Dealing with Holiday Family Stress

Between Thanksgiving Day and the end of the year, Americans will be spending a lot of time with family. But with all that togetherness comes stress. Farai Chideya talks with humorist Brian Copeland, the star of the one man show "Not a Genuine Black Man," and psychiatrist Ivan Walks, about ways of dealing with holiday anxiety.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya, in for Ed Gordon.

Between today and the end of the year, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year's. That's a lot of festivity and, for most of us, many chances to see friends and family. But let's be honest. All that holiday togetherness isn't always easy. There's the stress of dealing with family issues you've managed to sweep under the rug for most of the year. Sometimes it's all you can do to keep your smile on if you're getting a helping of criticism with all of those family meals.

Joining me to strategize ways to deal with holiday stress are humorist Brian Copeland. He's at Youth Radio in Berkeley, California. His hit show, "Not a Genuine Black Man," is now the longest-running one-man show in San Francisco. And we've got Dr. Ivan Walks in Washington, DC. He's former chief health officer of the District of Columbia and now CEO of Ivan Walks & Associates.

Welcome, gentlemen, and let me just get right to it. Brian, I went to see your show, "Not a Genuine Black Man," and you had me in stitches over your family, but there were also a lot of serious things that you dealt with in your one-man show, including depression. What do you do in the holidays when your family starts to drive you crazy?

Mr. BRIAN COPELAND (Humorist, "Not a Genuine Black Man"): I try to keep it as light-hearted as I possibly can because I know that if I get into anything serious, then the real heavy things will come out and the tension will come out, and then I will reach across the table and stab somebody with a butter knife. And that's not what it is you want to do at the holidays.

CHIDEYA: Exactly. And humor is one of the well-worn strategies for trying to deal with holiday stress.

Mr. COPELAND: As long as you can laugh at it, you're OK. Once things start to get serious, then they start to get heavy, then they start to get tense, and then it's not fun.

CHIDEYA: Why do you think it is, Brian, that holidays seem to be a time not just of joy and goodwill, but also when people really work each other's last good nerve?

Mr. COPELAND: I think it's twofold. I think the first thing is that there are a lot of times when you--you know, you may have an issue with your uncle or with your cousin or with your sister and you don't see them every single day. And then you are captive with them for maybe two or three days over the Thanksgiving weekend or you're captive with them for two days over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and all these unresolved issues, all these things that you haven't dealt with before now come up. Plus there is the stress and the tension of the preparation. I'm hosting. I'm cooking Thanksgiving dinner by myself for 35 people. Thirty-five people...

CHIDEYA: `Well, you know, I think that your greens aren't done enough, and I don't like the way that you did the dressing.'

Mr. COPELAND: `Why did you turkey necks in these instead of turkey tails? How come--Grandma doesn't have made the macaroni and cheese like'--`Just shut up. I cooked it. Eat it and be quiet.'

CHIDEYA: Dr. Walks, let me ask you about that. Especially when you are hosting events, what kind of stress comes up and how can you best deal with it from a mental health perspective?

Dr. IVAN WALKS (CEO, Ivan Walks & Associates): Well, there's several issues that come up. First of all, the holidays tend to fall around a time when people have other issues; for example, seasonal depression. As the days get shorter, less sunlight, less warmth, a lot of folks don't respond well to that. So you have those sorts of issues. Also, people are supposed to be happy around the holidays, which is really a challenge for many of us for whom things are not going well. So you couple those together. Then if you add on top of that traveling--you know, you get stuck in an airport. You've got weather delays. You've got younger people in the family that don't travel well, or maybe seniors in the family that don't travel well; a lot of reasons for folks to arrive at the holiday festivities not feeling especially festive. And I think that those of us who are preparing for, oh, my goodness, 35 or sometimes more, maybe could do a little well to understand that people may arrive tired, not feeling festive, maybe embarrassed. They haven't had a good year. It's not a good sign to time to the family and sort of compare who's got the best job, whose kids are doing the best in school, who got into the best college. All of the kinds of things that come to a head around the holiday season make it a difficult time for folks.

CHIDEYA: And let me...

Mr. COPELAND: You know, you've also got kind of a class-reunion syndrome going there, too, with what the good doctor was talking about because, you know, when you go to your class reunion, everybody's trying to put on their best face and their best foot forward to show how well it is that they're doing and how much better they're doing than their classmates. And you'll get that a lot of times at family get-togethers when you have family that hasn't seen each other in quite some time.

CHIDEYA: Who's balder? Who's fatter? Who's richer? Who's got the...

Mr. COPELAND: Who's poor?

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Mr. COPELAND: Who's got the better job? Who got the promotion? Who's got a kid? Who doesn't? Who's dating? Who's not? It's a lot of pressure.

CHIDEYA: It absolutely is. And, you know, Brian, one of the things I was struck by in your play--I guess we should say a little bit more about your play. "Not a Genuine Black Man" chronicles your coming of age or your childhood in San Leandro at a time when being a black family in that town was not a popular thing to be. So your family was in some ways a fortress, and I loved the way that you kind of talked about people being bunkered down for the holidays with their family. Given that you were in such a stressful situation when you were younger, when your family really didn't have a lot of people around them, neighbors to support them, did that make the holidays more intense for you? Because you really just didn't have a lot of warmth in your neighborhood towards you because of the racial issues.

Mr. COPELAND: No, actually, it made the holidays really good because the fact that we did bunker down, so to speak. You know, it was just my grandmother, my mother, my three younger sisters and myself. And, you know, we didn't have--all of our relatives were back East in Ohio, so we didn't see them and it was just us at the holidays. So we would--you know, we'd close the door to our apartment and we'd laugh and we'd talk and we'd play with our toys and Grandma would bake gingerbread, and those were all pretty good memories. I'll tell you when it got difficult, and one of the issues that the doctor brought up in terms of depression, was after my mother passed away. For several years after that, you know, the holidays would sometimes bring that back because you have somebody who's missing. You have--you know, you think about the times in the past when, you know, we would do this activity or that activity and, you know, we can still do it but we have--there's a hole there.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, I know what you mean. My grandmother passed away and she was a real matriarch of our entire family. Dr. Walks, what do you do when the holidays are also a time that reminds you of those you've lost?

Dr. WALKS: I think you can use the holidays as an opportunity for healing and for sharing. It's not a time to ignore those feelings. Sure, you want to be upbeat, you want to be happy, but it's sort of like ignoring the elephant in the room. It can be a time to celebrate that person's life, to celebrate the impact that person has had on the family, and use this sort of as a recognizing-the-legacy event. That can help turn maybe a sad memory into a happy occasion where folks come back together.

The other issue around depressions during the holiday season is that people need to not have a stigma about those who may actually have a clinical depression. They're being treated for it. They may be taking medication. It can be an opportunity to educate other family members about a real issue in our country and in many of our families.

CHIDEYA: And certainly in the black community there's a lot of stigma or just lack of comprehension of exactly what mental health treatment is. I certainly know from talking to a lot of people and from having guests on our show like Dr. Alvin Poussaint that there seems to be an extra barrier to dealing with issues of depression in our community.

Dr WALKS: Well, there's the whole issue of how different cultures address health issues in general. Mental health, in particular, becomes problematic for many communities of color--African-Americans certainly included in that--and that's why an opportunity to educate folks about the existence of these things in our community, and then take the next step to talk about the acceptance of these things in our communities. And this can help us address other issues; for example, all of the diabetes that gets ignored while folks are eating whatever the heck is on the table, ignoring their health; all the hypertension that gets ignored while we're scarfing down all this food. The opportunity is there really for us to care for each other over the holidays by opening some of these difficult conversations, without killing the holiday, but--`You know what? I love you. Let me talk to you about this. Let's go have a couple of quiet moments and let's see how you're really doing, not just that smile.'

CHIDEYA: That sounds dangerous to me.

Mr. COPELAND: That's asking for trouble.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, it is!

Mr. COPELAND: I was going to say that's asking for trou--so, you know--and we--in my family, there's a history of adult-onset diabetes, and when you're looking at--you know, when I'm cooking for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I try to make traditional dishes but make them as healthy as I possibly can. But if I'm at somebody else's house and I know that I have an aunt who has trouble with sugar, as we call it, and she's, you know, eating salt pork or eating, you know, fried this or fried that, the last thing in the world I want to say to her is, `You know, take that out of your mouth. You know you shouldn't be having that.' Once you're the food police, you're in trouble.

CHIDEYA: Nobody likes the food police.

Mr. COPELAND: Once you do that, you're in trouble.

CHIDEYA: You know, I appreciate it, Dr. Walks, but if you have somebody in your family who will try to kill you if you try to take away their dessert, what other options do you have?

Dr. WALKS: I agree completely. You do not want to take food out of someone's mouth or take away someone's dessert. I was thinking that more away from the food you can have some conversations--maybe during halftime of a football game, driving to the airport to pick up a relative--because people oftentimes do want to talk about things that are a challenge for them, but definitely not during dessert. However, what was just mentioned: If you are the one preparing and you can prepare things with maybe the turkey as opposed to the ham hock and those kinds of things, and maybe sharing recipes that are a little bit healthier in a non-judgmental, just sort of, `Hey, guess what I did?' kind of thing, you can maybe help move your family toward more awareness and toward a better health outcome.

CHIDEYA: So definitely, if you're the one in charge of the cooking, take a little responsibility and try to treat your relatives kindly.

We only have time for one more snippet. Brian, what other little piece of advice would you give us to get through the holiday season?

Mr. COPELAND: Well, I can tell you, the one big issue at my house, the thing that just drives me crazy, is that my family's always late. My family is always late. If I tell my family that dinner is at 5:00, they'll show up at six and go, `Oh, well, we left at five.' `No, I said dinner is at five.' In my wife's family, they're on time. They're always on time. So dinner's at five, so my wife--it's just like sh--like the theater. My wife's family gets a 5:00 call. My family gets a 4:00 call. That way everybody's there at five.

CHIDEYA: Humorist Brian Copeland joins us from Youth Radio in Berkeley. His hit show, "Not a Genuine Black Man," is now the longest-running one-man show in San Francisco. And we've also had Dr. Ivan Walks from Washington, DC. He's former chief health officer of the District of Columbia and now CEO of Ivan Walks & Associates.

Thank you, gentlemen, both so much for joining us.

Dr. WALKS: Enjoyed being...

Mr. COPELAND: Happy holidays.

Dr. WALKS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Coming up next, turkey, dressing, black-eyes peas and collard greens. Our special chefs' roundtable offers tips on how to make Thanksgiving soul food.

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