The Christmas Contract: Celebrating the Holidays on Your Terms

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As we approach Christmas, I’m forced into contemplating the inevitable, one that’s a most terrifying concept for me: socializing at the ubiquitous holiday party. (Introverts collectively suck in their breath. I’ll wait while you collect yourself). Polite society expects that, if one is invited to attend a seasonal gathering, they are to dress nicely, arrive on time, engage with others, answer questions about themselves, inquire reciprocally, and generally, be pleasant. And festive!  

So what happens when you are someone struggling with a serious mental illness? Or even situational depression? What if, just days before, you lost your job, your family crumbled, your best friend received a diagnosis that could be fatal? In extreme circumstances, I would hope that hosts, family, friends, neighbors and coworkers would understand and, thusly, excuse the absence.

Moreover, what happens when you are saddled with a chronic condition, one that, no matter how much time, money, treatment and medication is rendered, still proves steadfastly debilitating? When your family and few remaining friends have dealt with your high-maintenance bullshit for decades and it’s kind of getting old? When you’re weight-restored (and then some), when  you’re not looking so crazy on the outside, but you’re still crazy on the inside? What happens then?

Why, you put on a show, of course!

My periods of weight restoration from anorexia have, historically, been the most difficult for me. When I’m looking physically well, there’s an implied (real or imagined by me) expectation that I behave “normally” in a social setting, that is, to be amiable and charming.

It may sound odd, but it is a great deal easier to spend time with others when I’m seriously physically ill because there’s an obvious, evident explanation to “What’s wrong with me?”

What I mean is, there’s no (implied) expectation for a walking skeleton to be outrageous and charismatic and fun. On the exterior, you get the opportunity to rest and relax. People get it. You are clearly struggling with something on the inside. This is a relief, because you need to save your strength for battling the brokenness on the inside. When you’ve rested a little, you can keep going. So, you grit your teeth and clench your fists before climbing back inside your brain.

The problem with this battle plan, of course, is that, it’s all happening to you passively. Up until now, I hadn’t thought I had much control over anything, let alone how social interactions are conversely made more or less challenging via severity of illness.

None of the physical or behavioral symptoms have been intentionally manipulative, and I hadn’t actually recognized the relationship between social behavior and physical illness until now, at my heaviest.

Yesterday, I told my dad that my intellect seems dramatically improved concurrent with weight gain. His response was that I’d been starving my brain along with the rest of my body and, while I’ve always understood the connection between cognitive performance and health,  it seems remarkable that I can actually recognize it happening.

I’m at the “high end” of healthy, which I guess is the politically correct term for chubby, and, while I hate that, I am grateful for improved cognitive ability.  My technical writing is more articulate and I’m glad for that. However, improved mental clarity is compromised by everything else: the mood swings, depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive behavior, and the social apprehension. It’s the underlying monster behind the eating disorder: my bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder.

With that said, the next few days usher in family gatherings, about which, I remain conflicted. My sense of fear grows as I ruminate over the expectation to attend, engage, and not hide in a closest. In fact, what began as a mild foreboding has progressed to borderline hysteria.

I love my family and friends and would certainly regret missing quality time with them, so I am attending, albeit in a contrived sort of way. My dad and I agreed upon a “Christmas Contract” which is essentially, an “appearance rider” a la VH1’s Divas and their list of hospitality demands.

I’m exaggerating. It’s basically an agreement which has parameters flexible enough that I feel more comfortable attending. Meaning, I can leave when I need to. When I feel a panic attack is imminent. And yes, I realize how it comes off: that I’m high maintenance, demanding, needy and self-centered.  While I am, admittedly, all of those things, at least I’ll be there in person.