Families of Choice

To say 2020 has been a rough year feels like a laughable understatement. While I sheltered in place and worked from home, trying to avoid adding to those infected with a deadly disease, it felt like the world around me did its best to make up for my personal inaction. When people ask me how I would describe 2020, I say, “It’s the year when everything and nothing happened.” Ben Folds describes it best in his song, 2020, which I highly recommend. Here’s an excerpt:

"How many years will we try to cram into one?
Who thought we'd be living 1918 again?
But we messed that up so bad, God had to toss 1930 in!
As the sun rose on 1968 this morning . . .
Please let's not add the Civil War!
How many years will we cram into one?"

As the world seems to be trying to do all the terrible things at once, we’re left trying to cope on our own. Not only have we been physically isolated by quarantine, many of us have been estranged from each other by political differences. So many of my patients have stopped speaking with friends and loved ones over politics that I’ve lost count, and it breaks my heart that ideologies could have such a devastating impact on relationships between people who have loved each other for their entire lives. I hope that we can all start to remember that disagreeing is OK and accept each other as the diverse creatures that we are.

The holidays can be a difficult time for people under the best of circumstances, but 2020 is introducing problems that many of us had never considered before. People are trying to decide if going to see family is a good idea–weighting risk of infection versus the pain of being alone. Loneliness during the holidays can contribute to depression by highlighting just how wrong the alone-ness is in a way that doesn’t happen at other times of the year.

If you’re falling into the category of isolation during the holidays–whether due to relationship or COVID problems, I would encourage you not to compare your life to the ideal. That Hollywood movie perfect Christmas is pretty unrealistic no matter what’s going on in the world, and it’s going to be even more out of reach this year. Radically accepting this fact will help.

Another thing that can help is surrounding yourself with your Family of Choice. Also referred to as Chosen Family. This term gained prominence in the LGBTQ+ community due to family rejections after coming out. Shunned by their biological families, LGBTQ+ people began surrounding themselves with people that they felt safe with in order to be accepted for their true selves, resulting in Families of Choice.

Linda Bloom, in her article “Family of Choice: Borrowing Relatives from Other Families,” describes her approach this way, “My biological family wasn’t always able to provide the kind of modeling that I needed to become a more conscious and loving person, so I decided to supplement them with members of my family of choice, a collection of surrogate relatives.”

I think Families of Choice are useful to adopt regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. An overwhelming number of people feel unsafe with their biological families. Pre-COVID, dealing with family during holiday visits was a frequent topic of therapy conversations. I did a lot of work with people on accepting their loved ones as they are, setting healthy boundaries, and coping with anger.

In addition to these skills, I often suggest that people think about who they do feel safe with, and how they can incorporate those people into their holiday festivities. In doing so, they don’t end up feeling like their holidays were nothing but stress and difficult family members, and they can have periods of feeling the warmth of belonging that we all fundamentally need. During COVID times, I think that gathering your Family of Choice around you may actually be a life saver.

You may be thinking, “but what about quarantine? I can’t have a group of friends together right now,” and you would be right. So, it’s time to get creative. Perhaps you can meet individuals from your Family of Choice outside, and one at a time. Perhaps you can do what my friend suggested to me today, and park in the same parking lot, windows facing each other, and talk on the phone so you can see in-person faces. Masked outside gift exchanges could be a thing. Do whatever you need to do to fill that need for community, but also stay safe. Yes, it’s a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. Community and belonging is a basic human need.

If you are alone this holiday season, please know that you still matter. The world is a better place because you are in it. If you find yourself feeling depressed and unsafe in your loneliness, please know that there is always help and support available. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours per day any day of the year at 800-273-8255, or you can simply call 911. There are also multiple online support groups available so that you can start creating a Family of Choice that understands what you’re going through. I highly recommend the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) at http://www.dbsalliance.org. They offer peer led support groups nationwide as well as education and tools on coping with depression and bipolar.

Above all, please take care of each other.

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