How Mental Illness Shapes Our Christmas
About ten years ago, we had “The Best Christmas Ever!” My kid’s declaration, not mine. At the time we were still a family of four, their Dad was still in their lives and Santa was still real. We were the quintessential adorable American Family.
I always believed in the “wow” moment on Christmas morning, when my children in their matching footie Christmas jammies scrambled out of bed to see what magic has transpired while they were sleeping. In a stroke of mom genius I went to the local appliance store and asked for the biggest boxes they had. On Christmas Eve their dad and I set up refrigerator and dishwasher boxes until our living room was full. Inside each box was a small gift for our children to discover.
Those empty (and free!) boxes became castles, spaceships, forts and pieces of art. For an entire week my living room was unnavigable because of the creations those boxes had become. We crawled inside with flashlights and blankets to read books. My son, Charlie, even started spending the night in the biggest one.
Ten years later our lives had been upended. Both my adorable children were diagnosed with mental illnesses (see Another Day, Another Diagnosis) my marriage fell apart; my daughter and then my son were placed in special schools hundreds of miles from home; their dad remarried and started a new family and I have taken him to court numerous times to get him to understand that he was still responsible for his first two. (see Fighting the Good Fight)
And so I work very hard at making Bridget and Charlie know that I unconditionally love them, that we are a tight, yet small, family unit. And that includes creating “wow” moments at Christmas even though they know I am Santa and that money is tight.
A couple of years ago, Charlie had asked for a Wii U, a pricey gift, and only one of the many things on his list. But he had stopped attending school, wasn’t eating nor sleeping well and so I bought him the Wii U in hopes of lifting his spirits.
That is not what happened.
When he opened the Wii he seemed happy, but when his sister suggested she would like to play it with him he had a meltdown of epic proportions. Think a three-year-old’s temper tantrum times ten. Except he was sixteen. He screamed, he cried, he said horrible things to me; he threw his Wii across the room. He then locked himself in his bedroom and refused to come out.
I was devastated. The perfect Christmas was ruined by an ungrateful son. At my wit’s end, I left and went over to a friend’s house on Christmas afternoon. I did not come back until after dark. I left my daughter and our Christmas dinner behind. I wished I had handled it differently, but in that moment, fleeing seemed the only option.
The next morning Charlie came out of his room, apologized for his behavior and played his Wii all day. A few months later Charlie was placed in a group home and a special school for kids with emotional disturbance.
Today, I know my son wasn’t being ungrateful that Christmas morning, he has Schizoid Personality Disorder. It explains almost all of his odd and challenging behaviors; including the inability to always know what is socially acceptable and what it not. He also rarely feels the urge to do something nice for people; he hasn’t given me a Christmas gift since he made one in the fifth grade.
Since his diagnosis of Schizoid Personality Disorder just a few months ago, I have given Charlie the gift of not expecting him to act the way I think he should. His sister is kinder about his eccentric behavior and most importantly, Charlie is more relaxed and almost down right cheery.
This morning, I saw some awkwardly wrapped presents under our tree. One for me, one for Bridget…both from Charlie. Wow. It does not matter what is in those packages, This is a monumental effort on his part. He planned ahead, saved some money, ordered gifts online and wrapped them himself, all without my knowledge. This does not come naturally nor easily to Charlie. So while a bunch of boxes might have been a great memory, I declare this year “Best Christmas Ever.”