We live in a society of lonely people, depressed people, and broken people. Addiction is often the go-to for band-aides to cover up their emptiness. Underneath all of the diagnoses is one thing: something happened to each person that shattered their core. With healing and an understanding of love for all that has happened and who they are, (no matter how awful it may seem) I believe it is possible to rewrite your story with new insights, wisdom, and love. It is my mission to be someone that gives others freedom to look at their personal story and heal and grow into their best self.
I had the pleasure of interviewing April Kirkwood. April is an author, therapist, and public speaker. Her book, Working My Way Back to Me is an inspirational tale that sheds light on universal struggles involving love, sexuality, addiction, and mental health. She is an advocate for women and early childhood trauma that affects adult romance.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
I grew in a blue collar family in the Midwest living on a small farm with my mom and her extended family. My childhood was filled with wonderfully strong and crazy women who loved me but modeled some really sad messages about men and women and love. I didn’t realize those messages until I found myself looking back realizing that no matter how I looked, what degrees I had, or social status I arrived to I never could never get it right in the area of her romantic life. I finally hit a dead wall in West Palm where it looked like I had everything any woman would want. Standing gazing into the pool at my “perfect” life I wondered how I got this miserable. Through many tears and soul searching, I finally found the courage to dig deep in the darkest places of my mind and soul and find how and what went wrong. I traveled back to my story and looked at the events from an adult’s vantage point. Each step I forced myself into those parts of our lives and family we never really discuss. There were abortions, affairs, church, parties, divorces, and addictions. I found the multi-generational messages that were innocently imprinted in my being. I spent four years shifiting through the rubble of my life and worked my way back until I could do the healing work I needed.
With the holiday season upon us, many people are visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy?
It’s true, all relationships come with challenges and conflict and no place is that more evident then in the family system. However, there is a definite line between difficult and dynmaic verusus unhealthy families when some tough decisions need to be made
A difficult dynamic family is one where there are issues, that but each person has compassionate love even for those who have hurt them. The members have an awareness of moments of estrangement from one another and are all working to show love into the minds and hearts they care for.
An unhealthy family system is one that is frozen, stiff, and unwilling to see outside of their individual perspectives. When judgment and alienation isolate individuals of the group, then it is best to take a time out. I realize it’s heartbreaking to not show up for holidays but the damage done by individuals lost in their own suffering, especially where children are concerned, is devastating to everyone’s mental health. Negative energy is a virus that spreads and kills the joy of the holiday. Know when it’s time to take a mental health break.
Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. In families where celebrating separately is not an option, what advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?
When there is no where to hide, a plan of action is definitely needed to prepare for yet another assaults on your personhood. Find someone with whom to lean on. Talk about Uncle’s Joe rude jokes about gays or Grandpa’s bouts with a bit too much to drink and find a way to help one another. Practice playing out the typcial scenes of your holdiay nightmare, find escapes routes, and find a nonverbal cue to let each other that they need assistance. Arrive a little late and leave a little early. Be clear, be calm, and realize these people have issues that have nothing to do with you. Walk away at the end of the night with a clear conscience that you kept your cool and your dignity.
We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?
There are plenty of unhealthy relationships out there. The boss who is an ego manic that blatantly makes back handed derogatory comments to and about his employees does nothing to promote productivity and unison in the company. However toxic relationships come from two or more people emotionally attached to due to mental health issues. Some spend their entire lives in entagnlements that never fulfill them and never will. They stay together until they find someone else to take over the job of fixing them. Co-dependent relationships are an excellent example of toxic relationships and are linked indirectly to narcissists as well.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
There is a time when everyone needs help. It is part of living and part of growing. When Barb, a client of mine, got divorced, it became quickly apparent that her ex husband was not going to be a stand up Dad. He was MIA. The children soon began to show signs at school and at home manifesting their sadness with acts of anger. As a counselor, I worked with the children and Barb to create a new family unit. I provided space for mourning the loss of the old family in a make believe funeral and moved on to what their new family would look like. The children and Barb became co-creatoras and giving them the feeling of power over this major change in their lives helped to stimulate conversations that would have never happened if not in the safety of a counseling scenerio.
What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?
Holidays are very stressful especially for families with members who are struggling with mental illness. I am proud of individuals that do not shun others who are in obvious distress. They are kind and patient and see the big picture. What can we do for those who are lost? Throw them away? It is our job and responsibility to be there with healthy boundaries to embrace but not enable the young, the elderly, and the mentally sick. Once again, conversations with family members and cues need to be created to help keep the festivities pleasant for everyone. If others do not want to attend, that’s ok. Make plans for another evening with them. Truth is your best defense and greatest ally.
Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although holiday gatherings are only a few days a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?
1. Understand the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
Women often visualize themselves as the magic memory makers and feel the brunt of the pressure to create the perfect holiday with all of the trimmings for their families. They are motivated more by emotion and those elements that cannot be measured by credid card payments. The smile on a chid’s face when they open the coolest gift that no other mom found. Women live for those triumphs. They work on school party cookies, outfits for photos, the perfect card, and everything else labeled magnificent. Whereas most men think more rationally adding up dollars and cents not smiles and giggles and a helping of logic. Both magic and money management are necessary parts of pulling off the spirit of love. After all, your’e a couple and this, like other responsibilites, have been successful because of both of you. It’s not divide and conquer; it’s unite and conquer. After all, who said all toy soldiers were male. We are in the battle of Christmas extravaganza together.
2. Team Building Exercise
Make a list of everyone who might show up that annoys you. Notice that I didn’t say, family as your spouse may still not consider them part of your lives seven though they may have been around literally decades. Seriously, get some wine. This could be fun. Write them down. List what bugs you about them. Be specific. Then come up a couple’s covert counter attack. For example, Aunt Margie drinks too much. So how do you manage? Your niece always brings some dates from hell.
Counselor’s tip: Laughter can make any situation better and team building strengthens relationships. Make this a standard for the entire year.
3. The Gift List
You and only you two as a couple know your financial status this season. By the way, it’s no body’s business. It’s hard but try to remember Christmas is more than gifts. It’s about family and being together. Set a limit and stick to it. Don’t wait until Mom has gone all out Santa to tell her it’s time to crunch the numbers.
Counselor’s tip: It’s better to be proactive then reactive. It’s too late when the spare room looks like Santa’s workshop with the closet bursting at the seams with gifts galore. Create a budge before shopping begins! Within that budget create a gift list TOGETHER. No cheating ladies unless you have some hidden cash somewhere.
4. Open Up And Let The Hot Air Out
Vent, vent, vent well in advance. Some research says that gripping and complaining is more like a rehearsal prepping for the real deal. To minimize that risk, make sure this whining session isn’t on the afternoon before the Christmas Eve dinner. Father time is your friend if you plan right. So, in advance, get all of the moaning and groaning about your cousin’s spilling the gravy all over the new carpet last year out now.
Counselor’s tip: What goes in must come out…. but let it out in the private when no one else can hear, not even the dog. Why hurt that very same cousin who has been planning her visit this year because she had such a wonderful time to your lovely home for the last three months. So wrong, so scrooge.
5. Speak In Code
Create a private noverbal cue between you both that allows one escape out of the line of exploding chestnuts. When Uncle Joe blurts his opinion about your crappy job you can exhale without strangling him with the misletoe. It can be like a breath of fresh air to have these moments of intimacy in a otherwise frantic and stuffy night.
Counselor’s tip: Uniting is great to have healthy flexible roles where no is stuck being the peace maker, the enforcer, or shutting down completely. Cookie dough is pliable and can both a star and a tree. That’s the beauty of being able to change and grow.
6. Include the Kids
Alert the kids as well. Include them in chores and helping with guests. Kids tend to blame themselves for all that goes wrong with their parents. Don’t burden them with details. Have them make a gift list and review it together tactfully. This is the season of marketing magical madness and children want it all. Be honest, don’t we too!
Counselor’s tip: Children do not think like the way do. Be patient, be kind, and try to keep the whole, “Where do you think I’m supposed to get all of this money!” for another time. Rudolph’s red nose was bright to guide not to bring others down.
Lastly, know you are no different than any other household in America. Every roof has a leak and no one’s holidays are like the beautiful Hallmark cards with scenes of perfect families. Life is short. This season will not be perfect but it can be laughable. Tis the season!
What is your favorite mental health quote?
With love all things are possible.
Why do you find it so impactful?
We live in a society of lonely people, depressed people, and broken people. Addiction is often the go-to for band-aides to cover up their emptiness. Under neath all of the diagnoses is one thing: something happened to each person that shattered their core. With healing and an understanding of love for all that has happened and who they are, (no matter how awful it may seem) I believe it is possible to rewrite your story with new insights, wisdom, and love. It is my mission to be someone that gives others freedom to look at their personal story and heal and grow into their best self.
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?
I would love to come to your organization and share my story and offer my manual so that others may be awakened.
I want women and men of any age to stop living their fake lives. Is it possible to step silently away and look deeply into their beliefs and what they think they ought to do and possibly throw out all that no longer works for them. It is work and it is panful but what is your life worth? What would you do to and to come alive again, laugh again, and be loved again.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
Thank you this was so inspiring!