Ah, family reunions. I’m willing to bet that all of you immediately had a very specific reaction to those words. I’m also willing to bet that for the majority of you, it was something like this:
Yeah. And listen, I LOVE family. I’m all about family. My parents and sisters really are my best friends, and my cousins, uncles, aunts, etc. are a pretty big part of my life compared to most. I think family is something special, that by all means should be celebrated.
That doesn’t change the fact that for the most part, family reunions absolutely suck.
In fact, at most family gatherings, my little immediate family tribe is reenacting that Ariel face-palm. Family… we don’t talk about this much, but I think (hope) we’re all aware that we’re the odd ones compared to both sides of our family. We stick to ourselves mostly and feel embarrassed, awkward, and all introverty. We have bonded over our cringe-worthy experiences at various Christmases, Thanksgivings, and yes, family reunions. Not every single one, but a lot. So when I went out for my husband’s family reunion this summer without my little clan of awkward turtles, I had a lot of time to think on why it is that family gatherings are about as fun as doing taxes.
I have come up with a pretty solid theory.
In short: the idea behind it is basically to stick a bunch of people in a room and hope they come out friends.
People don’t work that way. Case in point: here are some of my favorite memories with extended family members:
- Hiking at Dinosaur Valley with my aunt and uncle from California – I was little enough that my uncle could lower me down the cliff-sides instead of climbing.
- Exploring the tea shop where my step-Grandma worked with my little cousins
- Christmas Eve at Grandmothers house, where we all got to open a special present early
What do all these things have in common? We were doing things, not just eating a meal or gathering somewhere. Experiences are what makes memories. The only memories I really have from family reunions when I was really young was slipping out a back door to catch crawdads in a nearby pond – yes, this is really the kind of thing that goes on in Texas. But my point is that I remember that because it was an activity, action, experience with people that we were able to bond over.
You ever get those free Disney Vacation Planning DVDs? I do. They’re free and full of footage of the best rides and shows ever. Seriously, go order one. Anyway, if you have seen these, you’ve probably seen the “family” that has their family reunion at Disney World – which, aside from being astronomically expensive, is THE BEST IDEA I HAVE EVER HEARD.
Obviously most families couldn’t afford something so extravagant, but anything will do. Do a Dude Ranch, a lake, a carnival, bowling, hiking, bounce house, there’s a million options.
But of course, none of that’s going to happen any time soon. You have to go to the big empty room with tables to see your extended family, and here’s my tips on how to survive that (chronic illness or not – as a universe, we’re stuck with this familial duty).
Travel is already tough when you have a chronic illness. But if travel is a spoon-sucker…
Then travel that involves family is a super spoon sucker. Like, there’s probably some kind of mathematical equation where adding family to the equation increases stress and energy expenditure exponentially. I love ‘em, I can’t live without ‘em, but they wear me out.
And I don’t need to tell you that that equation is multiplied ten-fold when it’s in-laws.
I love them too. But… well. You know. There’s an almost universal in-law experience that can just be left unspoken and you’ll know what I mean.
So an in-law family reunion that calls for traveling is basically a perfect storm that any spoonie in their right mind would avoid like the plague. But you really don’t get choices about these kinds of things, you have to go. The key here is putting yourself first immediately after you put your spouse first by attending in the first place.
I spent most of the time I was there hiding in my phone. As usual, families came from all over to promptly separate themselves into the groups they see all the time. Ugh. Family reunions, I can’t even — but I already expressed my feelings on that. Whenever someone we don’t see all the time came over for hellos I put the phone away, but once they wandered off I was back in iPhone-land. I know that this is very frowned upon but I needed to put myself first here. I needed to have a bit of a shield to hide behind to save my own energy and sanity –
Oh, I forgot to mention something important – no wonder I sound like such a bad person! This is a THREE DAY family reunion. THREE. DAYS. If it was one evening then I’d solider through, but I had to make it THREE WHOLE DAYS. So yes – rude? Social faux-pas? I don’t care. I needed shelter.
My husband was hanging out with his brother one night (while I was mercifully left alone in the hotel room to recharge while they had some guy-time) and he asked if I was mad at him or if we were fighting – wondering because I had been on my phone so much and very quiet. Toby explained to him the concept of introverts and extroverts. He asked his brother if he usually felt energized by being with people and socializing – he said yes. He then explained that for me, it’s the opposite. I give up energy to interact socially, and this weekend was a tough thing for me. Being an introvert isn’t an illness, but it’s often a huge stumbling block for people who want to travel but are less inclined to be social. I was very touched that my husband advocated for me like this, and it took a huge weight off my shoulders to know that at least one more person “got it” now.
So if social interaction is hard for you, don’t be afraid to be candid. If someone comments on your behavior or asks if you’re upset, just say not at all, I’m very happy! I’m just kind of an introvert so I get quiet. Now that introverts have taken over the internet, most people know what one is and further explanation won’t be needed.
Of course, family is always inclined to be honest – you may catch some flack, or get in to a “well what about this time?” or “then why do you do ___? That seems outgoing.” If you do have some kind of chronic illness, you’ve probably mastered the art of “never mind.” Shrug it off, excuse yourself to the bathroom, or just go “yeah, those were good times.” and let it goooo.
Speaking of let it go…
The best thing you can do for yourself at a family reunion is to find a buddy with the same attitude as you. In my case, that meant someone snarky who was really not going to have much fun if they couldn’t make fun of the whole thing. My husband was NOT that buddy. Supportive, yes, but he did not condone of my snark on the subject of family reunions. He also didn’t condone my logic about why most people would agree that they suck. He even got upset with me when I made my name tag -
I had much better ideas but I’m glad I stuck with something a bit more tame, because he was not amused. Luckily, since I’m right and most people really don’t like family reunions, I met my match in [AN IMAGINARY FRIEND],
who I’ve always loved but after this I really, REALLY LOVED. IN ALL CAPS. I LOVE HER.
UPDATE: I have since been informed that this bonding experience was completely imagined on my part and asked to remove her photo – please enjoy this photo of Spaceship Earth a la Cakewrecks.
I can’t tell you how important it is to have someone to exchange looks with when you’re holding in snark. [even though this turned out to not be the case, it still helped a lot at the time.]
At one point, some of the little kids there (who got to watch movies in the corner the whole time and had by far the best deal) were watching Frozen. [IMAGINED FRIEND] is an actress and singer who loves the stage, so of course she got up and went to sing a long to it. I am not the kind of person to do that, and I wasn’t even on loopy pain meds, but still I was like hell, it’s Let it Go. I’m about to Let it Go all up in hur. And we did.
Possibly the best part of the whole dang thing was the fact that we brought Cards Against Humanity. We spent a lot of the weekend hiding out in our room with Sarah and Toby’s brothers and laughing at the most inappropriate crap. Now that’s what I call family bonding. [Imagined family bonding, apparently.]
Of course, that fun was rather cut short when discovered by older family-reunion-loving people. I mean, we wouldn’t want to miss the quiz on all the ancestors, would we? (I’m not kidding, that’s a thing. And it’s the same quiz every year.)
Got it, Anya?
Another thing I forgot to mention – this reunion? It’s in Oklahoma. That’s right. We had to spend time and money to go spend a few days in Oklahoma.
For my readers who aren’t Texan, let me explain. Oklahoma is to Texas what Canada is to America. We don’t hate it, it’s just sort of this odd, backwards place that sits on top of us like a hat.
I mean, just look at this:
— Rachel Meeks (@DoILookSick) August 4, 2014
YOU WILL DRIVE SQUIGGLY NOW AND YOU WILL LIKE IT.
So, yeah. Anyway, to wrap up: if you have a chronic illness and you’re tackling a family reunion, try to find activities to do. Like I said, I think most of us aren’t fan of the current family reunion system. If you can’t change it, then just make the best of what you’ve got. Laugh, play raunchy card games, take breaks when you need to, BUT BY GOD, DON’T BE LATE FOR DINNER. Your in-laws will kill you.
My family and I have a saying: “Times.” It’s like “good times” except without good. Just, those were times. Times I remember. Times that happened. Times where it was awkward and you bonded because you just had to laugh.
Times, guys. Times.