The OCD Family Christmas

Bringing in a dead tree full of bugs and watching pine needles scatter all over the house can be problematic

The ghost of Christmas past in our OCD family can be summed up by Ellen Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: “I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”

We love Christmas, which is also our son’s birthday. But anxiety disorders don’t play nice with holiday stress, pressure, and upheaval. Even moving the furniture to bring in the Christmas tree can be problematic.

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However, as Clark Griswold and his family remind me every year, laughter is the best gift I can give my anxious family.

There’s nothing funny about OCD, a potentially fatal illness that creates irrational fear in the absence of true threat. Yet when OCD has my family cornered, offbeat humor is our most effective weapon.

I wrote the original version of the piece below after a particularly hellish Christmas with our young son’s OCD. He had seasonal worries, which would start building around August, and they would ramp up until the Christmas Day fire had burned itself out. Every few years, I dust this piece off and rewrite it as a reminder of all that my family has survived.

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To quote Robert Frost: “The best way out is always through.”

Related: How to Love Your Mentally Ill Family

Here is my 2016 update for a blog post I originally called The OCD Grinch.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the town

not a creature was stirring,

except for the parents of kids with OCD

who were busy reassuring their children that …

1.) Yes, the Christmas tree is leaning, but only a smidgen.
And honestly, it’s not going to fall over like it did last year because we’re smarter, wiser parents and have learned to strap that sucker to the deck doors. So if it goes belly up, it’s ripping out the whole door.

(Postscript in 2016: One year our son came back from college and insisted the Christmas tree was leaning. We smelled an OCD rat and refused to listen, until he woke us at 2:00 a.m. to say, “The tree is at a 45-degree angle.” I now firmly believe that straightening a decorated 10-foot tree in the wee small hours can lead to divorce proceedings.)

2.) No, the Christmas tree is not a fire hazard.
We don’t need to sit up all night watching it because we’ve been watering that thing twice a day, and really, it’s not going to burn the house down while we sleep.

3.) Yes, the smoke detectors work.
We know this because we just changed all the batteries, but the Christmas tree is not going to spontaneously combust, set them off, and burn the house down while we sleep.

4.) Yes, fire engines will roar down our driveway if the smoke detectors go off.
Which they will, because they have fresh batteries. But they won’t need to, because the Christmas tree is not going to explode in a fireball and burn the house down while we sleep.

(Postscript in 2016: Last year, despite it being 70 degrees, I insisted on our traditional Christmas Eve fire. Guess what? We set off all the smoke detectors multiple times, the alarm company kept calling, the house filled with smoke, and my OCD husband, who only tolerates our annual fire to keep me happy, wasn’t talking to me by bedtime. Ho, ho, ho.)

5.) Yes, the Christmas tree went up in a flash and a bang in ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.’
But that was because the dog drank the tree water and the crazy uncle lit a cigar next to it. Yes, you do have a couple of crazy uncles, but we don’t allow smoking in the house and we don’t have any pets. So no, the tree won’t dry out because our dog drank all the water and the crazy uncle tossed a match at it and no, the house won’t burn down while we sleep. Am I repeating myself yet?

6.) Yes, Santa is going to squeeze his ample backside down our chimney later tonight.
He will, I promise, despite the smoldering log in the fireplace. He’s magic, so he won’t be setting off the smoke detectors.

7.) Yes, Santa got your letter, and he’s been checking off everything on your list — twice.
That’s why I ask you, my son, to write to Santa in October, which gives him plenty of time to make discontinued LEGOs. I wonder if Santa’s heard of eBay?

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8.) Yes, I know the OCD is telling you Santa won’t come because you can’t get to sleep.
And you need to get to sleep so I can stuff your stocking before 3:00 a.m. so we can all wake up at 6:00 a.m. — in a house that hasn’t burned to the ground. And yes, of course I mean Santa will stuff the stocking, not me.

Barbara Claypole White is a bestselling novelist and mental health advocate in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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