How do I deal with a family gathering when I'm depressed?
October 10, 2017 7:46 AM   Subscribe

I have a yearly family gathering coming up on Sunday. I'm suffering a reasonably serious bout of depressing brought on by $reasons, and I have no idea how I'm going to get through Sunday without cracking up completely. Truly.

So I have lots of extremely stressful stuff going on at work and at home, and there's also some stress from my family, including my mother (nothing really awful there, but she's stressed about selling her house, which she's been living in for 35 years, and guess who she chooses to help her deal with her stress?).

This coming Sunday, my brother and sister-in-law are having their yearly joint birthday party for my niece and nephew, whose birthdays are a week apart. This is a pretty big affair; they invite not only me and my husband and my mother, but also about a zillion aunts and cousins and in-laws. My sister-in-law's family is quite large and they tend to be...well, let's say they have robust personalities. I like most of them well enough, but they can be a bit much. I don't much care for her father, who's arrogant and ill-mannered and sort of a braggart of the "my son in law is incredibly successful and makes a ton of money and I will tell you about that in excruciating detail for the next hour!!!!" variety. To make things worse, they live an hour away and I'll probably be traveling with my cousin (who I like) and one of my sister-in-law's friends, who's fine and all but I really really do not feel like making small talk in the car with her for two hours.

As I said, I'm having a pretty bad time right now -- lots of crying throughout the day and not wanting to get out of bed and feeling generally awful. I'm pushing through it, but only with an enormous amount of effort and control. The thought of going to this party is just...horrifying to me. I don't know any other way to put it. I seriously would rather have root canal work, and that's not an exaggeration. (I am already on medication, have been for years, and I have an appointment with my psychiatrist on Friday. I also am in therapy and am seeing him tomorrow.)

So I'm looking for suggestions, techniques, etc. about how I might make this less painful. I don't expect it to be totally pain free; my goal is to get through the day without breaking down completely.

Just a note: not going is absolutely not an option, full stop. Please just take my word for this. Not going will make things far worse for me. This is actually part of the problem, that my mother is and has always been totally unsympathetic when I feel like this, and has been that way since I was a kid. She was always from the "snap out of it" school, not to mention the "you'd better not embarrass me when we visit this person's house" stuff she used to pull. But please, I'm asking gently that no one suggest the standard AskMe "I'm sorry, but that won't be possible." That's not going to happen.

Thanks, everyone.
posted by O Sock My Sock to Human Relations (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
OK, not going is not an option - is taking your own car (that is, not carpooling with others) an option? Invent a reason you might need to leave early, go, stay for a bit, give everyone a hug, and leave.

Also, feel free to excuse yourself from conversations, even when it doesn't seem like you have an out. If someone is taking non-stop at you, it's ok to straight up interrupt and say "I'm sorry, I have to run to the bathroom" or "I hate to stop you but I just saw Aunt May and I need to say hi before I have to leave", then just walk away. You don't need their permission to leave the conversation.

Good luck.
posted by brainmouse at 7:52 AM on October 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

In the car on the way over, can you say something to your cousin & co. to the effect of "I'm sorry, guys, but I feel like I've got a bit of a headache coming on and I really want to be able to be up for the party, so would you mind if we just listened to some quiet music or something instead of chatting?" That way you can maybe conserve some energy for the party itself.
posted by praemunire at 8:05 AM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry that you have so much stuff going on and then have this to deal with on top of it. Gah. You may get some relief by investigating methods of dealing with catastrophizing (we all do it!). I find if I can reframe the self-talk about whatever it is it really helps to lessen the panic. There are even worksheets out there (google "catastrophizing worksheet") that will walk you through the steps.
posted by bologna on wry at 8:08 AM on October 10, 2017

I'm guessing part of the dread has to do with feeling like you have no options or agency, especially since you have a history of your mother taking away your control in just these situations as a kid. So perhaps think of ways to give yourself some control over the day? Some ideas:
-- Don't carpool. Have complete control over the ride, when you arrive and when you leave.
-- Plan frequent "escapes," like trips to the bathroom (do some deep breathing, play soduko on your phone, stretch), standing outside, even closing your eyes just a little longer than a regular blink.
-- Bring some food you really like and look forward to eating it during the party.
-- Decide that you will only talk to X-person-you-dont-like once for two minutes. Plan out an excuse beforehand.
-- Have a friend or your husband call you during the party and then escape outside for the "urgent" call for a few minutes.
posted by mcduff at 8:12 AM on October 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

If you can take your own car, go but get someone to ring or text you after an hour or so with a message about a not-quite-emergency: something which is not a huge disaster but still requires your presence back at home.

Something like: you must have left a window open earlier because your neighbour can hear their cat howling inside your house; the cat sounds distressed and the neighbour is worried; please come and rescue poor Percy! Then you can make your excuses and leave.
posted by Azara at 8:16 AM on October 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

"Not going" is not an option, but what if you were sick? Seems like that's always an option, no? And it's true that you're not up for this because you're experiencing health issues.

But if you must go, here's a quick brainstorm: podcasts for the car ride, hide out at the party with the people you actually like (e.g., watch the 14-year-olds play video games), help in the kitchen rather than making chit chat, start being less available to your mom so you don't get that stress dumped on you?, come up with a reward for yourself, come early and leave early, warn the people riding with you that you have to leave early, stare into the middle distance a lot (it helps me feel like I'm not where I am and don't have to care about the thing itself), come up with your own mission (e.g., I need to figure out better recipes, so I'm going to ask everyone I talk to about what they make for dinner that's delicious and easy), bring a big thermos of tea or coffee that makes you feel comforted and that you can slowly sip to stay grounded, be ready with some questions that pivot from bad conversation topics to ones that amuse you (what are they doing for the holidays this year? did they go on any summer vacations? did they hear that science just found half of the missing matter in the universe?)... Sorry about this, and good luck getting through it.
posted by salvia at 8:16 AM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Well. Perhaps pick out the outfit and iron it. Pretend it's for a party you would want to go for people who you like and would want to see if you weren't depressed.

Pretend the good party is tomorrow, not Sunday. Shit, you have to get ready because you told yourself not going is not an option.

Buy the gift. Wrap the gift. Not going is not an option.

See the therapist. Wear your party outift. Bring the gift. Tell her not going is not an option.

See the psychiatrist. Wear your party outfit. Bring the gift. Tell her not going is not an option.

Now you are well armored. Everyone knows not going is not an option.

If they ask, why are you being so cruel to yourself? Tell them because not going is not an option. Because you are supposed to bootstrap yourself out of depression that isn't real because your mother says so.


You can survive the party. You know how. Hide in the bathroom. Talk to the kids. Sleep in the car.
posted by charlielxxv at 8:21 AM on October 10, 2017 [8 favorites]

Memail me your cell number and time zone and we can pre-arrange a time at which I'll call and just read out the answers that people post in this thread. It'll be a great reminder of these excellent survival strategies, of the fact that you're doing everything you can to manage a very difficult situation (which is awesome of you), and of the fact that we're all rooting for you. (I can also throw in some jokes from this thread, if that would be useful). This is Officially a Work Call, in the sense that it's related to the stress you're feeling from work, so you'll probably have to step away somewhere quiet and private to take the Official Work Call. I come equipped with a wide range of reading speeds, including Very Very Slow.
posted by Hellgirl at 8:26 AM on October 10, 2017 [49 favorites]

Oh my god, I am so you. I struggle so much with family gatherings, big and small, both for my bio family as well as with my in-laws. I dread them, I fear them, I build them up in my head. They always suck but they are required attendance things.

So a couple coping strategies:
1. Have something super rewarding to look forward to when you get back home. A mental health day off work. A carton of your favourite ice cream. A present for yourself that you have wanted for a long time that you will finally buy and give yourself after the party as a "Congrats to me, I survived a shitty experience." prize. Some new nail polish. Do it all for the prize. Everytime something stupid happens, remind yourself what you're doing it for. And remind yourself that if it wasn't for all those fools you wouldn't have the prize to look forward to, that their awfulness is why you get the prize.
2. Make a game of keeping track of the stupid things that happen. Keep a small golf counter type thing and subtly keep track of every insensitive, ridiculous, dumbass, braggy thing that happens. For me that can make the drama and badness a little more tolerable because I get to add one to my count, which is weirdly fun.
3. Come down with a terrible migraine half an hour into the party. Be adamant that you don't want to leave, that you're sure you just need some painkillers. Go "lie down" for an hour while you wait for the "advil" to "kick in". I have done this. This definitely works. I have also "accidentally" fallen asleep while I waited for the "advil" to kick in.
4. Hang out with the kids. Seriously. Fuck the grown ups and their drama. Go play with the kids. This is my number one favourite way of surviving family trips because while I hang out with the kids I get to do way more fun things than the grown ups do. Teach them how to do super annoying things, like make balloons squeal loudly or make arm pit fart noises. Tell really hilarious and gross fart and poop jokes. Make paper airplanes and throw them at the other adults.
5. Have a friend call with an "emergency" so you have to go to a private room to talk to them for a while to try to help them with their huge problem.
6. Bathrooms are a great place to hide for a few minutes and look at cat pictures. I am pretty sure my inlaws all think I have constant diarrhea. I'm fine with that.

Do all of the above things.

Mostly, be kind to yourself. Depression sucks and people who don't have it have no idea how hard it can make these types of events. But I have full faith you can get through it.

So many kind thoughts being sent your way.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:33 AM on October 10, 2017 [14 favorites]

A sudden, barfing stomach bug on Sunday morning is not an option? Unless mom lives next door, how is she going to know? And nobody wants you bringing a barfing plague to a family party.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:34 AM on October 10, 2017 [12 favorites]

Be ill.

If you feel weird about lying by omission, just remember that mental illness IS an illness, but a lot of people don't see it that way - so you're just helping them to behave in an appropriate way without them knowing.

So - you can have a stomach bug, or food poisoning, or a migraine, or horrible, horrible PMT (if biologically plausible!). All of these things involve pain and fatigue. If you have any of these things, it is perfectly normal to sleep for periods of a long car journey, need naps during the day, excuse yourself early in the evening to recuperate, and be not on your best form.

Like, I haven't had a serious stomach bug since about 2012 but no-one knows that apart from the people with whom I feel completely comfortable disclosing and discussing my mental health with.
posted by greenish at 9:01 AM on October 10, 2017 [13 favorites]

Zombie makeup.

Probably not a good idea to put on the full greenface-with-open-wounds look, but a bit of purple shading around the eyes and a greyish-tinged base will make you look as unhealthy as you feel - and reduce the number of people who want to talk with you. You can say, honestly, that you're not feeling well but you wanted to be here for the family (and you're sure you're not contagious; it's probably just some kind of allergy). Right now, there's plenty of "ghoulish makeup" in stores and lots of online tutorials (most of which are rather more extreme than is likely to be appropriate).

Keep a frozen gel pack in your pocket, and touch it before you have to shake hands with anyone. That lets your hands be chilly and clammy; keep them limp instead of doing a firm handshake, and people will want to avoid you.

Expect to/try to spend most of the day on the edges of the activity. Don't be the nervous wallflower that makes your mom sigh and say, "if only you just TRIED to be friendly..." Instead, be Wednesday Addams, sizing up the party with a predatory eye. See if you can hit the level of creepy that will not directly offend anyone, but lets your relatives decide on their own that maybe you aren't who they want at this kind of party.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:38 AM on October 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

I am sorry about your mom, that sucks and can't make any of this easier. Taking you at your word that you must go, here are some suggestions

- Don't let the dread colonize your mind. Try to spend some time putting off thinking about it, not dwelling on how horrible it will be. I know this is easier said than done with depression but thinking "Do I want this to be a week of suffering, or a day of suffering?" and try to have it be just the day not everything leading up to the day.
- Agree with others, offer yourself something nice at the end of it
- Tell people you are "getting over something" in the car and at the event and that you still need to rest. If you are telling us that not going is not an option, make sure people know that is how you feel and you are here despite feeling under the weather (no need to specify).
- Podcasts or sleeping in the car ("So sorry just can't shake this bug!"). Sit in the back seat. - Frequent trips to the bathroom. If people think you may be contagious they may want to spend less time with you
- Get your partner on TEAM US (was not 100% sure if he is going, and if so why he is not going with you?) and have them help run interference, or be available for a five minute "AAAAAGGGHHH" conversation partway through

The event won't kill you. Unpleasant people can be unpleasant. Most people will act in ways you are expecting. Some may surprise you with their kindness. Some may be terrible. Above all, by Monday it will be over. I am sorry you are dealing with this.
posted by jessamyn at 9:38 AM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

In my extended family, there's nothing unusual about having to go have a lie down because of a headache or stomach problem (or a "headache" or a "stomach problem"). Does your brother have a guest room you could retreat to for a break?
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:37 AM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

consider asking your psych for a mild sedative for the day. if it were me I would consider any and all mild intoxicants to make the day tolerable.

otherwise it sounds as though a gathering of this size is a good thing. be seen and engage with a few key players immediately upon arriving and then disappear - basement, woods, bathroom - rinse/repeat until it's time to go.

and consider making up a reason to drive separate. we always tell our friends who want us to be the DD that we will be heading to an event from somewhere distant beforehand and therefore can't pick them up. Perhaps you can consider a small act of duplicity in order to save your strength for the event and not be depleted on the car ride there (which frankly is far worse from my perspective).
posted by docpops at 11:04 AM on October 10, 2017

Thanks so much for all the answers so far. For whatever stupid reason, it hadn't even occurred to me to get a car so we could drive alone (my husband is coming with me). So I've reserved a Zipcar. The cost is worth it to me.

Just to give you an idea of what I'm dealing with as far as trying to plead illness: when my father died, I came down with an awful case of bronchitis on the day of his funeral. I managed to get through that day all right, but the next day, when we were still sitting shiva, I could barely move. Coughing up a lung, so hoarse I could barely rasp out a single sentence, and so forth -- visibly sick. I went upstairs at one point to lie down for a few minutes; my mother came after me to tell me, "You are not to be upstairs -- we're still sitting shiva." So I had to drag myself downstairs, sick as a dog, to receive company. I understand it sounds like I'm exaggerating, but I promise you I'm not. So having a "headache" will probably be of limited efficacy.
posted by O Sock My Sock at 11:24 AM on October 10, 2017 [8 favorites]

So I had to drag myself downstairs, sick as a dog, to receive company.

I have a very loud, emotive, demonstrative "This is how you need to behave or you are dead to us" family. I decided, in some cases, it was okay to be dead to them. This is not a thing you need to work out now or even this year but it may be worth thinking over with your chosen family how much you want to accede to the wishes of people who do not have your health and welfare in mind.

Another strategy for this event is to walk through it thinking "How would I feel if I just said 'no' to them?" as a way of distancing yourself from others' bad behavior. This approach is not without consequences, but they may be ones that are easier for you to bear than this sort of nonsense.
posted by jessamyn at 11:38 AM on October 10, 2017 [17 favorites]

Ah the old family gathering during depression triage, a classic. It's all about prepping ahead of time.

Outfit: set aside clothes that are comfortable as well as festive, plus jewelry and underwear. Try the whole shebang on and do a sensory check while fully dressed to make sure your mental state hasn't affected your perception of the clothes (newly annoying seams and textures, maybe you've gained or lost a few pounds so those comfy pants are too tight or falling down, etc). My comfortable yet depressed nice outfit of choice is a sweater dress with leggings, squishy socks and boots and a pendant necklace. Like wearing pajamas in public. If anything in the outfit is dirty, wash it or splurge and get it dry cleaned, set everything aside so it's ready to go.

Solo activity planning: I bring crochet pretty much everywhere, it is perfect to do in a group because people ask me about it and not why my life isn't magically wonderful, but I can also go do it alone in a corner. Origami is also good for this. Definitely bring a book, one that makes you happy, I suggest Terry Pratchett. By doing a solo activity like this while at the party you are signaling that your attention isn't 100% on the other people but that you "want" to be around them. Advanced technique is to go find the kids and "keep an eye on them" while doing your thing. Set whatever you need aside, next to your outfit, in its own bag all tidy and ready to go.

Food: Will the food suck? Be poorly timed? Be delicious but make you feel shitty after? Plan out your day so at no point will you be hungry. Bring some snacks in your bag (I like Kind bars) and a refillable water bottle, and use the Internet to scope out nearby restaurants to the party location. Give yourself permission to eat before the party or after, so at no point are you stressing about a meal. There will be kids there so don't worry about leftovers going to waste. Look for a restaurant that is quiet and small and let someone bring you food while you sit down and aren't bothered.

Reconnaissance: With a trusted friend (on preview, your partner) talk out the party guests and location with an eye for two things - people who will be likely to be chill and places in the house that will be less crazy. If I'm familiar with a party location I will often "set up court" and just imperiously claim a spot and request that people come to me and bring me food and drink and talk to me. You would think this might piss people off but it is in fact a power move that takes advantage of party attendees' good will, and anybody who likes to mingle and schmooze will naturally leave you alone after only a few minutes of nodding at them. Most houses have out of the way spots that aren't hiding but are still more quiet than the kitchen. If there's a yard with kids playing claim a chair and don't move unless called in for cake. If there's a den or tv room put on "a game" and act like you're watching it - this will naturally attract the other black sheep of the family who also wish to be left alone. If you know of any relatives who also have mental health issues or are often considered quiet or grumpy, find them and be near them. Don't fake chatter, just sit nearby and read your book or be seen observing the crowd. You will form a small group that to outsiders seems like you're actively sociallizing but in fact are being quiet and avoidant together.

Best of luck, I feel you.
posted by Mizu at 11:47 AM on October 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

Multiple, strategically-timed bathroom breaks and "phone calls."
posted by delight at 12:06 PM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Can you stand sports at all?

I ask because, if this gathering is anything like my family's gatherings, if it's occurring during Sports Event X (like the Green Bay Packers playing at any time), one room of the house becomes the de-facto 'sports room', and people retreat into there to watch sports. However, my family is comprised of huge sports nuts, and this crosses over all genders. YMMV.

I'll often join them when I'm feeling overwhelmed - not because I love the Green Bay Packers, but because all of the attention will be directed at the TV, and I can just take a spot and play Sudoku on my phone without others disturbing me.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:56 PM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Are you sure you're not ill? I think you're ill. Your font looks pale.

Okay, if you're not ill and truly must go, then plan something extra-nice for either the next day or the trip home. Or both. A long hot fragrant bubble bath, a massage, a delicious takeout meal that you pick up and devour once you get home and are in your jammies, that book you've always wanted....

One strategy I also use when I am in a patented Difficult Family Situation is to calculate how long it is before I can go home - days, hours, seconds, whatever. I also make sure I limit my interactions with people who are draining or difficult, simply by just engaging and being as pleasant and bland as possible.

Also, a contingency plan is so important, in case it truly is too much and you need to leave early. A friend is having a crisis. You have a work emergency. One of your friends is having car trouble. Whatever. Sometimes, just knowing that I have a plan is all I need to make the situation doable.

Good luck! I'll be thinking of you.
posted by dancing_angel at 9:17 PM on October 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Lots of good strategies above. Maybe mention to people that you are coming down with something and/or that your allergies are acting up. It won't get you out of the party (and sounds like may not get you a chance to lie down in another room either), but at least you'll have an excuse for not being super-chipper and high-energy, so you won't have to work as hard during the party to perform. Good luck, you can get through it!
posted by aka burlap at 3:06 PM on October 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

So, an update: it wound up being pretty bad, but I survived. Thank you so much to everyone who suggested we get our own car; that made a huge difference because I was able to leave as soon as it was decent to do so, and I was saved from having to make two hours of excruciating small talk. I also set up a reward for myself for when I got home, which was a nice thing to look forward to when things at the party started to get overwhelming. I also spent more time than usual with my cousin, who I like, and she and I had a good talk.

Epilogue to the epilogue: Maybe five minutes ago, my mother called to say my brother had noticed I wasn't my usual self, and I told her that I had texted my brother this morning and explained things to him. She said, I kid you not, "Can't you just hide your sadness for a few hours?" Some things never change.

Anyway, thank you all -- I survived!
posted by O Sock My Sock at 10:39 AM on October 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

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