Podcast: Survive the Holidays AND Preserve Your Mental Health
There is no time more joyous and stressful as the end of year holidays. As we fast approach the holidays this year it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll navigate family parties and other familial obligations. In this episode, we give our best tips for making holiday parties less stressful and how to decide if not going is the best option for you.
It’s rough out there, but we care about you and we wish you a happy, healthy holiday season.
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About The Not Crazy Podcast Hosts
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from Gabe Howard. To learn more, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Jackie Zimmerman has been in the patient advocacy game for over a decade and has established herself as an authority on chronic illness, patient-centric healthcare, and patient community building. She lives with multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, and depression.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Survive the Holidays” Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer-generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Not Crazy, a Psych Central podcast. And here are your hosts, Jackie Zimmerman and Gabe Howard.
Gabe: Pay attention Not Crazy fans, right now Not Crazy listeners get 25% off a Calm premium subscription at Calm.com/NotCrazy. That’s C A L M dot com slash Not Crazy. Forty million people have downloaded Calm. Find out why at Calm.com/NotCrazy.
Gabe: Welcome to Not Crazy, it is my pleasure to introduce my co-host, Jackie Zimmerman, a woman who lives with depression and one of the few millennials that isn’t a vegan.
Jackie: And you already know my co-host, Gabe, who lives with bipolar. But what you might not know is that he recently had a birthday. Happy belated at this point. Birthday, Gabe.
Gabe: You’re just so nice. Thank you for remembering I am not happy that I aged. But I was extremely pleased that Facebook, who has gotten a lot of bad press lately for, you know, all of the awful that they have done. But it was a place where I got a lot of like positive accolades, you know, for not dying last year.
Jackie: Facebook is a good place to celebrate a birthday. I won’t lie. It does feel nice.
Gabe: Speaking of celebrations, let’s talk about the holidays. This is like holiday row, right? No matter who you are, what culture, religion, there’s a bunch of holidays. And then, of course, on December 31, we’re all going to celebrate New Year’s Eve. And this makes people with mental health issues, social anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, just this is it. This is a difficult time to have mental health issues.
Jackie: It’s about to be the holiday gauntlet. I like to say, right, because we’re like looking down all of them. And then to make it worse, on January 1, we’re in a brand new decade, which I feel makes everybody reassess things even more than they would on a normal New Year’s Eve.
Gabe: Just a quick aside, don’t you really want Barbara Walters to bring in the New Year so that she can say, I’m Barbara Walters and this is 20/20?
Jackie: Yeah, obviously. But like, I don’t think that they really listen to the people in what we really want.
Gabe: I live with anxiety and I always feel like “they,” you know, I’m making air quotes right now, like “they” are out to get me. But at the holidays, “they” has a face because “they” suddenly become our family and friends who are working really, really hard to get us to that holiday dinner. “They” suddenly becomes a societal expectations, because after all, everybody else is having a perfect holiday, and I’m having a shitty one. “They” is suddenly shown to me in pop culture and on social media and in commercials. All of the sudden “they” collapses and becomes very, very personal.
Jackie: Oh, you’re so right, Gabe. When you think about holidays, you don’t think about the day, you think about your grandparents and your aunt and your weird uncle and your nieces and nephews who are going to annoy the shit out of you. It is a very personal thing, the way that you said. Have there ever been any holidays that you’ve looked at and been like, nope, can’t do it this year?
Gabe: I have participated in every single holiday, frankly, on autopilot. I have to do it. I have to go to Thanksgiving. I have to go to Christmas. I have to go to New Year’s. There really is this expectation in my family that you will participate in the holiday, hard stop. And if you don’t, you’ll be shamed for not doing so. And I go back and forth on whether or not that’s reasonable. Right. On one hand, my family loves me and they want me to be present on the other hand. Is this a boundary issue? Would they have been better off leaving me at home?
Jackie: So is this you have to show up and be present like you have to participate. What if you showed up and sat on the couch and didn’t talk to anybody?
Gabe: Then you’d be my uncle, David. I think it is a little bit of both. I’ve often said on this show that my family gets things like half right and half wrong. They will absolutely drag you by force of a lifetime of buttons and manipulations that your family placed in you and get you there. They will shame you into showing up. But once you show up, it’s a free for all. You can sit in the corner and mind your own business and chill with that. I mean, they’ll come over and try to play with you or try to talk to you. But mostly they’ll come over and give you food. Which makes me feel really good. I can honestly say I have never regretted going. But I can also honestly say it was hard. It was a monumental thing to show up.
Jackie: How many families do you generally have to see per holiday or do you break it up in a way that’s more digestible?
Gabe: I’m somewhat fortunate and then I handle like one family at a time because like my wife’s family is in one location and my family is in another one. There’s none of this like co existing of in-laws vs. regular family. Like like what are they called? Like regular family.
Jackie: I think those are just your family.
Gabe: Like the people who fucked me up are not with the people who fucked my wife up. They’re always separate because there’s
Gabe: There’s distance involved,
Gabe: Right? So for me, that’s how it is. But when I go to like my parents, for example, my grandparents are there. I have cousins there. I have my brother and sister. It’s a lot of people. And I’ve always had my spouse with me. And as longtime listeners know, that’s many different personalities over the years.
Jackie: A few spouses.
Gabe: But it’s different for you, right, because your family is all in the same town. So you have spent holidays like maybe in the morning with your family and in the afternoon with Adam’s family. And then this year, because I don’t know, you’re just a glutton for punishment. You’re co-mingling them.
Jackie: Yeah, usually our families are, let’s say, about 45 minutes apart, so we usually do one family in the morning, one in the afternoon or the day after, we try to hit all the families. And it’s extra complicated because my niece goes to her dad’s house, which also is another split time for family. It’s just a lot of different places to go. It’s very overwhelming. So this year, we did decide to try to combine some of the families, which is equally as overwhelming and could be worse. I don’t know. We’re gonna TBD on that one because I really can’t decide if it’s gonna be really awesome getting all the families out of the way at one time or really terrible.
Gabe: Let’s talk a little bit about something that you and I have that not everybody has. We have spouse support, and I love that because when I’m feeling down, I can communicate to Kendall, my wife, and I can be like, hey, keep these freaks away from me. And she runs interference for me. And I do joke. You know, I’m a lot better than I used to be. But, you know, way back when I was really, really sick, even having my father walk over to me and say. So how have you been? That was like a really offensive question. Like, I couldn’t explain why I was so angry at being asked how I was doing. But I was. What advice do you have, Jackie? Because you’re a newlywed. You’ve only been married just a little bit of time and you haven’t had like 19 spouses like I have. What advice do you have for the single person who can’t rely on somebody to run interference for them?
Jackie: So I was the single person for a really long time, not because I was single, but because I had really terrible partners. So we didn’t do holidays together. Candidly, I found it partially to be a little bit easier because you didn’t have to go to so many families. You didn’t have to have the same conversations over. You didn’t have to eat forty five meals in the same day. So I actually liked that. I think you’re right that it is nice to have like a teammate in it with your spouse. But when you’re single and approaching these things, the best advice that I have is it’s going to be bad advice. I think I think I going to give bad advice, but it’s going to be that if you’re really, really anxious about it and it’s really, really bringing you down. Don’t go. Maybe that’s terrible advice, but I feel like I’m all about self-preservation. I’m all about boundaries. I’m all about making sure that I can sustain my day in my life. And if that meant going to see my family was going to tear me down for a couple of days, I just wouldn’t go.
Gabe: Jackie, that is utterly fascinating to me because what you are saying, as I know you to be like opinionated and strong and, you know, I’ll say what I want. You’re not the boss of me, but you feel really bad telling people not to go home for the holidays. This is really bad advice. This is really bad advice. Like you can hear you wavering. But I know for a fact that you believe this. And for what it’s worth, if your family is that toxic. And it will put you in a bad place mentally and emotionally and it will make you sicker. You’re 100 percent right. You should not go. But you’re struggling with it, right? You’re like, oh, maybe this is bad advice. I feel bad. You should see your mom. But. But why?
Jackie: Well, it’s not always that easy. It’s not as simple as just don’t go for a lot of people, just don’t go equals. Well, then I have a shitstorm to deal with on the phone or the next time I see them. And then my grandma holds a grudge against me for the next three years. Like it’s not always just as easy as just don’t go and live your life. I think every family is different. Every family dynamic is different. And the unique players in the cast of your life story make these decisions significantly difficult. I have a side of the family that I haven’t seen in almost five years and I’m fine with that. I am OK with that. But if I just chose to randomly not show up to my sister’s house for a holiday, even if it was the best thing for me, I still would struggle with it.
Gabe: Let’s talk about that for a moment, because families are complicated, right?
Gabe: So for the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to say that you love your sister and you’re mad at your cousin, Bob. Now, you don’t have a cousin, Bob, which is why we picked Cousin Bob, Jackie. So if any member of Jackie’s family is listening, cousin Bob does not represent any of you. Very, very important. But you love your sister. But you’re mad at Cousin Bob. Now, Cousin Bob can be your mom, your dad, your grandma, your grandpa. But a person who has a lot of sway in the family and in general, a person that the rest of the family is protecting. Right? They don’t want Cousin Bob to feel bad. But Cousin Bob is toxic for you. And you want to stay away from Cousin Bob so much that you’re willing not to spend the holidays with your sister, whom you love. You love your sister as much as you dislike Cousin Bob. Now, what do you do? Because you can avoid Cousin Bob, and that’s very reasonable. But now you miss your sister. What’s the middle of the road there, Jackie?
Jackie: I think it’s a two parter, the first one is calling my sister and saying, hey, you know how I feel about Cousin Bob. Could you help me run interference and involve the members of your family who you like and ask them for help? We actually do have a family member who tends to corner people and we have essentially an eye signal of like, save me, please come get me. I’m cornered. And as the outside of the family, we know to go get that person unless we’re being dicks and then we just laugh and don’t go get them. Which has happened also. But I think the other part of this is I still maintain that it’s assessing how it’s going to be for you. Could you meet up with your sister afterwards and see her and still preserve yourself? Is going to see Cousin Bob really going to do some detrimental work to you? Maybe I’m really selfish, but I’ve spent a really long time learning how to be selfish and putting myself first. And if that means upsetting other people, most of the time I’m ok with that because I will find other ways to make it up to them or make it right with them, or just even it out.
Gabe: One, I like that you said, hey, look, I’m putting myself first so that I can lead my best life. And that’s really, really valuable, right? But then you followed that up with I will find a way to make it right. I will see them that evening. I will see them all go Black Friday shopping with them. I’ll spend Christmas Eve, but not Christmas Day. I’ll spend a, you know, a couple of days of Hanukkah, but not all of the days of Hanukkah. We’ll get together for New Year’s Day instead of New Year’s Eve. You’re already starting to broker these deals out. You’re not saying to your family, “Nope. All of you are dead to me. I’m not seeing any of you ever.” You’re acknowledging that there is a bummer. That’s really the best way to put it right. You’re acknowledging that there’s a bummer of a situation here because of your feelings, because of a family member’s feelings. You’re addressing them. But what you’re not doing is putting yourself in harm’s way in order to keep the family happy. There’s a level of maturity in there, right? Where you acknowledge that the situation is in a gray area, where your actions are going to hurt somebody else. And you need to make amends for that, but not at your own risk.
Jackie: Right. I think there’s an assumption on holidays that you will spend time with your family and your family carries that assumption, so when you don’t show up or you don’t engage. There is a little bit of disappointment maybe from some family members. I think one of the most important things about self-care, self-preservation and boundaries that people forget is that if you’re going to make decisions that have the potential to hurt other people, you can still make those decisions if they’re right for you. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect those other people. You have to think about other people. And I may make the choice not to come. And it may really hurt my mom’s feelings. So it’s been on me to do my best to help her with those feelings and help her feel better while still preserving myself. I can’t just say, well, sorry, mom. Go fuck yourself. I have to do this for me. I could, but I wouldn’t. You know, like at some point you have to realize your actions have consequences, even if it’s the right action.
Gabe: It sort of reminds me of how to break up with somebody, right?
Jackie: Ghost never show up, send him a text.
Gabe: No, but seriously, when you want to break up with somebody, you can’t stay in a relationship with them forever because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, but you also don’t want to be cruel. You know, you shouldn’t ghost people. You shouldn’t just send them a text and be like, last year’s been great. Never contact me again. There’s a police officer outside your door with a restraining order. There is a way that you can end the relationship and still be kind, but ending the relationship, even while kind is still going to hurt the other person. This applies to families as well. Maybe they will be hurt by what you say, but there’s still a way to do it. But we tend to do the yelly thing. I’m not coming because I hate Cousin Bob. But how could you like Cousin Bob? Don’t you know what Cousin Bob is? And whereas we should kind of keep it to the facts. I’m uncomfortable being around Cousin Bob, and therefore I’m not coming to the dinner. How can we work this out? Swet the boundary. Listen, I have heard you out. You have heard me out. There’s no resolution coming in that way. What can we do over here? I think a lot of times families devolve into finger pointing and name calling. And you pissed me off when I was in the eighth grade. And even though I’m now 43, I’m mad.
Jackie: Something that I have learned over the years when it comes to family jobs, other relationships, is that you’re allowed to do things without explanation. And that is something that I have done for a really long time, which is I quit my job and then I go, well, I quit because of this reason industries and in this reason. And this is why I quit. And it’s not your fault. It’s kind of my fault. And I explain. I’m an over explainer. Whereas you’re allowed to just say, I quit my job. End of it. Same thing goes with your family, right? You don’t have to explain everything you can say. I’m not coming this year. And they can ask you why. And you can say, I don’t really want to talk about it. And that might upset them. And you can deal with that part later.
Gabe: And you have to pick what is right for you. And that’s really what this always boils down to, right? What’s right for you? We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Gabe: We’re back helping you survive the holidays. I want to circle back to something that you said earlier, which is about, you know, having the eye signal for the family member that kind of traps you. And what I want to say is I used to be that family member. In fact, I might still be that family member. But now that I’m mentally healthy, people are just like, dude, stop. It’s over now. I had a really hard time in social situations. I had a lot of anxiety. I had mania, which just makes me feel like king of the world. I had racing thoughts and I talked a thousand miles a minute and I would corner somebody and I would just get like aggressive. And I’m a six foot three, two hundred and seventy five pound man aggressively arguing a point that, frankly, because of my illness, is now the most important thing in the world. No, cool whip goes on pie. Look, I don’t put pie on cool whip. Well, that’s the wrong way to eat it. Why is this happening? And family members would run interference to calm me down. And the reason that I bring that up is because for me, I do need to have a better understanding of annoying family members because I was one of the most annoying family members. And sometimes I think that people need to take a hard look at who they were when they were younger, especially in families, because they’ve known you your whole life. And Cousin Bob might be toxic. In our example, Cousin Bob was toxic. But it’s also possible that Cousin Bob is just annoying.
Gabe: And maybe you can tolerate some annoyance. Maybe
Gabe: You can take a deep breath and let Cousin Bob annoy you on the holidays.
Jackie: The important point here, too, is, is I don’t want to say, like if you’re having an uncomfortable time with the holidays, just don’t show up everywhere, because I kind of feel like maybe that’s the takeaway of the first couple of minutes is just don’t go. Sometimes that is not an option. Sometimes you feel obligated to go and you must go and you have to deal with these family members. You have Cousin Bob, who is annoying. You have Gabe who is cornering you and yelling at you. So I think we should talk about ways to cope with that. And part of that is a little bit of avoidance when you’re there, right? Can you go downstairs? Can you go upstairs? Can you be in a different room? Can you just avoid it as best as possible? And if not, can you talk to that person and put up a boundary even while you’re talking? You know, like don’t be willing to go into maybe personal things. Don’t egg them on. Don’t engage as much as maybe you normally would with a different family member. Unfortunately, sometimes the right answer is to adjust your behaviors to deal with other people. Again, if that’s the right outcome for you, that provides the right ending, then I am all in favor of doing that.
Gabe: There’s this phrase that I live by when I travel and it’s when in Rome. I didn’t invent it. It’s something that my ex-wife said to me. She’s like, when in Rome, when in Rome. And it just means that when you’re in Chicago, have Chicago pizza, when you’re in New York, have New York pizza. Don’t try to find New York pizza in Chicago. When in Rome, do the things the Romans do. I think that there is really good advice for families here that sometimes maybe it isn’t what you prefer. Maybe it’s not what you like. But hey, when in Rome. Here in 2019, we’re really good at acknowledging other cultures. And sometimes I feel like, wow, we would never tell another culture to act differently because we’d see the offense in it. We’d never try to tell another culture to give up their customs or their once or their ideas, because we don’t like them, because we’d recognize how offensive that was. But then we show up at our family’s house and we’re like, hey, I don’t like this anymore and I want all of you to change. These are the customs and the culture of your family.
Gabe: For better. For worse. And sometimes it makes sense to think, hey, I’m in my mom and dad’s house, so I’m going to honor their customs, because when in Rome, you don’t have to agree to him, you don’t have to like them. You just have to go with the flow and focus on the things that you have in common, that that’s really like the last bit of this. Right. I think that so many families, they seek each other out to try to change them. The holidays are not the day to get Cousin Bob to realize that his voting record is spotty, were to change somebody’s religion or to make somebody understand that the ending of Lost really was terrible, even though they kinda liked it like it. But that’s not the goal. Find the thing that you have in common and spend on that. And if you’re hosting one of these events, make a rule. No politics, no religion, and leave Cousin Jesse alone. We know she’s a vegan, but it’s fine. It’s fine. We made a vegan meal. Don’t tell her that turkey’s delicious. That’s a jerk thing. It’s a jerk thing, even though she’s weird.
Jackie: Well, I think what you’re trying to say here is pick the path of least resistance, whatever that may be. You know, if that’s not going if that’s avoiding conversation, if that is changing, maybe how you interact with your family members, pick the path of least resistance. I mean, I have a massive family. I have 13 cousins on one side. Eleven cousins on the other side. There are so many of us. And I am an introvert. So when I get to those family gatherings, I am a version of myself. And I know that I’ve had actually partners who show up, kind of call me out and then say, like, you kind of act different around your family. And part of it is because I’m incredibly overwhelmed at the amount of people in the room, even though I’ve known them my whole life, but also is because so many different personalities, people who think the way I do. People who don’t. So I give them a version, the one that’s going to be agreeable. The one that’s not going to cause conflict and the one that I’m going to leave. Still feeling good. Like I didn’t just drain myself to have turkey with 20 other people.
Gabe: And, Jackie, I want to say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, so many people say, well, I’m being fake. No, you’re not. I don’t think that’s being fake at all. Being polite to people standing on common ground, sharing what you want to share and not what you don’t want to share and avoiding conflict. I don’t think that’s fake. I think these are good qualities to be. And I think that we need to commend ourselves for doing that. It’s like not calling somebody’s baby ugly even though their baby is ugly. That’s not being fake. That’s being polite. And I think that’s a good quality. I’ve seen a lot of ugly babies.
Jackie: I think most babies are ugly, and I think if you have a family that is an ugly baby, you just show up and you give them like, oh, that’s a cute baby to the whole family the whole time. What else are you going to do? You can’t walk around telling Cousin Bob that he’s a bigot and you can’t tell your grandpa he’s a racist. And you can. You know what I mean? Like, you can’t call people out on all of these things. I mean, you could, but wow, what a miserable holiday that’s gonna be.
Gabe: And it’s important to point out that it doesn’t work,
Gabe: Listen, I would be all for doing that if all of a sudden, all these people would immediately change and become better people. They don’t. They dig in their heels. The whole family becomes uncomfortable and they’re less likely to listen to you. If you really want to address something with a family member, the holidays are not the time. Invite them for coffee a week later. If that fixed families, all families would be fine because everybody points out the shit they hate about each other on the holidays and it just ruins the holiday.
Jackie: For me, the bottom line is the holidays are a version of miserable for everybody. I don’t even care if you love all the holidays. It’s the driving that’s miserable. Maybe it’s the snow, right? The time of year has a level of misery around it. And if you’re living with a mental illness, it’s amplified. The mental illness takes hold of the misery and just makes it bigger. So at the end of the day, you have to figure out what’s going to keep you going. And if that means not going to a family thing, giving them a version of yourself or going and just being quiet in the corner. I still feel like that’s what you got to do. Put yourself first at the end of the day. Always put yourself first. That’s what I say. May sound selfish, but I have to be alive. I have to be a functioning, contributing human being to the people in my life. And sometimes I have to be selfish in order to do that.
Gabe: I can not agree more. Jackie, let’s do a quick speed round of all the stuff that we missed. I’m going to yell out a tip and then you yell out a tip and then all yell out a tip and then you yell out a tip until we exhaust ourselves and then we’ll end the show. Deal.
Gabe: All right. I truly believe that it’s best not to be alone on the holidays. I like to be around other people. But maybe your family isn’t the safest. Find a friend group to hang out with. Find a church group or a community group to join. Or at the very least, go down to the local diner and hang out and talk to the other orphans on the holidays. I think it’s a really good idea and it is a way to be around people without having to go to family members who you may find toxic.
Jackie: I agree, I think that being alone on the holidays can cause more harm than going to annoying family members house. But for me, the tip that I have is to look at the event. Look at the people who are going to be there and assess the best way to tackle it. What is your plan of attack and what’s your exit strategy? Right. Do you coincidentally have another party to leave you in an hour or do you? I got to go volunteer. I set up this thing months ago. Like, what is the way you’re going to leave in case it’s going poorly?
Gabe: Planning on when you’re going to arrive and when you’re going to leave, at the very least, it gives you something to look forward to, right? It makes the amount of time small and finite. The next thing I have is find another holiday orphan. There is somebody else, one of your friends, one of your coworkers, one of your pals, one of the people that you randomly run into when you’re getting your coffee. Find out if they’re alone on the holidays and invite them with you. It accomplishes helping you buffer your friends and family, and it is very meaningful to them as well.
Jackie: I think the last one I’ve got is if you are anxious like me and are fretting about interacting with your family members, find a job when you get there. Do you need to carve the turkey? Do you maybe need to set the table? Is there clean? Can you help the cook? Is there anything you can do that gives you purpose but doesn’t leave you open to chat with everybody in the room?
Gabe: The last advice that I have for everybody is be optimistic. Be open minded, be open to the idea that the holidays will be fun. Be open to the idea that you will find something that you like. And when you go in, look for something that you like. And maybe the only thing is that you like the food. Maybe the only thing is that the house is decorated beautifully. Maybe the only thing is out of 13 cousins, you like one of them that you only get to see once a year. But take that. Take that goodness and focus on that. If you are looking for negativity on the holidays, you’re absolutely gonna find it. But the same is true for positivity. Find that positive thing. Take that success. Put it in your pocket and grow it from there. And when you get home that night, pull out the Ben and Jerry’s that you bought three days ago, sit in front of the TV and say, hey, I survived the holidays.
Jackie: Things were turning into this week’s Not Crazy, everybody were wishing you a happy holiday season. And if you’re trying to avoid your family in one of these awful parties we just talked about. Whip out your phone and rank us on your favorite podcast player subscribe, share us, email us and cheer us maybe with one of your family members.
Gabe: Happy holidays, everyone. And I hope the party is not as awful as Jackie thinks it is. We’ll see everybody next week.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Not Crazy from Psych Central. For free mental health resources and online support groups, visit PsychCentral.com. Not Crazy’s official website is PsychCentral.com/NotCrazy. To work with Gabe, go to gabehoward.com. To work with Jackie, go to JackieZimmerman.co. Not Crazy travels well. Have Gabe and Jackie record an episode live at your next event. E-mail s[email protected] for details.
Podcast, N. (2019). Podcast: Survive the Holidays AND Preserve Your Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 31, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/podcast-survive-the-holidays-and-preserve-your-mental-health/