It’s almost that time of year: the holidays! You'll get to:
- Travel to see those dearest to you.
- Hang out in your childhood bedroom again.
- Make chit-chat with your uncle Jon and his new wife about why you really should spend $100 for a bottle of tequila.
- Listen to your stepdad tell you how easy you kids have it now.
- Listen to your mom and sister chime in about how big your butt is getting.
- Listen to your MeMaw let you know that she doesn't want to die without great-grandchildren.
Plus, your once-favorite aunt probably read a book this year and decided that you're a spoiled brat who never appreciated all the things she did for you when you were a little kid -- and really, now you’re 30, so she wants you to know that you ought to have sent a thank-you card after you stayed at her house for a week one summer. Even though you don't like the country or ferrets. And, oh, your father showed up this year - -nobody's seen him in two years, but I guess he’s drinking again, and also he has another kid?
Yes, the holidays. It can really be too much -- and there are times when it’s not wise, or safe, to let your family know you can't see them without ruining your mental health.
Sometimes, I just don't have it in me to do it all. I live in the same town where I grew up. It’s a delicate balancing act to avoid family while living 10 miles away from them, and it gets more difficult around the holidays; the familial guilt-rays grow stronger in the combination of crisp, cool air with the twinge of nostalgia from "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
But stay strong, you with difficult relations! I come bearing three gifts: the strategies that have helped me avoid my family and not feel like a jerk, even during the holidays.
Strategy One: An Impossible Job
My working life has been 80% healthcare and 20% retail. If you work in service, freelance, or creative industries, or you have a job that requires weekend/holiday call, claim that. You can volunteer to pick up hours on holidays, or say that those are blackout dates for time off. If you are obligated to travel for family, this can be a lifesaver months out. Explain to your folks that you don't know if you’ll be able to come home: you won't know your holiday hours until two weeks out, and by that time buying a plane ticket would be nuts!
If your family is the type that would buy a ticket for you, you then have the fallback of “I have to be at work ‘til midnight Christmas Eve and then open at 6 a.m. the day after Christmas.” Depending on the your job, you may be eligible for Holiday Pay hours, which can sweeten the deal, especially if you are obligated to send presents for your baby cousin regardless of whether or not you are able to attend holiday festivities.
Pro tip: if you have fallen victim to the great recession, stress to your parents that you really need this job.
Strategy Two: The Sleepover Pact
Remember when you were a kid and wanted to do some shenanigans like go to San Antonio to see a band play way past curfew, and you told your parents you were gonna spend the night at Pam’s house, and Pam told her mom she was going to spend the night at your house, but you all really got in Jessica’s mom’s minivan and just went? This is like the grown-up version of that.
Pick a good friend with a family they don't want to see either. Let your folks know kind-of-last-minute (about a week to three days out) that you promised Evelyn you’d go to Oklahoma for Thanksgiving with her parents. Lay it on thick if need be -- Evelyn just got dumped, and her family dog since childhood died earlier this month, plus it’s an eight-hour drive to her home in Oklahoma, and she doesn't want to drive it herself.
Keep the story simple, but emotional, and based in real things that have happened this year to your friend/co-conspirator. Have them do the same at their parents. Having a buddy in on this helps just in case your parents meet your friends at some point. The trick to pulling this off is to meet up with Evelyn at a restaurant or pub on the day of the holiday, one that’s quiet-ish, with people talking or sports on in the background. That way if/when your parents call, they’ll hear football or dish-clatter, and not the sound of you, alone in your apartment, watching "The Breakfast Club" and eating olives.
Pro tip: If your folks are inclined to try and videochat, ignore it, call them back later in a car, all cool about the "they have a no mobile devices at the table" policy.
Strategy Three: Healthcare
Note: This can be a trickier tactic to pull off than a work obligation or someone-needs-me-more, especially if your family is the type to come and want to rally around you, and it may not be as effective in countries that aren't the US.
That said: if your health insurance plans include a deductible that has to be met before full coverage sets in, that leaves the end of the year as the only time for many people to take care of health care needs. In my own life I’ve had dental work performed the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and an in-office medical procedure that required heavy pain meds on Christmas Eve. I’ve had friends who've had small procedures scheduled the week before Christmas and then made sure the doctor gave them travel restrictions. The difficulty of being able to afford to take care of medical needs and also be able to take time off work for it also leads to the least amount of guilt for me re: canceling holidays; I had extenuating circumstances, time off of school I otherwise wouldn't have had, and a valid reason not to drive at night in the rain to meet everyone at church.
Pro tip: It’s a joke that I heard a standup comedian tell (I can’t remember who): Nobody will ask you questions if you cancel because you have a bad case of diarrhea. The problem with that is if you have to be very literal and blunt about it. My mom won’t buy me having "food poisoning" or an "upset stomach" as an excuse, but if I tell her I can't make it to dinner because I am unable to go 10 minutes without being in a bathroom, I get a very quick “oookay, see you later,” and a brief guilt trip.
These moves have all worked for me once or twice. Some years the holidays are great, and it’s all warm snuggles, and then other years I leave feeling like a hot bag of overcooked Brussels sprouts and am all but destroyed for a week. My family is generally not as concerned with my holiday attendance as they are other folks’, so it’s easy for me to fly under the radar.
Sometimes I feel like a jerk for skipping holidays. I do live in the same town as my parents, and I don’t see them terribly often. Sometimes I can have fun with my mom and my aunts and we all enjoy some Cran-brrr-tinis and crescent rolls -- but more often than not what starts as a fun time leads to an uncle threatening to stab someone, a conversation about how I really should be more concerned with my weight, age, and marital status, or weeks of passive aggressive emails and melodramatic phone calls from my mom.
The holidays are demanding times, but you don’t always have to be brave to take care of yourself. Sometimes the best way to look after yourself is to avoid people, even if they are your family. The hardest person for me to stand up for is myself, but it’s much easier to do when I’m safe in my own space -- just me and "The Breakfast Club."