Robin Kahler is a patient who was diagnosed with affective bipolar disorder in 1988. She works from her home in Tucson, Arizona, as an ...Read More
One of my most embarrassing holiday moments happened in 1993. I was at a friend’s home, about two weeks before Christmas, and I admired her tree, “Oh, it’ll be so pretty when you’ve finished decorating it.” I said.
“I AM finished!” She replied, and then she laughed, “Not everyone decorates like you, you know!”
It took about five years before her comment really hit me. Ok, so I’m a little slow. Let’s face it, years ago, when it came to the holidays, my bipolar perfectionism kicked into gear the week before Thanksgiving, and by December 25, I made Martha Stewart look like a slob. It would start with the Thanksgiving table. It wasn’t just the perfectly browned turkey, with my secret recipe stuffing, and superbly smooth mashed potatoes. (Not a microscopic lump in the gravy.) Oh I cringe as I remember putting my butter into a cookie press to mold the individual butter pats into leaf-shaped wonders, to sit on individual bread and butter plates. The silverware, each piece buffed to a sheen and set to perfection, with every knife, spoon (s) and fork (s) lined and MEASURED (with a ruler!) to lay soldier straight, exactly one inch from the edge of the table. Linens ironed with Magic Sizing, napkins folded like lotus blossoms. Water spots wiped away with vigorous polishing. The centerpiece flowers displayed in a perfect arch, not one petal extended, with candles matched to a perfect color and iced beforehand to be sure the drips of wax melted correctly.
And that was just the beginning! By Black Friday every gift was already purchased and wrapped with elaborate bows. I invented the concept of invisible tape. Christmas cards, with family portrait and decorated letter inside, were mailed precisely on December 6, because I had a mental block about mailing cards after the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
And the trees! Yes, plural. Some years I only had two, usually I decorated three, and one year I had five! Yes, five, seven-foot tall or larger trees in my home, each decorated with a specific theme. Every ornament dusted and set at the precise angle on every branch. Tinsel hung one strand at a time, even the lights set so that no two same color’s displayed within two inches of the other.
Under each tree sat decorations to match. Antique dolls went under the Victorian tree, a huge Nativity with 23 figures set in precise order, under the traditional tree, a Dickens ceramic village under the blue and silver tree, and packages went under the red and white tree.
Oh, the perfection of it all! And I gloried in it.
So, what have I learned, and why am I telling you about it? To be honest, I still like the perfection. I don’t have the huge home or the good health to do it all anymore, but the attitude is still there. I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m bipolar, but because I’m bipolar, I’ve had to learn to live with my perfectionism. It took me awhile to adjust to the fact that not everyone DOES decorate like I do, and to learn to accept that. I no longer allow myself to get upset when a Christmas card arrives in the mail on the 27th of December. I used to hate that, because it upset my perfect wreath design I’d made with cards delivered on time. I no longer get upset when my daughter-in-law’s turkey is a bit dry, because she’s too busy to baste it. I smile at every tree, even when they’re half empty (to my eye) and two red lights sit next to each other…yes, I smile and enjoy them all.
I’ve learned to recognize other people’s efforts, and I realize now that not everyone is as crazy as I am, and that’s ok. As the years of acceptance have gone by, I’ve become more accepting of myself, and that’s the best part of it all. Last year I didn’t get my card’s mailed until December 21st, and no one even noticed. One of my trees was just 3 feet tall last year and I actually liked it. I think I’ve finally learned that it’s ok to be a perfectionist, as long as it doesn’t go down a negative road and end up causing frustration or depression; and it’s ok to be not so perfect, too.
Who was it that said, “Don’t expect too much, and then you won’t be disappointed.” I think that’s appropriate, not just toward others, but to ourselves first. If we don’t push ourselves beyond our limits, we won’t disappoint ourselves in the end.
So this year I’ll strive to be normal. I realize now that it’s an effort in itself just to be bipolar. I need to remember that in the winter I tend to exercise less, because it’s too cold to go for a walk. I have more trouble sleeping, maybe because it gets dark earlier. I eat more sugar, because I use the oven to warm the kitchen, and when I use the oven, I bake more. All of those things make my bipolar more difficult to manage and so winters are more of a challenge. I need to remind myself of that and not add any extra stress, such as perfectionism. I have to be selfish enough to do it for me, and you know what? Other people don’t even notice. They don’t care if the cookies are slightly browned, or even store bought. They don’t care if the decorations don’t match, or if the silver has a spot or two. It’s amazing, how little they care! So, if Martha drops by for a visit, she’ll be able to relax with a cup of instant cocoa and bakery biscotti. Because now I simply wish: “May all of your holidays be normal.”