Is your family bad for your mental health? If so, how do you handle the holidays? In today’s show Gabe and Lisa reminisce about their family holidays together — the good and the horrible — and discuss how they currently curb controversial topics at the table.
Join us for a bad trip down memory lane which leads to a whole lot of bickering and laughter.
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.
Lisa is the producer of the Psych Central podcast, Not Crazy. She is the recipient of The National Alliance on Mental Illness’s “Above and Beyond” award, has worked extensively with the Ohio Peer Supporter Certification program, and is a workplace suicide prevention trainer. Lisa has battled depression her entire life and has worked alongside Gabe in mental health advocacy for over a decade. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband; enjoys international travel; and orders 12 pairs of shoes online, picks the best one, and sends the other 11 back.
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Lisa: You’re listening to Not Crazy, a Psych Central podcast hosted by my ex-husband, who has bipolar disorder. Together, we created the mental health podcast for people who hate mental health podcasts.
Gabe: Hey, everybody, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Not Crazy podcast, I’m your host, Gabe Howard. And with me, as always, is Lisa Kiner. Lisa.
Lisa: Hey, everyone, and today’s quote is from Leo Tolstoy, All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Gabe: I hate that we’re introducing the subject of surviving the holidays by talking about how unhappy our families make us.
Lisa: I’ve always liked that quote.
Gabe: I, no, it’s, I mean, it’s a great quote, the grass is always greener. Everybody’s dysfunctional, right? We all get it. We’re all miserable.
Lisa: That’s not.
Gabe: That’s not what it means? What do you think it means?
Lisa: It means that everyone’s dysfunction is unique.
Gabe: Right, but that also means that everybody’s dysfunctional.
Lisa: No, it doesn’t. Although I also do believe that, but it doesn’t, no, that’s not what it implies at all.
Gabe: But don’t you see it as a way to say, like, well, yeah, they’re happy, but don’t worry, they still have dysfunction. So that way if you’re in a dysfunctional family, you can be like that family seems happy. But Leo Tolstoy reminds me that they’re screwed up too.
Lisa: I see it as, yeah, that family looks happy, but that just means they’re from Stepford, that they don’t have any uniqueness or personality, they’re just a bunch of bland, boring. I don’t know what’s something boring? Oatmeal? Porridge?
Lisa: I don’t know.
Gabe: Oatmeal and porridge. You went straight to food,
Lisa: I’m trying to think of something bland.
Gabe: All of our analogies surround food.
Lisa: Beige, I don’t know
Gabe: Beige, yeah.
Lisa: Well, what? What’s? Help me on this one, what do people say when they’re trying to indicate blandness?
Gabe: I mean, usually, like your husband?
Gabe: He’s pretty boring. It’s not his fault. I mean, he’s got to be like, you’re way this way. So he’s got
Gabe: To be way the other way to balance you out.
Lisa: The great thing about boring men, Gabe, is they can keep a job.
Gabe: I mean, it’s true
Lisa: Yeah, yeah.
Gabe: That he is more stable than I am, but I’m more fun.
Lisa: You are definitely more unpredictable.
Gabe: You ever notice that, like popular culture, you know, television shows, movies, even in books, they’ll have a wealthy family, they’ve reached a pinnacle of success that we envy. But within that enviable wealth, they make sure to show that, oh, they have nannies because they’re not spending time with their children. Oh, they’re so busy. So they’re not as close.
Gabe: And then they show the middle class family. And yeah, they’re having all kinds of financial problems. But they’re so close and loving and together. So they’re just making sure to tell you that, yes, even though they’re rich, you’re still better because you and your family are closer. That’s what that quote reminds me of.
Lisa: That’s a mechanism of social control. It’s one of those things like an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay or, you know, it’s one of those type things, these things that encourage poverty to continue. Because after all, rich people, they aren’t really happy and they don’t really love each other. See you’re poor, or even middle class, but it’s OK because you have love, which is really more valuable in the end. It’s a way to reinforce the class structure.
Gabe: I completely agree with that and what we’re talking about, mechanisms of social control, that’s how a lot of people feel about the holidays. We like the holidays, but holidays have this controlling mechanism, right? You’re expected to spend time with friends and family. You’re expected to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. You’re expected to give gifts for Christmas and other December holidays. Whereas the rest of the year you can just be a curmudgeon that never calls your mom, but you better call your mom over the holidays. And that to many people, especially people who will find their families frustrating or even toxic, that holiday social control is bad for them because all of a sudden, even though they don’t want to spend time with friends and family and I don’t know why they’re your friends if you don’t want to spend time with them. But even though they don’t want to spend time with their families, society is pushing them in that direction.
Lisa: Yes, there are a lot of expectations for the holidays and you can’t escape them.
Gabe: I like that word, expectations, when we’re talking about surviving the holidays. How do you survive the holidays if you have to spend time with friends and family? And I don’t know why I keep saying friends and family, like, why are they your friends if you don’t like them?
Lisa: Sorry, that’s not funny at all,
Gabe: I’m giving Lisa the huh?
Lisa: I can’t, I can’t relate to that situation in any way.
Gabe: Why are we friends?
Lisa: A question for the ages.
Gabe: I’m not spending the holidays with you. Sincerely, Lisa, if it’s March, April, May, June, July, and we consider our families bad for our mental health, we’re dodging mom and dad’s call like it’s a job. Like we’re so amazing at just missing that call and making sure that we don’t send it to voicemail because, you know, mom and dad have figured out that two rings means that you dismissed their call. But if you let it ring all the way through. We’re really great at making sure that we call them back when we know that mom and dad are at bowling league. Like all these games that we play. But suddenly November and December hits and we’re like, well, all right, I’m going to do it. I suppose we could just do an entire podcast on the psychology of why the holidays make us do things that are frankly, potentially against our best interest. But let’s go in a positive direction and say that this is an opportunity to mend fences. It’s an opportunity to maybe build a bridge with mom and dad who we love. Do you love your parents, Lisa?
Lisa: Of course.
Gabe: Nah, is that, is that the, of course, answer like, are you more likely to decline an invitation in June than you are in December?
Lisa: No, you’ve actually complained about that several times.
Gabe: Yeah, but that was back during our marriage when I stole your youth. How do you feel now that your youth is gone?
Lisa: Obviously, all adult children have difficult relationships with their parents.
Gabe: I love how you say that, no, that is not true, not all the, all of our listeners do, but not all adults. I think you’ve been hanging out with a Not Crazy fan base too much.
Lisa: All adult children have difficult relationships with their parents, but, for example, I think mine is less difficult than the average and is less difficult than yours.
Gabe: Are we getting ready to play what I like to call the family suffering Olympics?
Lisa: Ooh, family suffering Olympics. On the one hand, I feel like you’re going to win, but I don’t know, I got some contenders.
Gabe: It’s interesting, though, our families are very different, and when I say they’re very different, it’s sort of amazing to me, Lisa, because they’re actually quite the same. Like you pointed out, we
Lisa: Yeah, they’re actually almost identical.
Gabe: No, I’m not trying to be mean. And I am completely fascinated that you think that we’re similar based on both being from the Midwest. So in your mind, a Harvard graduated lawyer from Columbus, Ohio, and let’s say, oh, I don’t know, a homeless guy from Ohio are similar because they were both born in Ohio?
Lisa: I just feel like the two of us were both the oldest, we grew up in nuclear families, we have younger siblings, you know what I mean?
Gabe: First off, you have younger sibling,
Lisa: That’s true.
Gabe: I have younger siblings. So my parents already screwed me harder than your parents screwed you. I got two, two, Susan and Gary spawn to contend with. You only have one Leroy and Susan spawn to contend. Ooh, that’s why you think they’re the same. Both of our mother’s names are Susan.
Lisa: That is true, yeah.
Gabe: Huh, I do think this is fascinating that you think that our families are so similar. And one of the reasons that I sort of reject this outright is because once again, my family did not believe in higher education nor have higher education. Your family believed in higher education, had higher education, and from the second you were born, started working on you to go to college. Whereas the second I was born I had a different father because I was adopted. So there’s some major differences. My mother, a stay at home mom. She was a homemaker and proud of it.
Lisa: I guess that is a difference.
Gabe: Your mother makes snide remarks about homemakers calling them non feminists, so.
Lisa: Ok, one, no, that’s ridiculous, feminism is about choosing and you can obviously choose to stay home or not, it does not have any bearing. My mother would never say that. That’s ridiculous.
Gabe: Ok, but she thinks it.
Lisa: No, she doesn’t. She, as I was growing up, most of the people around us did have stay at home moms. And my mom did not stay at home. She worked. And, you know, she got a lot of crap for that. But no, that doesn’t mean she. No, no, no, no.
Gabe: You know, I never thought of it that way. I looked at it as the crap that she was dishing to stay at home moms. You raised a very good point there, that your mother was unique in that she was one of the few working mothers and that the stay at home moms gave her crap for that.
Lisa: Constantly, it really annoyed her.
Gabe: That had to be difficult for her. OK, I stand corrected. Both sides have been seen. You are right. The point that I’m making is look at that. The group that my mother associated with raising me was the group that frankly and I’m not trying to be mean to my mom, but my mom doesn’t like daycare. My mom doesn’t like babysitters. My mom doesn’t like kids being raised by anybody but family members. So therefore, sorry, mom, she looked down her nose at your mom. You raise a very good point. So when you say that our families are the same, you can see why I kind of roll my eyes
Gabe: Knowing that our mothers were at direct odds about the best way to raise children. Also, did I mention my mom got pregnant in high school? Your mother didn’t get pregnant in high school.
Lisa: I guess I was honestly surprised to hear you say that you don’t think our families were the same. I feel like our families were pretty much identical. You’re pointing all these things out and they make logical sense. But, yeah, I’m not feeling it.
Gabe: Has your father once raised his voice at you?
Lisa: Oh, God, no.
Gabe: Well, now, wait a minute, hang on a second, you said our families were the same. My father once woke me up in the middle of the night to scream at me because I didn’t hack a satellite dish so that he could get free pay per view. Did your father ever wake you up in the middle of the night to commit a felony?
Lisa: You are really not painting your parents in a flattering light, and they’re actually perfectly fine,
Gabe: You said they were the same, if they’re
Gabe: The same, this means that your parents aren’t being painted in a flattering light either.
Lisa: Again, I know you are raising valid points, and intellectually I can agree with this, you’re right, there are a lot more differences than I had thought of before. And I guess some of these are meaningful. But I still have this, like, emotional feeling about it that our families are the same. I’m like, I’m not actually realizing this. No. I feel like we grew up pretty much the same way. But I see what you’re saying. I see what you’re saying.
Gabe: Has my mother ever hazed you?
Lisa: It’s a sign of affection, Gabe. She was trying to invite you into the group.
Gabe: Ok, so my mother invites people into the group by cooking them food. Your mother invites people in the group by being mean to them in public, but they’re the same.
Lisa: She’s making you stronger. She wanted to make sure you could take it.
Gabe: I could not.
Lisa: No, you crumbled, you crumbled immediately, it was ridiculous, yeah, you could not take it.
Gabe: Remember when I fell apart at Christmas,
Lisa: Yes, I do.
Gabe: So this is where this is headed, ladies and gentlemen.
Lisa: Just love the Christmas memories.
Gabe: Thanks for bearing with us. One year at Christmas, when Lisa and I were still married, Lisa’s parents got her a portable DVD player. Now, about a month before Christmas, they had asked me if Lisa would like a portable DVD player, and I said, no, Lisa has a laptop and the laptop has a DVD player and the DVD player will play DVDs on Lisa’s laptop. There’s no reason for a portable DVD player with a smaller screen that’s just a DVD player. Christmas Day arrives. And Lisa, what you get for Christmas?
Lisa: I got a portable DVD player.
Gabe: Lisa got a portable DVD player. Now they pointed out that this portable DVD player did not have a computer built in.
Lisa: I know, you kind of had to be there, but, yeah, there seemed to be a lack of understanding of how the technology worked. Yes.
Gabe: So, Lisa, ever the good daughter was like, oh, thank you, mom and dad, kiss, kiss. Another difference between my family and your family, by the way, because I would have chucked it at my mom’s head and been like, what the hell? I told you I didn’t want this, lady. But again, our families are the same, yet different.
Lisa: That’s ridiculous, you cannot criticize a gift, someone gives you a gift, you say thank you.
Gabe: My family does not do that, my family gets mad, picks it apart and is judgmental as hell. I like this about us. It’s my favorite part of Christmas.
Lisa: Your mother gave me that ugly sweatshirt and I kept it the entire time we were together and made a point of wearing it in front of her, because that is what one does with a gift, you horrible, ungrateful person.
Gabe: That is not what my family does. That is what your family does, proving the differences. But anyways, back to the DVD player. Christmas Day wears on. And Susan Kiner, I do want to take a brief break. Lisa’s parents are, in fact, wonderful people. And they gave me my best friend in the whole world. So I just so I apologize in advance for what’s about to come out of my mouth.
Lisa: Mm hmm.
Gabe: But Lisa’s mom looks at me
Lisa: Oh, for God’s sakes,
Gabe: Now, she’s this tiny woman.
Lisa: She’s not tiny, she’s six feet tall,
Gabe: But she’s thin as a rail,
Lisa: She is very thin, yes.
Gabe: She weighs half as much as your 300 pound, 6’3″, young and able bodied, virile husband. Remember, I was younger and virile back then.
Lisa: Oh, this is so wrong.
Gabe: And she looks at me and says, Gabe, did Lisa like the present? And I said, of course, she loved the DVD player. Gabe did Lisa like the present? And I said, of course she loved the DVD player. Gabe. No, she hated it. I told you she already had one, Sue. I don’t know what you want. She has a computer that has the DVD player in with a bigger screen. At this point, Lisa went nuclear. Whatever year it was, if you look at like the radioactive fallout in the world, it went up on Christmas Day. Like what actually happened is I told her mother that she didn’t like the present. What Lisa thought happened is that I killed a kitten. It was it was just like her anger level was off the charts.
Lisa: Because I had specifically told you not to do that, you already understood the gift giving rules, it wasn’t that hard. All you had to do was say yes, what a great gift. Thank you, Susan.
Gabe: I did. Twice,
Lisa: Thank you.
Gabe: She knew. She could see through my soul.
Lisa: Oh, my God. OK, and that’s what he kept saying. I said, what is wrong with you? Why could you not just say, yes, thank you for the gift? And he says, Oh my God, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. Your mother was looking at me.
Gabe: She was looking at me.
Lisa: A middle aged nurse was looking at you and you lost your shit. Really?
Gabe: Your mother, though, now come on, your mother,
Lisa: She was looking at you?
Gabe: Your mother once told me a story of where in an operating room she grabbed a hold of a man’s ribcage during heart surgery, put her foot up on the operating table and started tugging on it as hard as she could. And you wonder why I buckled?
Lisa: You are making that up. That never happened.
Gabe: I am not making that up. She told me that story. She also told me they use Craftsman tools.
Lisa: All right, I
Gabe: She said they use Craftsman tools.
Lisa: I don’t know if, I assume they probably do, they’re high quality tools. I have a whole set of screwdrivers. I don’t know.
Gabe: See, your mother is scary.
Lisa: Oh, my, are you this scared of all nurses and doctors? Well, never mind.
Gabe: Yeah, what are you talking to? I’m terrified of them, like.
Lisa: Ok, anyway, the point is you lost your shit. You had this whole oh my God, she’s looking at me. I can’t take it. I crumble. I just, I just fall apart immediately, like a Kleenex. I just can’t take it.
Gabe: It wasn’t immediately
Gabe: I held for two times.
Lisa: It would not have killed you to love the DVD player, plus, of course, they would have given us the receipt, we could have returned it, not a problem or taken it for store credit. Not the point.
Gabe: You were sitting right there, you knew I was going to crumble. Why did you not stop her?
Lisa: I was not sitting right there. I came into the room midstream, if I’d been sitting right there, I would have stopped this. Yeah, completely lost your shit. Told my parents I didn’t like their gift. I’m still pissed about that, frankly,
Gabe: Shocker, Lisa is still
Lisa: I’m just saying.
Gabe: Pissed about something that happened when we were married
Lisa: It wouldn’t have killed you to say thank you, Susan, for the gift.
Gabe: The good news is.
Lisa: What point are you getting to?
Gabe: The point that I’m getting to, is that this was a good Christmas.
Gabe: This is what happened when things were going well during the holidays for Gabe and Lisa. We had way worse holidays. Do you remember the holiday? And I’m not going to say whose family it is to give cover. Do you remember the holiday when one of our distant cousins. I think it was a cousin. Just for unknown reasons, just unleashed this litany of racial slurs around the table?
Gabe: Like we were just like and then when you and I started to run interference, the other members are like, oh, don’t cause trouble. You’re never going to change their mind. And we were just flabbergasted. And then do you remember the other holiday where a member of the family again, I don’t want to tie this to either one of our families, but who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community came with
Gabe: Their significant other and
Gabe: The whole family just lost their shit at seeing this relationship in front of them. And you and I just had to do everything we could to calm people down because.
Lisa: And what do you do?
Gabe: Are you ready? Because there was people in the room who were slightly different from them. Yet, members of the identical family.
Lisa: Well, also, it didn’t make any sense. You knew she was gay. What? What? That made no sense.
Gabe: I got nothing. I can tell you that I do believe good things came out of these hard discussions and these moves from our comfort zones. And Lisa, we were upset about both of those things for a long time, and we
Gabe: Took pot shots at each other’s families, which was clearly the wrong way to handle it for a long time. And then we started playing the holiday family suffering Olympics.
Lisa: Family suffering Olympics.
Lisa: There were also some other high points, I mean, you know, you’ve always got that drug addict shooting up in the driveway.
Gabe: There was that.
Lisa: That was a fun year. Yeah.
Gabe: You know, I feel confident in saying that that was one of the ones that happened to both our families, I think maybe it drew us together. I just.
Gabe: These are hard things. These are hard things to have happen in your family. And they’re hard things to watch and they’re hard things to know how to navigate. And this is where our families are a lot alike, Lisa. You’re right. The way that both of our families tried to handle these things was just to push it under the rug, complain silently to each other behind people’s backs, pretend that everything was OK in person. We never really got a lot of resolution on some of this stuff. We got resolution years later. We did not get resolution on the day. And in fact, whenever you and I would speak up, we would get the don’t ruin the holidays, don’t ruin Thanksgiving, don’t ruin Christmas, don’t ruin the visit. You’re making everybody uncomfortable. And
Lisa: Let’s not even.
Gabe: And this elephant was in the room making everybody uncomfortable, but yet discussing it and coming to some sort of resolution, you became the bad guy. Now, I don’t know how our listeners are, but Lisa and I, we well, we have just a history of not keeping our mouths shut. So we pushed back hard on this, which did, in fact, make the holidays more uncomfortable.
Lisa: But that’s why it’s so annoying. It’s always amazing the hypocrisy of the person who brings up the horrible, terrible thing isn’t the bad one. The person who starts using the racial slurs is not the bad one. It’s the person who objects to it. Yeah, you’re the problem.
Gabe: Lisa, this is a very serious question I’m about to ask you, and I want you to take a beat before you answer. Don’t answer with what you think is going to make you sound best. Don’t answer with what makes you think is going to make me happy. Like like be honest.
Gabe: Do you think that we could have handled this better? Our tact back then was just to push forward screaming and point out how awful these people were.
Lisa: There wasn’t actual screaming.
Gabe: There was for me. The wrath of Gabe, come on,
Gabe: I am well known in my family for being a screamer.
Lisa: Well, that yeah, that my family doesn’t do that.
Gabe: Oh, but I thought our families were the same.
Lisa: Ok. All right, you’re making many fine points. Yes.
Gabe: One of the reasons that I keep going back on this, just to take in a little aside before we get back to the question is because I think people do this, I think people decide that all families are the same way too easily. You’ve decided that because we’re the same age, because we’re best friends, because our parents are married to each other and because we both grew up in Ohio, that we must be the same. Do you see how dangerous that comparison is?
Gabe: You’ve just determined that my parents are the same as your parents. That is utter nonsense.
Lisa: We’re all in it together.
Gabe: You know, of course, but you realize that you can recognize differences without being disrespectful. You’ve decided that in order to like people or to get along or to find common ground, we must also have agreement. We must be the same.
Lisa: I think that’s way oversimplifying what I’m saying here.
Gabe: You are pretty stuck on the idea that our upbringing was identical. I don’t think it’s an oversimplification at all, the minute that I pointed out that my family was blue collar and your family was white collar, that for most people would have been enough to do it. That and that alone. The minute I brought up that I’m adopted and you’re not, that would have been enough to do it for most people. I mean, just on and on and on it is
Lisa: We had the same toys?
Gabe: No, we didn’t
Lisa: We had the same cartoons?
Gabe: No, you didn’t even have cable,
Lisa: Well, no.
Gabe: I had Beavis and Butt-Head and you had reruns of The Brady Bunch on a station that had a clown.
Lisa: A clown? You call him a clown? Superhost was not a clown.
Gabe: What was he? He had white makeup and a red nose.
Lisa: He was, he was himself. He cannot be explained. Anyway, anyone from northern Ohio knows what I’m talking about. Next.
Gabe: But we’re exactly the same. I grew up in the big city, you grew up in rural Ohio, and yet you still maintain that we’re the same.
Lisa: You’re making a good point.
Gabe: How many more differences do I have to point out?
Lisa: Yeah, the TV thing, sometimes I’m at a bit of a loss on pop culture because I didn’t have some of that stuff growing up.
Gabe: It’s really amazing to me that you did not have Beavis and Butt-Head, but you did have Daria.
Lisa: Oh, I had Daria when I got to college.
Gabe: Oh, that’s right. You went to college and I didn’t. Hmm. The similarities just keep mounting.
Lisa: I’m sure it’s different now because people have the Internet, but back then, if you had not had cable TV and MTV and then you suddenly got it when you were 17 for the first time, it was amazing. Oh, so much TV. I could not look away.
Gabe: Now, Lisa, just out of curiosity, when summer came around.
Gabe: The air conditioning setting. Your family set it at what? My family was like a 78 when my dad wasn’t home, when my dad was home, we set it at 74. Now, your family set your AC on what?
Lisa: We did not have air conditioning, yes.
Gabe: Ok, that’s fine. You know, a lot of people don’t have air conditioning. That’s no big deal. Now, the thermostat for your heat, because you had heat, otherwise you’d freeze to death. What was the heat that you set the thermostat for on your house? What was that?
Lisa: The point he’s trying to make is that my family heated with wood,
Gabe: You mean you didn’t have a furnace?
Lisa: The joke that he likes to make is, oh, what happened then? Did Pa Ingalls bring out his fiddle?
Gabe: Did he?
Lisa: To be fair, my father did play the piano. Anyway. Not the point.
Gabe: Your father plays all the instruments because he’s a teacher.
Gabe: Remember what my mother said about being a teacher?
Gabe: This is an exact quote from my mother. I could never be a teacher because on the second day I would murder the children and go to prison.
Lisa: Your mother actually said that?
Gabe: Have you met my mother? Does she look like she have the patience to teach a bunch of teenagers?
Lisa: Well, so you wouldn’t have thought that my. But apparently he did. He was a very successful teacher, very popular.
Gabe: Once again, your compliments always have this twinge, you know, you wouldn’t have thought so because he’s such a screw up, but he was actually a very good teacher. Let me put this in other words, Lisa.
Lisa: No, because he seemed so quiet, not a screw
Gabe: You know, you wouldn’t think that Lisa was a good friend based on her personality and overall demeanor, but she’s actually quite competent at it. You feel good now, right?
Lisa: Do you remember that time when we were married and I needed some crushed ice, so I took some ice and I put in a bag and I hit it with a hammer?
Gabe: Yeah, that was
Lisa: And it freaked you out? You said, what are you doing? I said, I need crushed ice. And how do you get crushed ice? How did your parents get crushed ice? And you said we had an ice maker like normal people. Yeah, pffft. City people.
Gabe: Really, we’re city people? And that makes you different in some way?
Lisa: Huh? Again, I’m still not getting it. Back, you’re distracting me. Back to the question of how should you handle the difficult holiday thing with your family? And your question was, could we have handled this better? And yes, we could have handled it better by doing the thing that your family now does, which is brilliant. And I’m trying to introduce to my own family, which is.
Gabe: We don’t discuss religion or politics.
Lisa: Oh, it’s more than that.
Gabe: We just avoid basically all of the topics that we can’t agree on.
Lisa: But everybody does that, you’ve got it at a whole nother level.
Gabe: We have worked very hard as a family to figure out all the things that we disagree about and put them off the table and focus on all the things that we do agree about, which there are so many. This was probably the biggest thing that my family did, and it was not easy. And we absolutely fall back into old routines. And I’m not saying that we’re perfect, but we work very hard that when a disagreement comes up, we just shelf it. We’re just like, you know, we’ll talk about that later. And, you know, my sister and I. And I think this is my favorite example. We could not be more different when it comes to politics and religion. And my sister and I have just accepted that about us. But we like the same movies. We like that we have the same dark sense of humor. We, of course, love Eva, her daughter. We love to joke and we love to explore. And I love my baby sister. I just love her so much. And I get a little choked up to think that I could let something like politics or religion come between the relationship that I have with my sister. My family, we’ve worked very, very hard to find the things that we agree about, which is largely Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, at the holidays.
Lisa: Which I’ve never actually seen.
Gabe: And we just amplify that. We love the food, we love the cookies, we love the decorations, we love my mom going over the top and we love the same movies and we love popcorn. We love making fun of my sister for putting salt on popcorn. It’s basically salt with corn on it rather than corn with salt on it. Debbie, you should get help.
Lisa: Maybe she has some sort of vitamin deficiency.
Gabe: We work very hard to expose those things and amplify them, and it’s worked, it’s worked well. Now, that said, I want to give a small little caveat. My grandmother and I discuss politics all the time. My sister and I discuss other things that we disagree about, one on one all the time. Just you need to do this on the holidays? Like really? Like your whole family’s together for the holidays. And you can’t find one thing that you all agree on to discuss? You have to gravitate right to the stuff that you disagree about? Like what’s wrong with our families? Lisa, what’s wrong with your family?
Lisa: Obviously, everybody tries to avoid politics, religion, etc., and I don’t really know how to explain it, but your family has taken this to another level. It’s amazing. You just cut it off at the pass completely. There’s not the whole, Oh, let’s agree to disagree. No, you don’t even go there. It’s stopped long before. It’s awesome. Like I said, I’m trying to figure out your system so I can get that going in my own household here.
Gabe: One of the things that’s really nice is we’ve seen the benefits, right? There are little things that we do. We don’t leave the news on. You know, so many people turn the news on in their house. And I joke it’s just an old person thing. When the family gets together, news goes off. We don’t even risk it. We don’t want to be sitting there and have some, you know, politician come on and make people start making comments about it.
Lisa: I think your mom even takes away the paper, doesn’t she?
Gabe: Oh, we just get rid of all of it and we all work together, if anybody brings up politics or something like this, just it gets shut down. We work together as a group to make sure that this doesn’t happen. But I really think the magic in our system is we saw the benefits. We used to fight about politics. We used to fight about religion. We used to fight about well, frankly, we used to fight about everything. It was just our way. Now, rather than poking each other for being different in some way, we now really try to bring up the stuff we have in common. You know, my dad loves to hear about the podcasts. He loves to hear about my speaking career. He loves to hear about how I’m utilizing the Internet and social media to reach people. Like that’s very fascinating to him. My dad and I also like technology. We love technology and we gravitate toward those things. But then something like magical happens and stuff that we don’t like that we notice that the other person likes, it becomes fun to hear about. We’ve joked before at my father’s love for Ice Road Truckers. I don’t get it,
Lisa: He really loves Ice Road Truckers.
Gabe: But I have to say, and I’m being very genuine here, if I had a choice between listening to my father describe an episode of Ice Road Truckers scene by scene or arguing with him about some political point that we don’t agree on or a social justice issue that we don’t agree on or religion that we don’t agree on, I’d rather hear about Ice Road Truckers. It gives him so much joy. It’s fun to watch how much he likes this, even though I don’t, I don’t get it for nothing.
Lisa: Is that show even still on?
Gabe: I have no idea,
Lisa: How many times has he seen each episode? What did you buy him like the box DVD set or something? I mean, what is going on there?
Gabe: I have no earthly idea. But the holidays can be hard to manage because we get so many personalities together and we have such high expectations about it. But I think maybe the magic of my family is that we just gave up expectations. We’re just like, you know, whatever happens is going to happen. And slowly and accidentally, almost, the high-end things started rising to the top. You know, my mother never knew how much we loved Christmas until several years ago.
Gabe: She didn’t know that we got a kick out of it. She did it because she loved it. And then everybody would come over and fight about stuff. Well, when everybody’s coming over to pick on each other, disagree, point out their shortcomings, nobody is actually acknowledging the things that we like about the holidays. Well, since we’re no longer fighting, we had to fill space. You know, suddenly it’s stories about Christmases past, Thanksgivings pasts, and.
Lisa: Gabe’s mother does Christmas hardcore.
Gabe: Oh, you’ve never seen anybody, there is not anything in their house that’s not decorated for Christmas,
Lisa: It’s amazing
Gabe: It’s incredible.
Lisa: She even has the little toilet paper cozies that look like a candle and it’s red and green with the holly berries. It’s amazing.
Gabe: She wraps the pictures and the doors to look like presents,
Lisa: She does.
Gabe: Multiple Christmas trees,
Lisa: I mean, I like Christmas, etc., but
Gabe: Every surface.
Lisa: Yeah, she really goes all in and apparently has done since you were a kid.
Gabe: Oh, ever since we were kids and we just completely took it for granted and never told her, never told her because we just thought she knew. Right. And then when we get together, we’d fight and I.
Lisa: She prepares for Christmas year round,
Gabe: Oh, yeah,
Lisa: It’s amazing.
Gabe: And I want to tone down the word fight. I don’t want people to get this idea that my family and I screamed at each other and threw stuff or, you know, got to fisticuffs or.
Lisa: Oh, no, there’s obviously never any violence or throwing, but there is a lot of screaming.
Gabe: Yeah, there’s a lot of yelling and there’s a lot of debating and there are hurt feelings, even if they’re just subtle hurt feelings and people get up and leave the room and then we’re not together anymore. Once we just started focusing on the other stuff, it really did start rising to the top. And I’d love to tell you how we did it, but it really just started with us just setting ground rules, no religion, no politics. And frankly, we all work together to change the subject when we come to something that we disagree on.
Lisa: I think that’s what does it that you’re all working together to enforce the rules, as it were.
Gabe: It was very important to us at one point to get over this because, well, frankly, people were just stopping to come and I didn’t want to come. I felt that I was always fighting with my family. And I was. I want to be clear, I was, and a lot of these arguments were started by me, like I want to take responsibility here for some of the unrest at Christmas. I have to take responsibility for starting a good many of these disagreements. But the point is, is while we were disagreeing. We weren’t agreeing. So even though we liked my mom’s decorations, we liked my mom’s food, we liked our holiday traditions, we liked Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, we liked Fraggle Rock. We liked all the Christmas specials.
Lisa: Her pies are amazing.
Gabe: Her pies are amazing. Nobody spent any time on this because we’re arguing about what? The president, a local politician? I mean, really, I don’t want to give the idea that my family and I don’t openly discuss things like politics, religion or things in the news because we do, but.
Lisa: But not necessarily at Christmas.
Gabe: Yeah. Why does it gotta be on Christmas? And, you know, sometimes it’s is better one on one. You know, I love, love talking politics with my grandma. Now, part of the reason is because my grandma and I agree a lot, not going to lie. But when we disagree, nobody yells and we’re not doing it at Christmas. We need to get to a system like that. You know, maybe the entire family doesn’t have to be in on the discussion that you and your uncle are having about which politician is better. Maybe this is an opportunity for you and your uncle to agree to have coffee after the fact. For me, this is only for me, Lisa. I started to realize that I didn’t really have a good reason to push this. I think I just wanted to fight because I was uncomfortable and the fighting filled the void.
Lisa: I don’t think that’s necessarily fair, though. When someone says something incendiary, why shouldn’t you respond? They got to say it. Why shouldn’t you get to respond? Not to mention there’s a whole silence implies consent thing going on. So the secret really is to not have that initial volley, to have it not be brought up in the first place, because then you don’t have to make this decision about, oh, God, do I just let him keep going? What do I do? That is the secret.
Gabe: That is the secret, that is the secret, you know, sometimes it’s
Lisa: And that’s the hardest part. Getting people to not respond, I think, is a little bit easier, but getting people to not go there in the first place seems to be much more difficult.
Gabe: It’s kind of fascinating to watch my family work when somebody says something, you know, somebody will say something. They’ll be like, oh, I really love a and of course, we’re sitting at a table full of b’s and everybody wants to jump. Right. Like, you can almost see it, but somebody will just change the subject. Oh, I really like a. Hey, anybody see that 1 was on TV last night? And suddenly we’re all talking about 1 and that sort of sends this message to the person who brought up a, hey, dude. Nobody wants that. It’s not perfect. Obviously, the worse it is, the harder it is. I wish that I did not have racists and homophobes in my family sincerely. I really do. And I’m not close with those people. And I never miss an opportunity to pull them aside and tell them that that’s unacceptable. The old Gabe Howard would have done it publicly. The old Gabe Howard would have made a scene right there and I’m not sure that that was the best way to do it.
Lisa: But the old family dynamic would have had that person explaining in detail, but now they don’t even go there, they don’t even start.
Gabe: They don’t even start and if they do start, it’s shut down immediately.
Lisa: Right, so that you don’t have to respond.
Gabe: The old dynamic was to let that person go on for a half an hour. The new dynamic is the person says it, everybody changes the subject in concert together, and that kind of shames that person and that person stops bringing it up. Unfortunately, they still hold the belief.
Lisa: Well, but you only have two choices, either you decide, OK, that’s it, get out, you are no longer welcome here. You are so incredibly over the top that you have to go. Or you find a way to tolerate it. And most people are not willing to kick out a member of the family. And even if you’re willing, there might be other family members that aren’t. Like maybe you’re willing to have one of your cousins or your aunt or just whatever, be exiled forever. But your mom isn’t. Your grandmother isn’t. You know, the cousin’s brother isn’t. So you’re stuck with these people unless you’re willing to cut them off completely. You’re trapped. You’re going to have to figure out a way.
Gabe: As much as I hate to say it, the worst abusers in our family are gone, they’ve passed away and I’m not rooting for anybody to pass away, but
Lisa: There is a generational aspect of it, yes.
Gabe: There really is. And it’s difficult. And I try to put myself in the shoes of why people are tolerating this. You know, your mom did a good job of explaining to you why she was tolerating this behavior. Your mom pointed out that when she was younger, this person was her savior. This person was there for her and that this person helped her and that this person helped craft the woman that your mother became, who she’s very proud of. And obviously the woman that your mother became allowed her to get married and give birth to my best friend. And now we have a podcast and.
Lisa: The world turns.
Gabe: Yeah, your mother didn’t like what this person was saying, but your mother was willing to accept that this person can be two things. This person can be horribly wrong and still her savior, a person who was very relevant to her childhood. Now, we don’t have that same emotional pull to this particular relative. Right. We.
Gabe: I imagine that’s very difficult. I often think, like, what happens if Lisa goes crazy? Lisa still saved my life, so I’m always going to love you. But what happens if you take some awful position that I just can’t get behind and I have to cut off communication? Am I willing to do it? This is the difficulty in families. Yeah, we don’t like Cousin Bob. You know, Cousin Bob is an asshole and we hate him. But maybe the reason that we’re tolerating Cousin Bob is because of something Cousin Bob’s dad did or because when we needed Cousin Bob to take us to the emergency room when we were sick, Cousin Bob was the only one that was there.
Lisa: People can be two things, they can be horrible and also have this good side, or the reverse.
Gabe: So one of the things that I think I would encourage people to remember when they’re looking at loved ones that are mean to them and they’re wondering why is the family tolerating this person? This person is clearly horrific to me. They well may be horrific to you and you may well be right. But maybe they were kind to somebody that you love. And that’s some common ground right there, right. I don’t think that Gabe Howard and Lisa Kiner’s parents are ever going to be besties, but our common ground is Lisa. Just point blank. Our common ground is Lisa. I am very grateful to them that they decided to get married and have kids. Right. That’s a very powerful thing that they did for me.
Lisa: I’m sure they totally had you in mind the whole time.
Gabe: But they still did it. My life would be incredibly different if not for the decisions that they made, but yeah, we’re never going to agree on politics like. Right. Like Gabe Howard and the Kiner’s are never going to sit down and be like we see things the same way because we don’t. But is that really what we need to spend our time talking about when we have you to discuss? Oh, my God, could you imagine if me and your parents joined forces, how we could fix you?
Lisa: Oh, yeah, maybe I’d finally go to graduate school
Gabe: It’s my fault you didn’t go, you know
Lisa: You’re still not over that, are you. Anyway. Yeah, and he thinks I hold a grudge. I do feel, though, like we’re going to be remiss here about, yeah, everybody has terrible people in their family, but you could usually suck it up for a meal. And you and I are lucky in that way, that we overall have decent families.
Gabe: We do, we do.
Lisa: But there’s certainly plenty of people out there whose families are just completely toxic.
Gabe: So let’s talk about that for a moment. You are right, our families are the same in that they annoy us, but we love them and that we want to go to Christmas. We want to go to Thanksgiving. We want to show up for holidays. What about if you don’t want to? You know, so many people that I talk to, they’re like, look, I just don’t want to go. I’d rather be alone during the holidays than tolerate my family. But the pressure of the holidays is such that I don’t feel that I have that right. Lisa, what are your thoughts on that?
Lisa: It’s not that they don’t feel that they have that right, they feel that they don’t have that choice. I did not have an abusive childhood. Right. So you meet people who had these horribly abusive childhoods and they still have contact with their families. They still have contact with the abuser or their parents. And you think, what is the problem here? Just cut these people off completely. Move and never tell them where you go, just be done. That has always been very hard for me to understand. Why do you still have contact with these people at all? Why are you talking to this person at all? But I guess this is just something I don’t understand. I had a good relationship with my parents. For people who don’t, it’s just much more complicated. And the vast majority, at least that I know, do not end the relationship.
Gabe: But is it OK?
Lisa: Well, apparently, this is human nature. For whatever reason, people, in general, don’t do that.
Gabe: Yeah, I know people in general don’t do it, but that’s not the question that I’m asking you. Think back to the beginning of the show. When I said, hey, listen, in March, April, May, June, we’ll cut off our family no problem. Because we understand that they’re toxic and we will avoid them like the plague. No issue. And like how we thought we avoided the plague before there was an actual plague. And it turns out we don’t avoid it at all. But sincerely, is it OK to skip seeing your family over the holidays?
Lisa: Of course, it’s OK, but it’s not necessarily realistic for many people.
Gabe: Nah, nah, that’s not just stop, stop. It’s realistic to do it in June. So is it realistic to do in December if you make the decision this is not in my mental health’s best interest. This is not what I’m going to do. I’m making the decision for my own self and my own self care. Don’t tell me it’s hard. I know it’s hard. Is it OK? Are you a good person? If you don’t see your family, who is hurting you and your mental health over the holidays? Is it a smart and good choice? And are you still a good person if you do it?
Lisa: Are you actually debating this? Of course. You’re not actually debating this question, are you?
Gabe: I think many people are debating this question.
Lisa: Well, that’s dumb.
Gabe: I think that there are people sitting there right now that believe that in order to be a good, ethical and moral person, they are obligated, obligated, morally and ethically to see their family on the holidays. What say you to that?
Lisa: No, absolutely not, you have absolutely no obligation to people who are harming you to do anything for them,
Gabe: Even if they’re your parents?
Lisa: Especially if they’re your parents. Although I do feel that parents have this unending obligation to their children, even with their adult children. No, you didn’t choose your parents. You have no obligation to these people. You can cut them off in a heartbeat if they’re not doing right by you. Go ahead. But again, you’re asking me if this is morally right or if this is morally acceptable. Of course it is. I don’t think there’s any debate on this, but I don’t think it matters. It’s not necessarily practical.
Gabe: I think that it matters very much because I think there are people that know that there are certain family members that they can’t see because of longstanding abuse, because of trauma. But they feel that in order to be a good person, they have to see them. And, you know, you and I are
Gabe: Lucky. Lisa, you know, our vantage point is of parents who are overbearing or who we disagree with or who we fight with or who frankly just made us feel bad. But our vantage point isn’t abuse. Our parents didn’t traumatically abuse us. There was no physical abuse, sexual abuse. But there are people that we talk to that this is their reality. And all of our advice has just discounted that completely. We’re like, oh, our parents talk about politics and religion and they don’t believe in mental illness over the holidays. What should we do to fix that? OK. That’s a very important discussion and one that I think that we’ve beaten to death. But what about the people who in their childhood, in their adult life have seen trauma and sexual assault and violence from their families or from a member of their family? They’re debating whether or not they should see these individuals and society is pushing them in that direction. Oh, it’s the holidays. Now is the time to forgive and forget. And I think this is sending the message to them that they are unable to say no and they feel that they must spend the holiday with their abuser. And I’m very specifically using abuser, not, you know, a family member that you fight with, but abuser. And that message gets so muddied because even we do it. Oh, call your mom. It’s the holidays. But we never bothered to ask why they don’t want to call their mom. Talk directly to those people for a moment because they don’t feel like they have a choice, because well-intentioned people like us are telling them, oh, just go and agree not to talk about it. But this is a whole other level.
Lisa: Yes, exactly, it is a whole other level, and this advice is not remotely applicable to that level. Many of these folks do not cut off contact with their families. I think this is just a blind spot that I have. I don’t get it. It does not seem like a difficult choice to me. It does not seem like that would be that hard to do. But apparently it is. And I just simply do not understand this. So when you start talking about, oh, is this the moral choice, really? I don’t feel like this is even remotely a debate. I don’t feel like this is something you would need to give a second thought to. The answer is obvious, but again, apparently, that’s because I’m just missing the whole picture here.
Gabe: Do you think it’s fair to say that the majority of the advice that’s floating around in the podcast world and the blogging world and the well-intentioned friends and family, they don’t understand what happened. And most people aren’t asking. They just assume that you’re fighting with your mom because you wanted to have short hair and your mom was hoping that you’d have long hair and now you’re ruining Christmas over it. Do you think that people just have this blatant misunderstanding, that there’s a level of trauma and abuse that is absolutely unforgivable and the moral choice is to cut those people off?
Lisa: Well, I don’t think you should frame it in the question of morality, it is perfectly moral to cut these people off and it’s perfectly moral to not. It’s up to you. The point is that you get to decide. There is just so much social pressure to pick one choice and that is the choice most people pick. I don’t get it. Once again, I feel this is a very straightforward question. It does not require debate. But yeah, if you are an outlier, for example, you had a horribly abusive childhood, which most people do not, almost no advice is for you. All advice is general. All advice, all blogs, all Christmas specials, all sitcoms are designed around this theoretical average. And if you’re not within a few standard deviations of that average, yeah. It just isn’t applicable to you. You’re going to have to just chart your own way.
Gabe: Lisa, I think that that is incredible advice, and I think it’s advice that these shows are almost always lacking as the beginning of our show was. Hey, here’s how to get along with your family and let bygones be bygones. You’re saying that that the general advice of forgive and forget does not apply to all situations. It may not apply to your situation. And if it doesn’t apply to your situation, that’s OK, because you get to decide.
Lisa: Yes, excellent summary, Gabe.
Gabe: You know, I’m not known for summaries,
Lisa: All right, that’s actually one of the funniest things you’ve ever said. Yes, yeah, that’s true. You are not.
Gabe: Lisa, when it comes to families, would you say that they are just complicated? Well, it’s OK to get, you know, advice or a perspective from other people that ultimately the way that we manage our own families is just that. It’s the way that we’re managing our own families.
Lisa: All the Christmas specials, all the movies love it when the family that’s always had trouble getting along comes together, but that is because they don’t get along because they disagree on politics or they’ve always given that guy a hard time about his clothes or something stupid.
Gabe: It’s always simple.
Lisa: Yeah, it’s always simplistic because that’s how pop culture works. It’s not meant for people who have these deeply entrenched problems and trauma, yet we all act like it is. And that’s just so incredibly unfair, as if it wasn’t already bad enough that you have this burden on you. I feel a little bit bad that we might be contributing to that by saying things like, oh, just get along with your family, you can do it. That is just so incredibly simplistic and not good advice for many people.
Gabe: It seems like what you’re saying is that if Hallmark made a movie about certain people’s lives, the happy ending would be that they walked away and never looked back.
Lisa: Yes, absolutely.
Gabe: I know that Hallmark is never going to make that movie, but
Lisa: Yeah, we’re not going to see that one.
Gabe: But if they were making a movie about certain people’s lives, they’d be like, look, you overcame, you broke free, you walked away, you chartered your own course, and you put those people out of your mind and never saw them again. And that would get the light snow fall and the piano music and the fade to black. Rather than what we usually see, which is a family sitting around the table eating Christmas cookies and laughing.
Lisa: Right, right,
Gabe: And that’s OK.
Lisa: That’s 100% OK. Yes.
Gabe: I kind of want to make that movie now.
Lisa: No one is going to fund that movie
Lisa: Because it will have to have such a sad start. No one cares about the happy ending if there’s a really sad start.
Gabe: What about Lifetime?
Lisa: Huh, well, never mind. Good point. So the message that we’re trying to have here is life isn’t actually a Hallmark movie and sometimes the cute sitcom ending doesn’t actually happen. And that’s not only OK, but a good thing.
Gabe: Yeah, I think it’s important to understand that well-meaning and well-intentioned people are going to give you all kinds of advice based on things that they did not go through and based on a life that they did not lead. And they are mistakenly believing that their life mirrors yours. And in reality, it is quite possible that the things that you went through with your family are frankly just unforgivable and that you don’t want them and then it’s OK. It’s also quite possible that what you went through does mirror that advice and it does mirror Gabe and Lisa and the DVD player is not a reason to cut off your family. It’s up to you. I guess what I’m really saying, Lisa, is that not enough of these podcasts and articles and YouTube videos actually say this phrase. If you want to forgive your family, here are some ways to do so. And if you don’t want to forgive your family, then don’t. Chart your own course. Both are equally moral, equally ethical and entirely up to you. And the important thing is that it makes you happy and that it’s your choice. Go forward, do what you want and have a happy holiday.
Lisa: Excellent advice, Gabe.
Gabe: Hey, thank you so much and thank all of you for listening. Look, whatever you do for the rest of the year, I hope you make it great. And I also hope that you remember that Mental Illness Is an Asshole is a book I wrote and makes a great holiday gift. You can, of course, get it on Amazon.com, but you can also go to gabehoward.com and buy it there. And I will sign it and I’ll throw in a bunch of show swag, like stickers, and Lisa will package them and mail them.
Lisa: You’re welcome.
Gabe: Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please subscribe, please rate, rank and review, and if you have any ideas for future shows, hit us up at a [email protected]
Lisa: And we’ll see you all back here next Tuesday.