Spending the Holidays on an Inpatient Unit

Photo Credit: Creative Commons by Tambako The Jaguar

It’s that time of year: holiday carols reverberate through packed department stores, lights and red ribbon adorn neighborhoods, and close friends and family members flock home for the holidays. Spending time on an inpatient unit during this otherwise cheerful season is an understandably daunting task. Staff members may take time off. Therapeutic programming may be a bit lighter. Despite these and other challenges, it’s possible that shifting your mindset – focusing on what you do have and activities you can take part in over the course of the season – might enable you to nonetheless make the most of this holiday season.

You are not alone. If your family and friends are unable to visit over the holidays, consider how you might connect with them meaningfully from afar (with phone calls, emails, or handwritten holiday notes perhaps) and with other sources of support nearby. Peers within a treatment program, or those who have been in treatment over the holidays in the past, are in a unique position to support you and your experiences of the holidays this year. They understand exactly what you’re going through and might have experienced similar challenges in the past. In addition to receiving their support and encouragement, you might try writing about your favorite holiday memories together and then reminiscing with one another about these special experiences. Simply writing about very positive emotional events has been shown to benefit health, and may even keep you out of the hospital in the future.

Your holiday might be more peaceful. Spending the holidays in a structured treatment setting means that this year you do not need to worry about confronting some of the stressful situations that can arise during this season. In particular, friend and family gatherings coupled with holiday meals can be particularly challenging fresh out of treatment. Some people find themselves inundated with remarks about body shape, complexion, or food choices, or eating behavior, which can be triggering and upsetting. This holiday season, your job is to focus on getting well and gathering your strength for the challenges ahead. Being in inpatient treatment might protect you from some of this. And if stressful interactions with friends and family occur, you will be surrounded by clinicians who want to help you manage them and other patients who can sympathize with your experience.

You can still give back. Many people love the holiday season because it gives them a special opportunity to help those in need. If you’re one of those people, you can absolutely still contribute to a greater cause while receiving treatment. For instance, you can write to deployed service members, wounded warriors, and veterans, expressing gratitude for their service. You can spend time exploring and learning more about a variety of organizations devoted to causes ranging from wildlife conservation to feeding the hungry. You can make a free contribution daily, and the more people click, the more advertisers donate. You might donate your old clothes to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or a local homeless shelter, to simultaneously give to others while building confidence in your new self.  You can leave those old clothes behind, and still know that they are helping to keep another warm this holiday season.

Bring pieces of home to the unit. Even if you’re not home this holiday, you can still take part in many of your favorite traditions. If there is a specific item or decoration that’s part of your tradition, see if your family can bring it with them the next time they visit, or mail it to you in advance. Adapt the tradition to what’s feasible on the unit, and share this joyful activity with other patients. Learn about and engage in other patients’ customs – tell stories, play games, sing or listen to favorite holiday songs, or share goals for the upcoming year.

Decorate! Who doesn’t like to make a space more festive? Make it an activity for the community, and decorate for all of your respective holidays. Glistening tinsel, vivid reds, and the flickering light of a menorah can certainly brighten up common spaces and individual spirits.

Perhaps most importantly, try to hold in mind that the treatment you are participating in is a wonderful gift to give yourself. Structured treatment can actually be the gift that keeps on giving. Even though you may not be with your friends and family this season, investing in treatment can help ensure you’re healthy enough to be with your loved ones for the many special occasions to come.  Think of all the birthdays, celebrations, and future holidays you’ll be more likely to enjoy because of this treatment. Your length of stay will be far shorter than the amount of time you could gain with your friends and family in the future. In this light, perhaps the sacrifices of this year’s holiday experience is well worth it.

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