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18 December 1998

Watch out when you go back home

R D Laing was right: family Christmases can drive us mad, argues Oliver James

By Oliver James

Every December I am asked to write something for the press about “how to survive Christmas” or “why Christmas is such hell”. Usually I take the money and run but just for a change I thought that this year I would check out the premise: is Christmas really any worse than other times of the year?

The answer is a resounding “yes”.

The Christmas blues have been around for some time. In the 1960s, the much maligned psychiatrist R D Laing elaborated an interesting theory about the adverse effects of being hurled back into the bosom of our family during the annual festivities.

Laing’s work contains graphic accounts of the ways in which families are like dramas, with each of us accorded a scripted role tightly directed in its performance. From the moment we walk through the door on Christmas Eve or on the day itself, Laing warned, our parents and siblings will demand that we enact our appointed parts.

Never mind that you may have long since ceased to be the clever one or the attention-seeker or the tactless one or the secretive, silent one – your family treat you just as they always did. This becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy and within a short period of time you are liable to become exactly the person they project. In a matter of minutes the achievements and independence of adulthood can be swept away and you find yourself acting in a play you did not write, performing a role that you thought was long obsolete.

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More alarmingly, if your task was to be the mad one of the family, so much the worse for your mental health: psychiatrists and geneticists may continue to discredit Laing’s theory, claiming that mental illness is primarily caused by genes, but his work included important findings regarding the impact of families on schizophrenics who have been returned to them.

In those families where they are highly expressive towards the sufferer, making substantial demands on them to be like this or like that, the schizophrenics are more likely to suffer a relapse than ones who are sent to live in hostels with strangers. At the very least this evidence proves that some kinds of family projections, in some cases, can drive you mad.

The pressure that families place on us to re-enact our childhood roles is easily the greatest stress at Christmas and it could help to explain such dire holiday statistics as the Samaritans’ claim that in last year’s Christmas week (beginning 20 December) they received 15 per cent more calls compared with their weekly numbers in November and the rest of December. Even more dramatically, there were 26 per cent more calls in New Year’s week, pouring in at a rate of 625 an hour or 15,000 a day.

But that should not make us buy into the idea that it is neccessarily grim for everyone. Certain groups are obviously more at risk than others because of particular problems in their lives.

The divorced and single are liable to feel excluded or envious of their smug married friends and to feel especially lonely on Christmas Day itself, perhaps missing ex-partners. The feeling that they are failures because they have no one is powerful. In the run-up period, “what are you doing for Christmas?” becomes a sore question.

Quarreling parents, perhaps headed towards separation, often become exasperated with each other when forced together over Christmas. Children pick up the bad vibes and act up.

For the widowed or recently bereaved the routine of the festivities makes it impossible to avoid recalling that this year, a loved person is not there to do the charades, get drunk or whatever it was that they are remembered for on this occasion. The loneliness may be increased by having to spend Christmas Day itself in an unaccustomed way, perhaps at one’s children’s home for the first time.

For those who have endured other calamities, such as redundancy, the comparison with 12 months before is unavoidable. If a house move has been forced upon them or there is little money with which to buy presents for the children, the incapacity to fulfil Christmas rituals rubs salt in the wound.

Of course, Christmas can heighten a pleasant or needed life change as well as an unpleasant one. The first Christmas together in their own home for the newly married or cohabiting couple can be an especially enjoyable one, likewise for couples with a new child. For the bereaved there can be a sense of relief if the dead person had a long and painful terminal illness; for the divorced, it can be a relief to be free.

It is also important to remember that for many people, Christmas is the wonderful, magical experience we are always told it should be and for many others, if nothing else, it is a pleasant and enjoyable holiday.

For millions of small children there is the build-up to the big day itself and the thrill of the presents; for their parents a delight in giving so much pleasure. Millions of practising Christians find solace and a confirmation of their faith in the celebration of the religious festival.

But if Christmas is a time of good cheer for some, I suspect it remains a tricky business for the many who will go back into the bosom of their families and experience the full deranging effects of being infantilised.

Oliver James’s book “Britain on the Couch: why we’re unhappier compared with 1950 despite being richer” is now available in paperback (Arrow, £7.99)