seem to conspire to raise the level of anxiety for the most grounded of folks, let alone those who live day to day with the challenges associated with mental illness.
For me, it was the Christmas dinner that caused me the greatest angst. Memories of my Mom’s meal set the bar high for me. Her feast included stuffed turkey, candied yams, butternut squash, creamy mashed potatoes and gravy all topped off with her homemade Christmas pudding and shortbread cookies. It was an event that took weeks in the making: I remember her lengthy to-do lists, first with the ingredients needed for baking in advance, then to ensure that everything was cooked at just the right time so that all the items for the meal arrived at the table at the same time. After we vultures swooped in, in no time at all it was over for another year.
The food was amazing, but there was always something that caused it to elude perfection– the gherkin pickles still in the fridge or the Pillsbury crescent rolls not quite ready in time. My Mom spent much of her time springing up from the table to check on this or get that from the kitchen, never really enjoying the lovely meal she had made.
My Mom passed away the year before my oldest son was born. Perhaps fueled by this loss, I spent many years bound and determined to replicate her perfect Christmas meal. Like my mother, I created the lists weeks in advance, prepared everything on my own to ensure I got it “just right” and spent a good deal of my Christmas Day in the kitchen. I proudly displayed the candied sweet potatoes, the butter-filled squash, even the dish filled with “special” pickles and olives. My family would load their plates with turkey, stuffing and potatoes. I would cajole them to try the yams, to eat some squash, have an olive or two. I would make up for their lack of enthusiasm by eating all these Christmas delights myself, crankily preaching to them about what they were missing. By evening, I was exhausted, resentful and usually in tears (not to mention overstuffed with all that food).
It took me far too many years, and a few depressive episodes before I came to the realization that my value was not determined by my ability to recreate my childhood Christmas dinner. It took me a few more to realize just how much my mother had been negatively impacted by her need to live up to the expectation she had in her head. And how much we all missed her presence on Christmas Day because of her self-imposed isolation in the kitchen for so many hours. Sure, we helped out with some of the basic kitchen tasks, but her anxiety to make sure that the meal was perfect took much of the joy out of her day. My Mom was an extraordinary woman: funny, kind, smart, supportive, generous. When I think back to those Christmas dinners now, I would exchange them in a heartbeat to recoup some of the endless hours she spent cooking just to talk and laugh with her.
As she got older, I think that she was learning to move away from the “shoulds” in her head. My favourite Christmas memory of her is the first year I was home from university for the holidays. This Christmas dinner included both my paternal grandfather and a friend from his retirement home who had no other place to go for Christmas. My Mom told me that she would have preferred to have a quiet, simple Christmas – maybe pizza this year – but with added guests, the expectation was a turkey and all the trimmings. She was very anxious throughout the day as she checked her lists and provided her picture perfect meal. After dinner, she and I were cleaning up and putting away the leftovers. As she was moving the turkey from the carving plate to the Tupperware that I was holding, it slipped off the counter and, as I tried to catch it, I ended up in a heap on the floor with a turkey carcass in my lap. We looked at each other, and I was worried that with all her pent up anxiety of the day, this would be the proverbial straw. To my great surprise, instead of upset or tears, she opened her mouth and let out a great big laugh. I joined in and we howled until tears streamed down both our faces.
As part of my journey through anxiety and depression, I came to realize that my Mom also dealt with mental illness throughout her life. I discovered that she had experienced what was then called a nervous breakdown when she was in high school. Despite her anxiety, she was always there for her family and she continues to be my inspiration and my hero.
So, this week, when I serve the simple Christmas dinner of pre-stuffed turkey breast, mashed potatoes and (canned) gravy, along with Mr. Zehrs yummy pre-cooked pumpkin pie, I think she will be sitting with us at the table, enjoying the conversation, the laughter, the family. I believe she would love the fact that my mashed potatoes are always lumpy, and that I don’t care one bit. And, neither does my family.
I am truly blessed in my life with family, health, happiness and the ability to live and love every day. My wish for everyone is a stress-free, simple holiday season. It is the gift that you can give to yourself and everyone you love.
Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplify, simplify – Henry David Thoreau
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.