#1243: “Broaching a service dog with dismissive family.”

Ahoy Captain,

This past year I (31/F) finally received a diagnosis for what I’ve been struggling with for over half my life. I have Complex PTSD/PTSD (I’ll spare you the differences and overlaps) (Ed. Note: No worries! I, Jennifer, will link people to a basic explainer.) Encouraged by my therapist I shared the PTSD with my parents. The main reason being because, with the enthusiastic support of said therapist, I am pursuing a service dog (SD).

Being able to acknowledge that yes, I have experienced multiple traumas and that I deserve to seek help and healing in a way that’s actually beneficial has been huge for me. I am very fortunate that my dog turned out to be an excellent candidate and I am owner training with the help of a professional service dog (SD) trainer. For the first time in forever, I can even sometimes think positively about the future!

The problem is that my feelings of being valid and deserving of help are new and fragile. My mother is extremely dismissive about my having PTSD, deciding to go the SD route, and the legitimacy of my dog being a service dog in training (SDiT). It often gets to the point of being triggering. And when I tell her she’s being hurtful she says she loves me, has good intentions, and somehow I end up apologizing for getting upset.

In the past I had her/the family on a very lean information diet, particularly when it comes to mental health stuff. I am worried about introducing my dog as my SDiT and it making the family feel as entitled to information and judgement as my mom. They mostly follow her lead when it comes to me. Although there have been times when my dad will privately admit mom is super critical of and often cruel to me, he has no intentions of intervening.

We live in different states so Holidays mean my siblings and I return to my parents’ house for several days. If it was just a dinner, I might be able to get through it, but I doubt I can last days in close quarters without utilizing my SDiT and I’d prefer not to lie since the truth will come out anyway.

Do you have any scripts for navigating what is essentially a medical treatment plan they don’t/won’t agree with? Tips on how to introduce my dog as my SDiT and have that be respected?


Letting the Service Dog out of the Bag

Hello there! Captain Awkward here with a beta-read and practical service-dog suggestions from The Goat Lady. I hope we’re reaching you while there is still time to cancel or radically alter your plans for this upcoming trip to see your folks.

Because that’s my practical advice: Strongly consider cancelling the trip and probably DON’T talk more in detail about your diagnosis or treatment with your mom right this second if you don’t think it will be safe or productive. More words/context/recommendations after the jump.

From your letter, I’m guessing that your conversations with your Mom about your diagnosis and possible treatments are skating around a glaring, painful, unasked and unanswered question that informs EVERYTHING else (right down to the logistical details of planning a visit with the dog). That question is about the relationship between your trauma and your mom. The one thing she can’t or won’t directly ask you is, “Is some of the trauma because of me?” and the thing you can’t necessarily safely say to her is “Yes, and the dog is what enables me to contemplate being in the same house for more than a few hours, thanks for asking.”

Identifying The Silent Question In The Question doesn’t mean I suggest you try to solve the silent question before you go or on the visit, quite the opposite! It may not be possible to safely talk about this with her, right now, or ever. Even if your mom isn’t one of the initial or major sources of the trauma, she’s not exactly a soothing, comforting, reliable support person where your mental health is concerned. Additionally, given her tendency to minimize your emotions and bully you into having different ones, I’d venture a guess that the minimizing that’s going on from her end is less about you and how you informed her and more about her and her fear.

Imagine you sharing your diagnosis and your mom and her immediately having a big emotional reaction with an internal monologue that goes something like this:

“Does having a traumatized daughter mean I was a bad parent? Was I a bad parent? Do you think I was a bad parent? Are you telling people (your therapist, the Internet, Unspecified People in The Community Who Might Judge Me) that I was a bad parent? Is this my fault? Wait, nonsense, I’m a good parent who did the best I could and who only ever wants what’s best for you, and as your mother, I’m the expert on what’s best for you, so if something is off here, it must be the diagnosis, surely there’s no need to be so dramatic about all this, kids today with their avocado toast and emotional support animals, it’s just some fad, and indulging you in all this would probably actually do more harm than good. After all, who knows you better or loves you more than YOUR MOTHER (your faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamily)?” – Your Mom’s Jerkbrain, who is much louder than her Adult Child

Inside: Fear of being wrong and looking bad and not knowing what to do that blocks out everything else. Outside: “Oh don’t be ridiculous” and “Are you absolutely sure, a lot of that stuff is overblown these days” or “Don’t be so dramatic, you’re exaggerating like you always do” or “I suppose your therapist thinks it’s all because of Me” or whatever hurtful shit she said. If I’m correct about this, I’m not telling you this because I think you have to manage her feelings or comfort her about them, I’m suggesting that it’s possible that you are literally being drowned out by her internal conversation with “her worry about you” where it meets “her own self-image.” Your mom isn’t right about you, she isn’t the expert on you (especially compared to…you), she doesn’t know more about PTSD than you, she doesn’t know more about YOUR PTSD than you and even if she were *a* mental health pro she’s not YOUR mental health pro (she would be in fact specifically ethically prohibited from even attempting to treat you),  so maybe being able to remind yourself “her wrongness is way more about her than it is about me” will help it all sit a tiny bit lighter. She’s a worried, fearful, mostly-wrong lady who is trying (unsuccessfully) to ride a long-established parent-child power-dynamic because she doesn’t have other tools, not The Ultimate Boss Of You.

To contrast (and remind you that people have choices about how they treat you), here are some supportive things a person could say when a loved one discloses a mental health diagnosis and treatment plan that centers the person doing the disclosing:

  • “Wow, that must be a lot to deal with! Do you want to tell me more about it?”
  • “Wow, interesting, glad you are getting some answers. What do you need from us?”
  • “A service dog? How great that [already loved and available dog] is a good fit for the training! How fascinating! How can we help?”
  • “Oh my, that sounds really stressful. You’ll let us know if there’s anything we can do, right?”
  • “I’d love to learn more, is there anything I could read that would give me more insight without you having to explain it piece by piece?” (In my experience therapists can sometimes recommend or provide material specifically for educating family members, NAMI‘s site can be useful for that as well).

Even “Hey, this conversation is making me feel really anxious because I don’t know anything about that and want to make sure I say the right thing, can we take a break so I can catch my breath for a minute and then you can tell me all about it?” would be better than what your mom did, i.e. a Sith mind trick where she mentally converted a medical condition that is happening to you into an inconvenient problem you are inflicting on her and then tried to minimize it all out of existence. It sounds like she’d rather argue with you about your diagnosis and treatment (possibly in order to remain the sole authority, in her mind, on what you are “really” like and what you “really” need, possibly to avoid having to think about her role in your fraught history) than to stop and say, “What do you need to feel better? Then obviously that’s what should happen!”

Whatever your mom’s feelings and her intentions, her actions and words aren’t meeting your needs. She might not be capable of meeting your needs (The inimitable Rae McDaniel’s “You’re not going to be able to buy groceries at the hardware store” quote comes to mind). Wanting your mom to know what’s going on with you isn’t unreasonable or weird, giving her a chance to rise to the occasion and support you was incredibly brave. You also need some specific support around the upcoming visit and your dog. What you got was steamrolled. You felt like you had to apologize to her* when you didn’t do or say anything wrong, and you left the conversation with even less confidence than you started with about how this visit was going to go. This isn’t because you told her wrong or need better scripts, this is almost 100% one of the cases where the Letter Writer has explained it all just fine and the actual problem is that the other person doesn’t want to hear it.

If that’s the ballpark we’re playing in, this is less a “How do I convince my un-supportive family to validate my diagnosis and service-dog-in-training?” question than it is a “Is this the right time to take my half-trained service-dog into territory that is almost certain to be triggering? If I go, how do I keep myself safe and not jeopardize the training?” question.

If validation isn’t coming, and more heartfelt conversations are likely to be even more frustrating and outright damaging, where does this leave us? In my opinion, resetting expectations and setting boundaries as you plan your visit home are going to do more than any additional conversations where you get your mom to try to understand or validate you around this.

Resetting Expectations: Again, what if your mom is incapable or totally unwilling to be affirming or supportive about this? Maybe it won’t be like this forever, but what’s really going to change about her attitude in the next week? How can you get what you need to be okay without depending on her to do something she may not be able or willing to provide? How can you internally shift your expectations away from ‘how mom feels about your dx’ or ‘mom’s uninformed and yet incredibly adamant opinion about service dogs and trauma’ (topics she can likely hold forth on at some length) and back to “Welp, she can think anything she likes, this is what’s working for me, so I’m doing it anyway, and the best way I can take care of myself is _____.”

Resetting expectations also means aiming for “not a completely awful time” and “in and out with everyone safe and in one piece” over “deep discussions and true connections.”

Setting Boundaries: What are the minimal, baseline, actionable things you need to be okay during this visit and not mess up your dog’s training? There are scripts that will help you set boundaries, like: “I’m bringing the dog with me, does that mean I should stay in a hotel or will we be okay in the house?” “When a service dog has the vest on, it’s working, everybody needs to just ignore it.” “Don’t feed the dog anything, it’s part of the training to have treats and praise only come from me right now.” “If I feel panicky, I need to go into a quiet room with the dog and be left alone until I come out.” “Well, the research says that this works, but in the end the best way to judge any treatment is if it makes me feel better. This is what my medical team recommended, and so far it’s making me feel better, what’s there to argue about? Who wants pie?”

Scripts might not work (which has less to do with how you delivered them than it does with who was on the other end to receive them), so setting boundaries is also about making plans for what you’ll do to take care of yourself. Can you stick to your routines and the dog’s training even if people are skeptical and unsupportive? Can you safely remove yourself from conversations and rooms if your family’s ableism gets to be too much? As the visible evidence of the diagnosis, does the dog need protecting, will your mom try to sabotage the training or separate you from the dog (by forbidding it from certain areas of the house, or feeding it harmful stuff, or letting it out off-leash ‘just for a minute,’ or do stuff to ‘prove’ you don’t need the dog, for example, and I wish I were kidding but I am not)? If you had to cut the visit short and go home, how would that work?

Validating you and supporting you is the right thing for your family to do, but if they don’t, boundaries help you keep yourself and your companion safe without depending on having to persuade bullies and skeptics to fix their hearts.

In your shoes, here are some additional questions I’d be asking right now of your mental health team and the situation at large:

First, and most urgently, would visiting these people right now make it worse and should you cancel and try again later when you’re on firmer ground and the dog has finished training? If you were certain that no further understanding or validation was coming, would you still want to take this trip?

[Note: I HATE LYING, but after you described your mom’s behavior and your dad’s ‘yep she’s really cruel to you sometimes,’ if you decide to cancel I would recommend a single last minute text message along the lines of ‘oops, I seem to be coming down with something and I don’t want to give everyone the gift of being sick, so sorry, miss you!’ on the day you were supposed to travel over ‘I guess I will call my parents in advance and try to discuss with them why I do not feel comfortable coming home right now like reasonable adults.’ Reasons are for reasonable people, the first option is communicating a decision, the second is opening a negotiation with someone who routinely pressures you and centers her own feelings and will try to override your decision at every opportunity. You are a polite, reasonable person who wouldn’t want to cancel at the last minute, but people who punish you for the truth about your life lose their right to know everything about your life.]

Second, whether or not your family “understands” the service dog thing (for instance, that having the dog along is what makes the prospect of a family visit bearable or even possible for you), what are the practical considerations of bringing a dog-in-training around people who are new to being around service dogs and some who might outright try to sabotage your efforts? Does the trainer have a good guide for educating family members and reinforcing the training that you can use, maybe a website or pamphlet that could be delivered in advance? Plan this out so you have everything you need. The Goat Lady has more about this later in the post.

Third, you told your parents about your diagnosis and your mom, especially, was awful about it. Is it time to resume the “low information diet”? Telling your mom doesn’t mean you have to keep discussing it with her, especially when she makes you feel worse, so consider scripts like:

    • “Oh I wasn’t asking for advice I was just letting you know what’s happening.”
    • “Oh, I just wanted you to know and my therapist thought it was a good idea to loop you in, but it doesn’t mean we have to keep talking about the details. That’s what I have a therapist for, let’s you and I just hang out.”
    • “Oh, my therapist and dog trainer and I are on the same page, this is my treatment plan. I’ll know it’s working if it makes me feel better, and so far so good.”
    • “Oh, believe me, I got it when you said you were skeptical, but I’m doing the training and bringing the dog anyway, so all you have to worry about is… [practical considerations that won’t eff up the training]. Can I count on you to [do the right thing]? Great, that’s all I need!”

Fourth, if you go, is there a sibling you trust and can count on to do the right thing by you and the dog run interference for you if necessary? “I’m bringing the dog, as a Service Dog In Training (SDiT) the dog needs x, y, and z. Can you back me up if things get weird?” 

Fifth, in my experience, people who act like your mom rarely be persuaded to do the right thing, but they can sometimes be yanked into doing the right thing with a combination of strategies.

We’ve talked in the past about being boring and changing the subject in response to intrusive or critical comments or unwanted advice. (“Huh, thanks, I’ll think about it. Hey, that reminds me, are there any updates on that buried time capsule they found during Aunt Mildred’s home renovations? What was in it?”)

We’ve also talked about giving people praise and attention when they are kind and removing attention (and access to us) when they are not. One way to put that into practice is to replace “Sitting your parents down and tearfully asking for the right thing in a heartfelt conversation” with “Blustery, cheerfully acting like they were going to do the right thing all along and giving them a lot of advance thanks and praise for doing the right thing as if it were their idea in the first place!”

It’s like positive, benign, friendly gaslighting. You were definitely anticipating an argument and they were probably planning one, so if you come at them with, “Hey, can’t wait to see you! You got the info about the dog stuff, right? It’s been so fascinating to learn about how they train service dogs, I’m really excited about it. Oh, before I hang up, did you send me your Christmas list yet? I’m going to try to get a bit of last minute shopping done today. Love you!” sometimes you can defang and disarm the argument before it even starts. Whatever they say, you do your best to cheerfully “yes, and” it back to what you need them to do or what you were going to do anyway, and you give them a lot of praise as if they have already agreed to do it. “But I’m just trying to help you!” => “I know you are, thanks so much for doing [thing I actually need], thank you so much, you’re the best! Gotta go, but thanks again!” 

If your folks roll with your mood and tone, they get to be GREAT PARENTS who OF COURSE want their daughter to FEEL BETTER, and over time they might actually start trying to live up to your vision of them. If they are determined to have the argument, so be it, but now they have to deliberately and obviously kill the mood. It turns out the same social pressure that makes you feel like you have to comply with them and never cause a scene are in play, except it’s working for you now. And specifically with your mom, it might temporarily bypass the “fear of unearthing the difficult past” klaxon her Jerkbrain is likely sounding. You don’t need her to understand it or delve into it or apologize for it or admit fault, you need her to do one concrete future thing at a time to not make it worse. If she does, you’ll be like “Yay! Good Mom!” and if she doesn’t enough times in a row you’ll go home and not talk to her for a while.

This approach isn’t easy – it requires some performance and faking-it-till-you-make-it, it takes enormous energy to like, soothe and manage the feelings of people who may have installed your traumas specifically about those traumas,  and I wouldn’t recommend it at all if you are feeling especially down or vulnerable or close to tears or low on energy. It’s also frustrating because it means giving people credit for shit they didn’t do and letting go of the idea that there will ever be an honest reckoning of what happened in the past. It might take a few tries to get it to stick, so revert to being boring, subject changes, and cutting the conversation short if you start to feel shaky.

That said, I have to say, this can work like gangbusters with people who are motivated by seeming like good parents (or bosses, or coworkers, this isn’t just for family) and being seen as good people. The straightforward, sincere, rational, honest discussions that would work for you aren’t working with your folks, so what if you created an image of what a great parent would do and then showered that theoretical awesome parent with so much cheer and praise and affection and attention that your actual parent started to think, hey, I DO look pretty good over there in that light, how do I get more of that? You’re training a dog who wants to be a Very Good Boy or Girl, it’s a similar principle, dogs (and difficult people) get the treat or the click or the praise when they do the right thing, not because they feel or believe the right thing.

Now, over to The Goat Lady, whose continuing adventures can be followed here.

“Goat Lady here (a service dog owner-trainer with a big ol’ pile of trauma-related mental health diagnoses), with some practical considerations:

Have you looked up access rights for handlers with SDiTs in your parents’ state? Not every state gives handlers with a dog in training the same access rights as those with trained service dogs. If you don’t have access rights with your dog, where will you be able to safely leave them if you need to go somewhere?

Is your dog at a point in their training where they can handle working on this visit? It sounds like this will be very intense for you, which means it will also be a lot for a dog who is still in training and can cause a dog to decide that this particular job is just too much.

Do you have a firm plan for making sure that your dog gets time off? Even my dog, who will periodically check to see if there is someone else they can help if I’m being too boring, needs time off to just chill out and not have to pay attention to my emotional state.

I really want to stress that you should check in with your trainer and with your counselor. It’s ok to sit this year out and go home next year as a more experienced and confident team!” -A.

We are rooting for you and your dog. This is a hard, brave thing you are doing, and you’re not “causing drama” or “being difficult” by having needs, you are doing your best to take care of yourself in difficult circumstances. If the service dog is allowing you to feel better and engage with your family safely, then that’s the right thing for you, no matter what they think. If you need to sit this one out and come back when you’re on more solid ground, that’s what you need, no matter what they think. Prioritizing “communicating my needs and maintaining good boundaries” vs. “explaining myself and asking for validation” is probably going to be a lifelong project with your mom, I hope it gets easier and better with time and practice.<3

Comments are on with the following parameters:

  • If you have a service animal have had a service animal, and/or train service animals, please comment. How did you introduce your service animal to family? Are there any things to work on specifically when family (or coworkers, etc.) are not respectful? What were the obstacles? What made it work? What was the one thing you wish you knew then that you know now?
  • If you have experience disclosing mental health diagnoses to unsupportive family, that’s also valuable. Were you able to get them to hear you? Did it work better when you stopped trying? Let us know.
  • “I don’t have a service animal, but…” or “I’ve always wondered x about service animals…” or “Yeah but aren’t people being ridiculous with their emotional support cockroaches, where does it all end, aren’t some people faking, here’s this ridiculous anecdote” = Nope! Service animals are weirdness magnets, let’s practice being good Service-Animal-Accommodating People by not doing the “I was just curious…” thing, the LW’s going to get more than enough of that and doesn’t need it here. 🙂 It’s not an opinion poll or an open thread, so thanks in advance for hanging back and taking these questions to your own webspace or the Googles.

*P.S. For the Letter Writer and anyone who read this post with recognition because a lot of your conversations with a parent end with you apologizing to them about stuff that they did or said that hurt your feelings, or because they insist on being an expert about you who knows more than you do about you, you may find Dr. Karyl McBride’s book affirming and useful. Whether or not the “narcissism” label applies (a thing we can’t actually possibly know), or whether you are strictly “mother” and “daughter,” don’t let that scare you off, in my opinion the advice for setting boundaries and recalibrating expectations is solid for many fraught parent-adult child relationships.

120 thoughts on “#1243: “Broaching a service dog with dismissive family.”

  1. My mom reacted the exact same way when I told her about my PTSD diagnosis. I was 18, insecure, and so when my mom said “that’s ridiculous, you can’t have PTSD, you’re just a baby (not the word she used)” I went “oh I must just be a baby, what a dumb *therapist*” and continued to live in the fog for several more years. During the same time in my life, I also told my dad that I had intense nightmares from my childhood and he immediately started crying. So I apologized and comforted him, naturally. In my case, both of my parents were absolutely 100% the reason for my trauma.

    YES, it worked better when I stopped trying to disclose and just moved on (moved on in their eyes and continued my own therapy process, not “moved on” the shitty thing we tell people we don’t want to deal with). I go the reward good behavior route with my parents and ignore the bad behavior. That does mean I sometimes ignore texts for several days/weeks/months and skip out on some invites. I also visit for no more than a few hours without taking a break, even if it’s just to walk around the block or going to visit a different family member.

    Anyway, lots of love and support for you letter writer. I hope your siblings are more understanding and that you do what’s best for YOU during the holidays. Also, YAY for your dog!

  2. Just wanted to validate that “withholding your presence” is a tactic that worked for me. It took several years of hiding (I moved, and ‘forgot’ to share my new contact info), but when I was ready to try again, I discovered a completely reset relationship with my dad. In the meantime, both of us changed, and I now feel in control when we visit.

    1. *Raises hand*
      Another person here who found that “withholding my presence” worked to reset the dynamics of a relationship with a difficult parent. Talking to them and attempting to set boundaries verbally didn’t work – they would agree but then try to negotiate or agree but then forget. Cutting them off completely for a while though was what it took to make them realise that my boundaries are not negotiable.

      1. Hear, hear. It’s slow going in my case, with my mother, but the improvement is visible and in the meantime, life is so much less stressful.

  3. I was 13 when a professional told my mother I was bipolar. (Very long story, but yes, my parents are the primary reason I’m bipolar in the first place.) She brushed it off as “overly dramatic teenager whose delusions are being fed by an industry that wants to make lots of money giving everyone personality suppressing pills” and so I clammed up and told her NOTHING about my mental health for many, many years. And then for ten years she gave me crap about it, and she told my siblings so they gave me crap about it, and I couldn’t even take a five-minute break from family occasions without coming back to a half-hour tirade as to how I was faking depression for attention.

    Then, when I was 23 (and had moved out and slowly started cutting the apron strings) suddenly she discovered that someone she liked and *respected* also had bipolar, and that therapy + pills had helped them. And it was like a switch had flipped in her head: suddenly she was super supportive and was happy to drive me to appointments and wanted to know how she could help! Which, since she hadn’t done anything about the fact that she was abusive, came with a side of gaslighting: but I’ve ALWAYS been supportive, I looked up twenty therapists and researched mood stabilizers and made sure your life wasn’t stressful, but YOU were the one who rejected all this (the unspoken second half to that sentence: because YOU wanted to be MISERABLE).

    So, the takeaway:
    1) Sometimes it helps to point to someone of equal or greater rank, so to speak, to get it through her mind. Is your mom a Star Wars fan by any chance? Carrie Fisher had a service dog for her bipolar (not the same as PTSD, obviously, but hopefully close enough to get through to your mom), and I’m sure you could try to find some other people who had one as well.
    2) You might get her to stop being a jerk about your service dog only for her to turn around and be a jerk about something else. If that’s the case, my advice becomes “reduce contact, possibly to zero”.

    1. Um…bipolar disorder is one of the most genetic related diseases there is. While clearly there are environmental components that can trigger episodes, being bipolar isn’t caused by family members (aside from them giving you their genetics, I suppose, in the case of parents).

      1. Did… did you just try to ‘splain my own disorder to me? Because, that is, to put it *very* mildly, Not Cool. Don’t do that to people. Especially don’t do that on a comment thread where I’m opening up about my own mental illness and trauma in order to help someone else with their mental illness and trauma. Especially ESPECIALLY don’t do it when you know exactly zero about me – such as whether I have a family history of mental illness, or what my childhood was like, or what the half dozen or so various mental health professionals I’ve talked with said about it.

        This isn’t an APA meeting or a psychology lab, for frick’s sake.

  4. Absolutely fantastic advice, thanks so much both of you. I can relate to the *telling a parent about my medical diagnosis they disagree with*.

    LW, I wish you the best for the holidays and hope you can do what’s feels right, even if it’s uncomfortable.

  5. I have a generally good relationship with parents who over the years have done the work of acknowledging their mistakes and even I got a lot of benefit from not trying so hard to make them get it. (They both struggle with depression and still gave me variations on the “what do you have to be depressed about? your life is great!” line for most of my childhood and early 20’s) Our relationship improved substantially when I accepted that it was up to them if they got it or not.

  6. I think it’s important to remember that “but faaaaamily” feelings are amplified around the holidays, but that doesn’t mean that you, an adult solving a complex problem, need to feed into that amplification. With my mother I had to put her on an information diet, and give cheerful, “Sorry, that won’t work for me this year” over and over again. And she survived.
    Your wellness and healing have to take precedence over whatever family traditions are being inflicted on you, and I echo the sentiment of the wise Goat Lady–what if this would be traumatic for your support animal in training? A change of scenery, routine, and personnel might impede the hard work you are doing as a team. I would definitely check with your support system first before making any huge changes. And I think the Captain’s insights are spot-on; really just signing in to offer support and Jedi hugs from afar. You have a lot of work ahead of you but I’m so glad you are moving in the right direction for you!

    1. I agree with WorkingOnIt. Right now the LW’s most important relationship is the one they have with their service dog. If this is still a work in progress it would make sense for the two of them not to be over-stressed by a family occasion until their own relationship is on a firmer footing.

  7. Service dog owner here: the hardest thing is people, and it’s really important to SET FIRM BOUNDARIES. It’s hard af, especially for those of us who are “don’t rock the boat” anti-confrontation types, but it’s a lot harder to say “stop doing (thing I let you do)” than “don’t do (thing)”.

    People will want to pet the dog, feed the dog, do tricks with the dog, etc. People generally suck about behaving correctly around service dogs. (Especially people who regularly ignore boundaries.) I found it helps to phrase it as being about what the dog needs, so it’s not “YOU can’t pet him” but more “HE needs to have no distractions while he’s working”.

    (I can’t really address the aspect that PTSD-dog-handlers get of “you don’t look disabled enough for a service dog” because I DO look disabled, but back when I first got Y, I had a stack of business-card-sized “Hi! I’m a service dog! The vest means I’m working. Please don’t pet or feed me. Here’s some examples of what I do for my handler” things that I could hand out. Also, for people in the US, knowing the ADA regulations around service dogs is helpful.)

    Good luck, LW, and enjoy your service dog!

    1. (Not sure if I posted this or if it didn’t work – apologies if it’s posted twice).

      I have a friend who’s had a service dog for many years. Based on my observations hanging out with this friend in public, I feel it’s worth amplifying this:

      “People will want to pet the dog, feed the dog, do tricks with the dog, etc. People generally suck about behaving correctly around service dogs.”

      Even people who have no issues with the idea of service dogs in general – plenty of them are still not good at respecting that the service dog is working. Given that the LW’s mother has already expressed that she doesn’t think service dogs are legitimate, she’s likely to behave worse than a person who just wants to say hello to the dog even though he’s in his work harness. (“just want to say hello” inevitably means they want to pet him).

      If LW decides to go, I’d highly recommend talking to her dog’s trainer extensively before taking her dog into that situation. Find out the risks of your mother sabotaging your dog’s training. Will it set the training back and by how much? Could it have an even worse consequence? I think it’s quite likely LW’s mother will sabotage the training (deliberately or accidentally) simply because I’ve seen that lots of people are not great at respecting that a service dog is working.

      Honestly, I think it would probably best to not go visit them until LW’s dog has finished training. And even then, I think it would might be best for the LW to not stay in the same house as her mother unless she can bring someone who is fully on both Team You and Team Respect the Service Dog at Work.

      1. Echoing the advice to not have the service dog around family until he/she is properly trained. It’s really easy to undo dog training in the early stages and it’s probably not worth the risk. 😦

      2. I had a dog many years ago whom I started to train as a service dog for a complex pain/fatigue disorder. The dog eventually proved not a good fit for that particular job for orthopedic reasons, and we changed plans, but I remember the training process, and I want to amplify also, with an additional note:

        LW, If the family members you will be seeing if you attend this holiday event *already* know your dog, in its previous capacity as a pet, they are a thousand times more likely to follow established patterns of charging up and ruffling Frodo’s ears, feeding Frodo treats, calling Frodo over to them for playtime, and whatever other totally training-damaging behaviors they’ve developed already as a pattern of behavior for dealing with pets they know in general and Frodo in particular. It’s become a habit, and one that even if they took your diagnosis and treatment plan absolutely seriously and wanted to help and support you, they would probably find very difficult to break.

        I echo the Captain and the commentariat’s running pattern of advice: this is NOT a year I would bring a half-trained service dog to visit an UNtrained family in the art of properly-interacting-with-service-dogs. Even if they had the best of intentions (which they have shown that at least one of them doesn’t, and you’ve said the others tend to follow her lead), they’d have a hard time treating you and your dog in a way which was conducive to your dog’s training and your comfort. If you go, maybe stay at a local hotel and show up VERY sparingly for specific, short-term events (for example, “an hour and a half on Christmas morning to open presents with people, followed by another hour later to have family dinner,” rather than “arriving on Tuesday and staying at the house through the following weekend”), interspersed with time back at the hotel for you to relax, dog to relax some, and you to reinforce relevant training details which were partially derailed by dog-inept relatives, in between? Because I’d really rather see you not go at all, but if you have to, this way probably does less damage than other ways.

  8. Oh, my, GOD. Hi, textbook Karyl McBride Mom. Hi, weak Dad.

    It’s up to you, but if it were me, I would not go. It’s too early in process. Stay home and hug, love, pet your beautiful dog.

    If you do go to Mom and Dad’s, though, something happened once to me that worked, for at least a while, with Mom: we were invited to see another family that had a nice regular mom. When there was a lull in the conversation and she asked me about life, I told her a thing that my mom had ridiculed, and her whole face lit up and she was all, that’s so cool! and asked me nice mom questions. My mom was floored, because she liked and respected this lady; and here she was not ridiculing me. When you’re with you parents, is there a nice mom kind of person you could invite over? I wonder if your mom might have the same reaction as mine did.

    Fair warning: it didn’t last. Exactly as the Captain put it, she eventually decided that nice mom was dumb and didn’t like her anymore. Enh. By that time I could cope — but it sure was nice to feel that acceptance and interest in the moment, as a living example to my mom what actual unconditional love looked like.

    Alllllllllllllllll the hugs.

    1. I agree with the other posters here about the LW talking to his/her siblings. People who behave like the LW’s mother tend to be specialists in triangulating, and in Being the Expert on the LW – if you can do an end run around that, it can be really helpful.

  9. This is slightly outside the parameters set out, so if it’s moderated out, I understand. I’m commenting not on the service dog issue, but on scripts for letting the family (siblings especially) know why a holiday trip might be cancelled. A couple of years ago, I cancelled a holiday trip because of similar behavior from a parent who behaves much as the LW’s mother, and have similar dynamics in my family to what the LW describes. When I made the decision, I called each of my siblings, described the conversation I had with my parent and explained why I wouldn’t make it to the holidays. I was surprised to hear from each of them that they had noticed how I was treated worse than they are, and how they understood what I was doing and why. I can’t begin to explain how meaningful those conversations were to me. I felt validated and loved in a way that I had never expected to feel. Obviously, the LW is better positioned to know her family dynamics, but if she takes the Captain’s advice and cancels the trip, it might be worth considering calling the sibling(s) she feels safest with to make sure that her side of the story gets heard by at least one member of her family.

    1. That’s really lovely to hear. I’ve read some memoir stuff out loud to my older brother in the same vein and having him go, “Oh yeah, that’s what it was like, plus you forgot about (weird detail)” has been incredibly validating. I hope that’s the case!

      If not, it might not be forever, and if not, it’s not the LW’s fault if it can’t happen – some siblings want to or try to be supportive but they cave when scary parent is around (they don’t want to be in the scapegoat seat, they have their own grappling and healing to do and aren’t there yet, or they have adopted the parents’ point of view) – so take it slow and easy.

      1. Something my therapist said, when I was talking about how much it hurt to have my siblings take my parents’ side over mine, despite the fact that *I* wasn’t the one who’d abused people:

        “People try to keep themselves safe. They’re going to do what’s safest for them. And right now, hurting you feels safer than hurting your parents, because *you* are a reasonable, non-abusive person who isn’t going to go nuclear in response. They’re not picking your parents because they agree with them, they’re picking your parents because disagreeing with them is dangerous.”

        It’s helped to put things in perspective. You might not get the validation from siblings that you’d want; that isn’t about you or the truth of your experience, it’s about the different (and sometimes unhealthy) ways that people choose to handle toxic individuals.

        1. “people try to keep themselves safe . . . you are reasonable, non-abusive person who isn’t going to go nuclear in response . . . they are picking your parents because disagreeing with them is dangerous”

          This is exactly true — your therapist is amazing! The deepest, strongest part of our brain is wired for safety, and that’s so terribly hard to fight.

          Of course your siblings should be on the right side, but this explains exactly why they usually aren’t.

    2. I want to emphasize how useful it can be to communicate directly with one’s siblings rather than letting a parent control the narrative: VERY USEFUL. My siblings are never going to be 100%, but being very direct and clear about what is going on with Problem Parent has gotten them to give me about 85% less pushback in general, and to accept certain other things without protest.

  10. I have emotional support animals for PTSD – two Very Good Cats – and for me, it’s usually easier not to disclose their status unless it’s actually relevant. Are you my trusted friend? Are you my landlord? Are we talking about PTSD and accommodations? If not, then … you get the cute cat stories and pictures, and not the details about PTSD, and you don’t get to question WHY I have the cats.

    I know that’s probably much harder for a service dog – my cats don’t leave the house, it’s strictly a housing accommodation – but I think it’s worth mentioning for anyone who won’t be seeing your dog in person. Great-Aunt Betty or Kinda Judgey High School Friend Bethany don’t necessarily need that information.

    My parents are permanently in that info diet territory, because my situation is very much like the LW’s. I’m not sharing more with them – or visiting – so I’m dodging that issue for now.

    Also… man, if you move, I would super recommend getting all your housing ducks in a row ahead of time. It took a LOT of documentation for my apartment complex to formally approve the cats, especially from out of state – the paperwork wanted a vet and doctor who were certified in that specific state, so we had to do some wrangling to get them approved before I moved. Hopefully that’s less of an issue for a formal service dog, but yikes, legal paperwork goes SLOW.

    (Some things the fluffballs do – Sleep on me (pressure helps with nightmares/hypervigilance), yell at me to eat meals, yell at me to go to bed on time, alert to strange noises or intruders (which means anything that scares me but not them is probably just in my head), and knock me out of meltdowns and panic attacks. They are also very cute, but jeez, they help a LOT.)

    1. May I just say that I’m highly impressed you were able to find fluffballs who did that stuff on their own, or train them to do it? Because cats are not easy to train! (yes you can, but it’s impressive. They’re cats, they know they’re the rulers.) Glad they’re helping you out.

      1. Thanks! We work on the training, but you’re right that cats are tricky – mine aren’t very treat-motivated, so it can be hard to find positive reinforcement tactics that work. They’re harness-trained and know some other basic commands like ‘get up’, ‘go around’, and ‘show me’, but reinforcing a new behavior can be frustrating. (They still try to eat any plants we bring into the house.)

        Getting a bonded pair actually helped quite a bit – for the therapeutic behaviors, one cat usually “fits” better than the other. One checks on breakfast/dinner, the other checks on lunch, etc. It’s also useful to have two for overlapping coverage, when one isn’t feeling especially sociable.

        I also specifically got smart, gregarious cats, who would take to training and whose natural behaviors would work well for me – no point in training a cat to sit on me if they hate and are stressed by physical contact. We actually have four cats, and the other two would be terrible ESAs for me – one is a grump and wants contact only on her terms, and the other is… well, she’s sweet but dumb.

        Obviously, most of what we’re doing is hacking natural behaviors to make them work for me – for instance, the cats get breakfast and dinner at the same time I do, and they’re obviously pushy about their own mealtime, which means I’m up and in the kitchen and might as well eat. Less natural behaviors take a lot more time and effort – harness-training, for instance, took quite a while, because I needed to get them acclimated to having my hands around their throats for an extended period, so that I could put on and adjust a harness without stressing them out, and then get them used to walking on a leash.

        It’s worked quite well, though. They certainly don’t have the level of training or reliability that a service dog would, but they really help me a lot. And like I said, they’re also very good cats – they are VERY spoiled and appreciated.

        1. Late to the party, but – I’m a total cat fanatic, and your fluffballs sound wonderful and very helpful. (The paperwork does not! If I had a magic wand I would abolish all tedious red tape!) Your cats are a “pawsitive” presence in your life!

  11. My roommate has a service dog for her anxiety. Her mother and siblings were all very skeptical, until they saw the difference the dog made in expressions of her anxiety.

    I was diagnosed with ADHD (combined type). When I told my parents, and mentioned that explained why I struggled so much with organization and keeping my room clean, they got very defensive at first. They used to spank me for not cleaning my room, or claim that I was lying when I said I was planning to clean my room, started it, then got distracted. I had to share the written report from the psychiatrist who did the assessment before it actually got through to them.

    1. Quick note, LW, that you CAN share stuff from your mental health pro with your family, if you want to/feel like you need to, but you don’t HAVE to do it. You will know best if sharing will help or if it will just give them more ammunition with which to hurt you, so if you think it will legitimize you in your family’s opinion, go ahead.

  12. It is really, really okay to spend this Christmas with your dog and a reliable friend or two. Your family sounds like A LOT. Maybe too much for a dog who’s learning a new role. Maybe too much for you right now. It can’t be good to interrupt training to take Pupper to a strange place with weird-acting people who distress you.
    Don’t even think about what Mom wants. What do you need?

    1. Just a suggestion if canceling sounds like more work than going – you can send that text and then turn your phone to airplane mode/off. You get a nice digital detox, they can do a lot of freaking out without an audience. When you do make contact again, you always just say you were asleep because you were sick.

      1. Yes, this is a great idea. I do this with “do not disturb” or turning off app notifications all the time, and not feeling stressed about alert notices or phone called interrupting my podcast helps immensely. Or block your parents number/put them on silent temporarily if you want to get your other notifications.

  13. I’ve fostered service dogs in training (they stay with us from when they’re 8 week old goof balls until they’re fully trained and certified). There’s a lot of difference between a doggo in training and a working doggo and you want to set them up to succeed by not taking on too much too soon. They really are wonderful, best of luck to you both!

  14. *waves* Hi! I don’t have experience getting my family to validate a dx, but I do have experience getting my gender identity & sexuality invalidated and dealing with that (their reaction to that and their boundary-trampling is why I’ve never breathed a word about my going to therapy and why I tend to keep any physical ailments as under wraps as possible, so in my case, dx-wise: ‘the less info the better’ is the way to go).
    What I do gender-wise, which I think might be extrapolated to this situation, is adopt an “Everything’s normal, nothing to see here” attitude and go about my business “quietly out”, if you will. I wear my rainbow bracelets, go to Pride, toss my “masculine” clothes and binders in the wash same as everything else and merrily hung them up to dry out in the open… In summary, no hiding, but not explaining either. Let them bring up the elephant in the room if they dare brave the awkwardness (they usually don’t) and have very shallow, matter-of-fact answers prepared if they do (“No, Dad, those boxers aren’t my boyfriend’s, they are mine. I find them more comfortable than panties” in a very bored tone -> worked like a charm, never had to deal with impertinent questions from him again).
    So, yeah, embrace the awkwardness as your sword and shield. At least some of your relatives will fear the awkward, but you don’t, because you know and accept thyself. Be awkward, my friend.
    In your case, this might look like matter-of-factly booking yourself into a hotel or staying at a friend’s place because Of Course I’m Not Staying At My Parent’s This Year, There Are Too Much People There And That Would Be Counterproductive To Doggo’s Training, Want Some Pie? (But you don’t mention that unless asked directly. Let ’em do the work). Or quietly taking your meds/breaks/walks as needed. Or staying home post-perfunctory-text, as per the Cap’s advice. Point being, you don’t owe anybody a heartfelt explanation, especially not people who use it as a battering ram against you.
    Hope this helps, and best of luck to you and your dog!

    PS- RE: “Don’t look for food in a hardware store”: in Spanish we have a saying to that effect, “No le pidas peras al olmo” (“Don’t ask the elm-tree for pears”), and I think that’s beautiful 🙂

        1. Ooh I really like this because it implies a nuance that describes my experience quite well. My mum was never great at protecting and supporting me emotionally when I was a child, and I became used to assuming she wouldn’t be there when I needed her. As an adult I can look back and recognise that she was dealing with a lot of her own stuff and didn’t have the capacity to deal with mine as well. But now that she’s remarried and much happier, her well is no longer empty. I can go to her for water when I need it and she’s pretty generally there with a bucket ready. A fig tree will never grow plums but sometimes dry wells come back with a change in climate.

  15. I used to train dogs professionally, but not service dogs. Ne ertheless, something which no one brought up occurred to me. It may be a nonissue, but should still be considered.

    LW, what kind of relationship does your dog have with your family? This goes with what the Goat Lady was saying about your dog being in training. If your dog sees a parent as “person who spoils me rotten”, or a sibling as “favorite playmate who plays rough with me”, you are going to have to watch that carefully to ensure that neither your dog, or your relative fall into that relationship when your dog is working. You should probably discuss this with your trainer, getting very specific about what goes on, & how to deal with that.

    My partner in the business was a behaviorist & I assisted. We often had to “reset’ relationships between dogs & owners & the family. So this occurred to me. Good luck!

  16. Another vote here for “Your family doesn’t need to ‘get it’, they just need to not be actively jerks about it.” My personal example is milder, but similar idea: I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 31 (now 33). I have been taking medication since that time. My brother was also diagnosed with ADHD years ago, didn’t like the meds and has found other ways to manage – and kinda thinks that’s what other people should do too. My mother *possibly* has ADHD, has talked about it semi-seriously, but never has and never will seek a diagnosis because “Why do people feel the need to label themselves? Just live your life.” Which, it is her life, that’s fine.

    My family has never been told about my diagnosis, and are not aware I take medication. I don’t think anyone would be toxic or abusive or sabotaging about it, but I think there would be some awkwardness and weirdness and side-eye and I’d rather… live my life, as it happens. They’re the kind of people who see themselves as open-minded, but are also the type to lower their voices when saying, “So-and-so had to see a THERAPIST.” They actually don’t need to know. It doesn’t really change anything on my end. I do my thing, they’re happy, our relationships are actually pretty positive most of the time – I just don’t feel like being the person who Must Convince Them That Medication Is Valid.

    It’s not so easy for you, LW, with a service animal. You need a certain amount of cooperation from them, and I do hope you’ll heed the advice to cut the visit short if *they* (not you, despite whatever the current dynamic feels like) make things too difficult. But for your own well-being, I hope the point you can get to is “They’ll think what they think, it’s not actually my job to change their minds about this.” They don’t need to agree with your diagnosis for it to be a real and correct diagnosis. They don’t need to agree with your treatment plan for it to be a correct and effective treatment plan. They can hold whatever opinions they want about you – their opinions aren’t who you are. (And speaking as someone who was abused in a different situation, my God that’s a hard fact to internalize. But it’s true.)

    A final thought – when it comes to mental illness stuff, I find it helpful to frame it as you would a physical medical issue. That is, if you had medication that needed to be kept in the fridge, and your mother kept moving it to a cupboard, what would you do? If you needed crutches to get around, and your mother kept moving your crutches, leaving things on the floor in your way, “accidentally” gave you a room at the top of the stairs, what would you do? How much time would you spend trying to persuade her of the validity of your broken leg? Framed like that, it can be easier to see how ridiculous it is for someone to question or interfere with your medical regimen. Your mother doesn’t necessarily need to make your health a “priority”, but she does need to avoid actively messing with your treatment because she thinks she knows more than the doctors. Your dog is a medical need. The more firmly you believe that yourself, the more firmly you’ll be able to hold the line of your mother or anyone else tries to pretend that s/he isn’t.

  17. FWIW, I figure if PTSD is an illness (and it is) and something about the visit makes that illness’ symptoms more difficult to cope, then it’s not really lying to say you’re too ill to visit.

  18. I train service dogs, including dogs who assist for PTSD related symptoms. I 100% agree with the above advice – I would also encourage backing out of this visit if you can and making sure you have a game plan with your trainer, if you do bring the SDiT.

    My rule for an SDiT, no matter who is doing the training, is that you shouldn’t bring them anywhere new in working mode that you can’t bail at once if it’s not turning out well. Your judgement in making the right decision for the dog’s well-being and training progress will be compromised if you go somewhere that you are stuck.

    I wouldn’t suggest trying to spend all day with triggering family members for the first go of it with the SDiT, let alone a multi-day visit. With high stress/triggering family members and PTSD, you might want the SDiT first working attempt to be short and contained – maybe a lunch/coffee or short outing in a location that the dog has already had success working (whether it’s your home, your coffee shop or cafe, or similar).

    Not only does that let you see how you and the dog work together as a team around this trigger, it gives you a chance to observe how well your family will respect your boundaries around your dog and your dog’s work. If your mom can’t be appropriate with/about the dog for 45 minutes, you can nope out of there.

    For relatives who like to keep up public appearances, you may get much better responses to the SDiT if everyone around you in public sees your dog wearing a service vest and behaving appropriately. Even though a few people ARE weird and inappropriate, most people are good and try to be respectful not to bother a working service animal. You may naturally get that behavior from your mother, even if she doesn’t think you “need” the service dog, than if you bring the dog into her home (or invite her into yours). On the other hand, she may create more problems for you in public than you wish or interfere with the dog’s training. Only you know, OP, if she’s likely to be more or less trustworthy in public, or if she’d create even more problems. So go with what you know.

    The other big thing I’d focus on is whether your information diet means you want to tell your mother what the service dog does or is being trained to do for you. This is a good conversation to have with your counselor and the trainer. There is no one size fits all answer. Sometimes, learning the specific tasks performs makes people take the SD or SDiT more seriously, because it helps differentiate from emotional support only. But those are reasons meant for reasonable people (and for people following the ADA).

    Also, if your SDiT is not ready to perform those specific tasks for you, then the dog is likely not ready to be accompanying you for such an onerous and stressful visit. AND, unfortunately, having an SDiT that isn’t trained enough to perform any of these tasks yet is a surefire way to set your family up to not view your dog as a service dog or look at your as someone trying to use emotional support alone as a reason for a service dog. I think it’s harder for people training a dog they already had than those that get a new dog – particularly from a service dog organization – to deal with these challenges.

    Last – you probably already know this, OP, but a great addition to the PTSD-assistance dog is to have the dog respond to a very subtle cue from you that indicates the dog wants to go out to toilet or leave. It’s a way you can get out of a situation and use the dog’s needs as cover, even though you were the one who discretely signaled for it. (The dog, obviously, doesn’t need to go out. It’s performing a trained behavior to assist you that allows you to leave while being able to keep everyone else around you from knowing you needed to.)

    Best of luck to you OP on your journey in becoming a working team together with your pup!

  19. I have a set of those parents who don’t believe in most mental health diagonses, including mine. Clearly, despite multiple medical professionals agreeing on it, this is just ‘for attention’ or I’m ‘overreacting.’ *eyeroll of solidarity*
    I mostly don’t talk about it with them, and when I do need to bring up something that has to do with it, I phrase it in terms of how it helps my life without saying the name of the specific mental illness so we don’t have the same boring argument again. “I need X because it helps me sleep better.” “When I do Y I stress less, so that’s how I’m going to do this.” “I’m not going to do Z because it upsets me and ruins my day.” They can handle that a bit better. Sometimes I still get a ‘Why are you so sensitive?’ whine in response, but I just go with ‘Guess I’m just that sensitive. Oh well.’
    It’s not ideal but it’s easier than trying to convince them of a dx they will probably forever think is fictional.

  20. Letter Writer, you wrote: “ They mostly follow her lead when it comes to me.“

    Stop letting them.
    Never leave room for your mom to control the narrative, to be the conduit for information.

    Take every piece of news or request for help to them first. Mom is last.

    In fact, consider being open about your need to recruit them to model for your mom how to react to news.

    Your dad may not want to intervene after, but he might intervene beforehand if you specifically ask him to frame the topic in the way you’d like.

  21. Dear Letter Writer,

    I am very much in the same boat as you right now. Just recently getting to terms with the fact that my childhood was abusive and that the trauma that is resulting from it is just that, trauma. And that I am not an attention seeking troublesome young lady for calling out the abusive parts of my childhood. For me overcoming this is first and foremost learning to be my raw unapologetic self. So Christmas…I wouldn’t even know how. In your letter you seem to be asking a 100 times how. What I did:
    – Told my parents work is super busy (that is something they respect very much and I am a known workaholic). And will work before and after christmas. It is not a lie, because work is always busy, but of course not that busy) So my tip: Use an excuse that they kind of respect and if you must, just lie (kicked off the flight, sick on last minute, dog not allowed out of state, aka out of your control, no discussion).
    – I am afraid what Christmas without being at my parents looks like and that I will feel “I am all alone in this world”. So I am preparing for that already with many treats and activities for myself (museum and sauna) and friends on standby.
    – I have opened up to some of my best friends about it, but also to half-strangers (people you kinda know, but won’t care if they judge you). For the latter, you hear so many stories of people who are in the same boat. I found that comforting. I hope it helps to know that this total stranger will sob a little on christmas because being alone and trauma on top of that just sucks, but also drags herself to the sauna that day.

    But if you do decide to go. I have some way too detailed strategies that might help;
    – Don’t just go and wait for it to be awful, but plan this fucking thing to the last minute. Upholding the base of this wonderful new found feeling that you are valuable and deserving (it chocked me up reading that) in the attack of christmas at childhood home is a military operation. Plan it like one. Together with my ex, we would actually plan and strategise. Your letter shows you are already taking these steps.
    But just having your dog with you might not enough for shielding this right now. I am in the midst of processing my trauma, and its so raw, if it feels anything like that and you do go, I would need much much more resources support and people and strategies to be able to visit for multiple days. (and if you are too tired for organising all of that right now, or not ready and deeply overwhelmed, that is absolutely valid. But then please don’t go. And if you already went, please know you can just perfectly go away again when you need! (Even if you have to make up an excuse or exaggerate a little! I pretended that my parents would be super disappointed and mad if we weren’t going to be at their place right after Christmas. So we could just get out.
    – Make sure when you are visiting you are not dependent on them for transportation, borrow or rent (if you can afford it) a car. You have to be able to come and go without them controlling it and you feeling obliged and trapped at the same time. I cant stress how important this is. The years we had to negotiate about the use of cars, were just so so much worse. I would just not be able to hold up and cry all the way back home. I would feel trapped, and we were made to feel an inconvenience for daring to ask whether we could use the car but also had to be at their disposal to run errands with said car all the time.
    – If you do go home… well try to not be home all that much. I once spend a full day hopping between coffee places and worked on an essay. Meet up with friends a lot! Stay over at friends for a night, visit long lost connections in the neighbourhood. Anything. Even if you have to lie about visiting “Amy from way back when”.
    – Say you are on a fitness routine/training schedule, and that upholding that every day is key to your mental health and well being. For some bloody reason that is the one thing people who are ignorant about mental health respect as a “you work on yourself” action. This allows you to go out of the house first thing after breakfast and be out for two hours in comfy clothes.
    – I took loads of activities with me that I could do by myself, while still being in the “family room” and half present to the boringness of sitting around. Books or my phone would get them annoyed, because I was rude for not engaging. Knitting or drawing worked really well; “o my god, i used to knit yayadeeya, what are you making, and then the sneers would start. But I would “klick klack away with the needles” and just surrounded by wool all the comments just wouldnt hurt so much, because my working memory was engaged in sth else.
    – What really helped for me and my ex partner to stay out of the controlling mean mom trap is asking about precise schedules beforehand. So: “help with groceries”, “of course, and you need them before Saturday?”. “We will do it Thursday afternoon and Friday morning for you.” “We need to cook all the dishes, but according to the recipes you selected, but without any of the spices and herbs”. “Of course, can you make sure we have all the groceries we need by saturday. We will do the prep that afternoon”. And do the full cooking the sunday beforehand”. “Is there a time that you need the kitchen jn between”. Etc etc
    – And for all the time she didn’t have us scheduled in, we would plan our schedules to the brink full (make sure also to communicate that in a happy we are going to have fun way, otherwise: “but I thought we would just nicely sit altogether and have a nice evening”. Going to the cinema, visiting “amy from way back when”. We wouldn‘t flat out lie, me and my ex would just add a lot of extra time to otherwise much shorter activities. Visiting Amy from way back when (not that much to say actually) + 1 hr for us.
    – I made sure I knew loads of nice places I could go to in that area. So when everything got to me and I just needed to not be there, I already had a list of places and activities I could go to. Museum, three different coffee shops, good places to take a walk and the timetable of the local cinema (yay star wars!). “Just need to be out a little” was met with weird stares from my ex in laws and intrusive questions and more awkwardness. But we are going to see x movie, take a hike down the xyz forest and take the loop around the river back, were met with: good route or enjoy the movie.
    – In my language we have a saying that goes: the eyes from a stranger forces us to our best. We would ask family friends, but also our own acquintances to come for coffee, cake, wine, help cook and come over for dinner. And everyone was behaving just that bit nicer that made it bearable.
    – Can you find up a professional service dog (SD) trainer in the area around your parents and schedule one or more sessions? Even more frequently if you stay there for longer than just a couple of days? Does all the above strategies + happy dog!
    – If your mom starts to use the dog to also control and make you feel even more small, unsafe etc etc. That is a hard no. But it is also a nice opportunity to remove yourself. „The dog cant sleep in your room“ „of course, I fully understand that you wouldn’t want dogs in the sleeping area of the house“. „I need to stay with her during her training period. So why don’t I take a hotel/motel/stay at friend and I will come over for dinner and the celebrations and be out again“.

    Waves from another captain in the same boat! Ahoy!

    Ps – I have also tons to say about talking about therapy, diagnosed, but not about me with my parents. But this comment is already too long.

    1. Re: In my language we have a saying that goes: the eyes from a stranger forces us to our best.”

      I can vouch for the effectiveness of a buffer person. My difficult mother is 100% more pleasant to be around when there’s someone she wants to look good in front of. Some of her oldest friends are not good for this, because they will tag-team me, but friends of mine, especially if a friend’s parent is along, make spending time with her so much better.

      This said, I’m getting laid off after the new year, working every day possible instead of taking time and spending money I don’t have to celebrate the holidays, and was perfectly resigned to spending the holidays BY MYSELF with books and DVDs and Netflix and the news and my two sweet elderly ferret boys, not leaving the house or being cold or dealing with my still-healing broken legs/ankles/feet, and my mother has invited herself to stay with me Xmas Eve and Xmas Day, and is already mad that NO, I’m not going to leave my pets behind and struggle up and down her stairs and sleep in an unfamiliar room on a hard mattress under thin covers with none of my creature comforts around me on Xmas Eve, and NO, I’m still an atheist and not going to attend church, and NO, I hate Xmas music, so there will be no fecking Xmas music (at my house, anyway) or me singing any carols (but you do you), and NO, there’s no logistical way that I am baking cookies with you in my postage-stamp-sized kitchen, especially while I am trying to not eat as many fattening foods right now (but you do you), and NO, I am not going to her friends’ house for a formal Xmas Day meal (but you do you, no one is stopping you from going (I will definitely want a nap and some personal time and some quiet space away from her at this point)), and apparently YES, I am so selfish (according to the person who invited herself to my house and is trying to social director my holiday for me against my wishes, and spent an hour telling me that I wasn’t considering her feelings in all of this as I sat rubbing my broken leg which was hurting a bit extra due to the cold weather and extra walking about I’d had to do that day), but hey, she invited herself (which: how ACTUALLY rude, but OKAY) and yeah, okay, I’m already cleaning out my guest room for her (did I mention I am recovering from broken legs? I know I did, because, yeah, it makes difficult shit that much more difficult) and and yes I am giving up the idea of being left blissfully alone on a holiday I mostly hate and despise because it makes me cranky and depressed, it is a huge financial and emotional and physical burden and time suck every year, and TO BE QUITE HONEST pretty much all I like about it is when people open the gifts I have selected especially for them and like them and feel some joy in their lives and (when applicable) getting paid holidays from work (not happening this year, no work = I am that much more poor and less able to pay bills). So fuck all of this noise, all I wanted was some warm blankets and peace and some stupid zombie movies or something, BUT NO, I will have to curate my film-watching to suit conservative Christian grandmother’s tastes somehow, because I will not be allowed to just watch a film by myself or read a book, and I’m already exhausted with her. Someone you love very much who just carelessly steamrolls you and then tells you how you are actually the person being selfish and insensitive while they are stomping all over your boundaries is FUCKING STRESSFUL any time of the year, but holiday performative bullshit (and BUT FAAAAAAAMILY crap and BUT WHAT ABOUT ME, THE SUFFERING NARCISSIST NOT HAVING EVERYTHING EXACTLY AS I WANT IT, CONSIDER MY FEELINGS) is going to make me go bananas in short order.

      Tealdeer version: My mom is also an ass, a buffer person is great, and Maude help me this holiday season because I have no buffer people and my mother is already grinding my gears. Lots of deep breathing and maybe even some bouts of prolonged but imaginary (I hope, as stress makes my guts act out) constipation are on deck.

      *breathes deeply*

      Seasons greetings, one and all! (And Happy Impeachmas! My mental health just improved at least 25% from that alone!) We will survive this!

      *more deep breaths*

      If you read about an elderly woman in Georgia aggressively nibbled from the ankles up by hangry ferrets, it’s probably my fault because I fake-pooped myself to death while hiding in a cold bathroom to get a moment’s peace.

      1. I’m midway through a week of ptsd related stress pooping and so solidarity, that festive hone invasion sounds hellacious. I hope 2020 brings you better things.

        Here’s couplet from a Hilaire Belloc poem that might resonate. It’s my bathroom mantra.

        Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!
        May all my enemies go to hell!

      2. Me, personally, I’d leave any and all cleaning to the recognizance of the uninvited guest but a) I’m a terrible person and b) there may be undesirable consequences to that I can’t anticipate so: jedi hugs and May the Force Be With You.

  22. I have PTSD, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other mental health diagnoses. Before puberty I was sexually abused by my dad, and emotionally abused and neglected by my mom for the duration of my childhood. When, at 18, I told my mom about my dad, she called me a liar, hung up on me, and called my dad. He confirmed that he’d abused me, so suddenly I wasn’t a liar about that, but I must have been lying about the severity and frequency *even though* he told her that too. I told her in my mid twenties that I have dissociative disorder and PTSD and she basically gaslit me and refused to believe me. She never believed my mental health diagnoses–even when I told her I had ADHD a few months ago, which should have been non-news since all my brothers have it too.

    So I stopped talking to her.

    I stopped. I didn’t come to visit. I didn’t send her a birthday card. I didn’t contact her at all for over a decade. And it was such a relief. Over the years I didn’t have to deal with my parents, I came to realize that her negative reactions were a lot more about her than they were about me. It was *safer* for her to believe I’m a liar than to believe I told the truth.

    I still regret never having that close and loving relationship with my parents that other people have, but I’m so much better when I don’t have to deal with them than when I do get sucked into all that shit that there’s no comparison. To this day I barely talk to my mom, avoid my dad, and I always make sure I have my boyfriend around when I do have to deal with her so there can be a witness who will call her on her gaslighting and continuing emotional abuse. I have cancelled holiday visits at the last minute or just missed birthdays, holidays, and family events because I didn’t feel like going. When you have PTSD and you’re contemplating a visit with the people who gave you PTSD, “I don’t feel like going” is a real, valid, medical excuse. It’s not flakiness.

    Do yourself a favor and give the holidays with your folks a miss this year. You don’t owe them your time or company; or, rather, they could choose to pre-pay for it by being decent people first.

    1. “I still regret never having that close and loving relationship with my parents that other people have, but I’m so much better when I don’t have to deal with them than when I do get sucked into all that shit that there’s no comparison.”

      So much ❤ to this. Jedi internet hugs if you want them. Also:

      "When you have PTSD and you’re contemplating a visit with the people who gave you PTSD, “I don’t feel like going” is a real, valid, medical excuse. It’s not flakiness."

      You put this so beautifully, and I think this could apply to other health conditions as well. Just like how some people learn to hate the smell of a food that has given them food poisoning in the past, our brains can also learn to "warn" us about interactions that have hurt us before. Listening to this can be very healthy.

  23. You asked for tips on how to get them to respect the SDiT, but as someone who has been there, I think that what you really need to do is acknowledge that they may never respect the SDiT, and adjust your plans accordingly. Take care of yourself, take care of your dog.

    Also – I second what everyone has said about SDiT’s and SD’s in general: a lot of people will be inappropriate about your dog, so strong boundaries are essential. Try to frame this as an experience where you can learn to have firm boundaries about how you will interact with people who won’t respect your dog. Instead of trying so hard to get them to change their minds, recognize their bad behavior and nope out. It won’t be the last time you need to make this kind of judgement call.

  24. When I found this poem, it was strangely comforting. Maybe in a way it allowed me to forgive my long-dead parents, and forgive myself too. So here it is, for what its worth, and I hope one day to have the courage to share it with my own adult children:

    This Be The Verse
    by Philip Larkin

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

    1. I memorized this poem in college and shared it with my sisters; it helped somewhat in dealing with my Darth Vader dad and enabling mom.

  25. I will not talk about your relationship with your particular parents, because the Captain and other posters have covered that wonderfully. Instead, I will make a general observation:

    If anybody, no matter what your relationship is with them in other respects, decides to ignore or disbelieve your basic needs in one particular aspect, then it is extremely important that you remove yourself from all situations in which their decision to ignore or disbelieve your basic need may affect you.

    You may or may not be able to convince them to engage with consensus reality later. But it is extremely important that you not enter their constructed reality while they are still living in it. Not even if you think you can convince them to leave it with you. Remember, they think, or need to believe, that you are making stuff up. And their attempts to make you live in “the real world,” i.e. the world they are imagining, may harm you.

    This applies to anybody, even if you trust them in all other respects and especially if you don’t.

    Here’s one more observation that may apply:

    You don’t owe anybody your presence, no matter your relationship. No, not even on Christmas.

  26. I’ve had to deal with analogous bs from my parents before (have not disclosed MH stuff to them, but am an ambulatory wheelchair user) where they very clearly are more invested in looking like they produced good offspring than the actual health of said offspring. They live in a house with two spiral staircases, so as you can imagine, not exactly mobility disability friendly. And although they are close (within 2h) I no longer visit much at all, nor are they invited into my home.

    Initially I tried to fake well, and even used my forearm crutches as little as possible (including going down to only one on my sister’s wedding day, which was really excruciating). But this summer the thing my mom wanted to do for her birthday was go to a greenhouse. So I brought my wheelchair. And they (parents and sister) put up a fuss, because “why do you need that?” but I was done giving fucks so just said “why do you think?” and sat my ass down to enjoy the greenhouse, instead of being trapped bench hopping.

    However, I do very much avoid spending time at their home, because not only is it inaccessible, it is also not easy to flee, due to both geography (very hilly) and lack of public transit (so no quick escape). I even plotted them coming here for a concert and dinner so that I could have access to transit for escape if needed. And am really wavering on going to visit on Christmas (friends are tempting me with a queer cripmas… I’m very tempted).

    TL;DR: Their feelings about your SDiT are theirs to deal with, you need to put you and your dog first, and if that means skipping holidays with them, so be it. Risking your health for them is so not worth it, take it from someone who took multiple years to acknowledge this, and hurt herself in the process.

  27. Things got better with my parents when I stopped giving a fuck and ruthlessly enforced the boundaries. That’s it that’s all that’s the only thing that worked. I tried so many other ways but in the end the solution that let me keep being my full, awesome self and stop trying to slice off bits of me to fit in their perfect child ideal mold was to go to therapy, go on medication, and consistently walk away from/hang up on conversations that turned hurtful.
    Are things perfect now? Hell no. But I can call my mom sometimes without needing to scream into a pillow after. I can visit my relatives without crying. I will say no and sit down when my body has reached its limit instead of pushing through even when that’ll mean half a week in bed unable to function once I go home. I still slip up and cave to pressure sometimes, and I still feel a lot of guilt because my dad doesn’t have the options I do (disabled and dependent on mom for care), and with my boundaries strengthening he’s the one who has to bear more of the brunt of bad behaviour. My mom’s been dealt a shit hand in life, no question, and a lot of the triggering stuff she does isn’t entirely her fault. But in the long run I’m no use to either of them if I’m not healthy, so for now I’m choosing me. The rest of my family doesn’t get all of it, but so far they’re making the effort to be respectful and kind.
    Seconding the “everything’s normal, nothing to see here” attitude suggestion from B above. I don’t hide in my room to take my drugs. I wear my brace when I need it. My doctor’s appointments get written in my agenda and on my calendar in plain English, not some weird code or euphemism.
    Good luck, lovely Letter Writer!

    1. “Things got better with my parents when I stopped giving a fuck and ruthlessly enforced the boundaries.”

      Yup! And when I did the same & started enforcing boundaries I got whiny “We feel like you just give us the bare minimum!” I responded, “The bare minimum is none of me at all!” This actually penetrated, as it didn’t require any empathy or self-awareness on their part & was totally cause-effect focused. Getting someone to realize you absolutely will totally cut them out of your life completely if they don’t meet minimum standards of behavior helps a lot.

  28. (I understand if this gets modded out, not sure how helpful it will be, but just in case.) I have something similar with my parents. My dad doesn’t understand, and doesn’t particularly WANT to understand, so I just never tell him anything, and we get along pretty good. My mum wants to know everything, though, but if there’s even a suggestion that she might not be perfect, she gets VERY UPSET. Not angry, like yours, but very sad, and she starts sobbing, and I have to comfort her. A good way I’ve found of circumventing it is telling her small things but keeping the big stuff back. Like, “I’ve been feeling a bit down recently, maybe the weather” Vs “I had some really bad news and I’m feeling suicidal”. It makes her feel like I’m keeping her involved in my life but means I don’t need to deal with her feelings about big stuff. This doesn’t really help with the service dog stuff etc, but maybe it’s a way for you to keep your parents semi up to date without having to deal with EVERYTHING. Or if you have a trusted partner/sibling/friend, mention what you KNOW will happen, and how you’ll react, and have them there, and when it seems like your mum’s going to start in on you, have THEM change the subject. I hope either of these might help a little bit, but I agree with the Cap’n: please don’t go!

  29. I have had a lot of issues with my family accepting my chronic pain diagnosis. Especially when it became a “never going to recover, going to need a wheelchair to get around for the rest of my life” diagnosis. What I have had the most success with is being overwhelmingly positive about my wheelchair and just how relieved I am to have a definitive diagnosis. So when a family member asks if I’ve tried yoga/eating only kale/visiting Mars/whatever the current cure-all is I respond with extreme positivity about my actual medical treatment, so “No I haven’t tried yoga but I have been having therapeutic massage and doing physiotherapy and they have been working really well! I was able to do a whole day out in my wheelchair last week, I had so much fun!” etc. When a family member is on it’s all such a tragedy rant, I tell them about all the awesome things about being a wheelchair user. For example I can go down ramps really fast, it’s like travelling in my own personal rollercoaster. Or I talk about all the things I’ve been able to do this year, things I absolutely couldn’t have done if I was still killing my self trying to walk more than 20 metres at a time.

    This approach can be exhausting and frustrating, because it’s not going to change everyone’s mind. My grandparents just can’t get past the idea that someone so young being in a wheelchair is a tragedy. But they do see that I am happy and that I can manage mostly independently and that’s a big difference from when I was first diagnosed. Keeping up the positivity when I’m in pain and tired is difficult. So when I go home I stay in a hotel. That means I can get a rest without someone worrying, or being cruel about how lazy I am. It also means I have somewhere safe to get away from people when they just won’t accept what I’m saying. My approach has changed quite a few of my family members and friends attitudes though, and now my nieces and nephew are growing up knowing that their auntie’s back hurts and so she uses a wheelchair and isn’t it a pretty wheelchair! One of my nieces now rates all wheelchairs she sees in public by whether they are as pretty as mine. She is always full of suggestions on how I can decorate mine for big events (I have a variety of things I put on the wheel spokes). The best thing about my approach has been that it has also changed the way I view my situation. I already had a pretty positive attitude to disability before I became disabled, but I still had internal ableism. I felt broken, and I tried to get fixed for longer than I should have. I thought accepting that I wasn’t going to recover meant I was giving up. Forcing positivity about my diagnosis meant I had to think of positives, and eventually I starting seeing that they were real positives not just things I could glibly say to get my arsehole uncle off my back.

    LW I wish you luck with your SDit and I hope my little ramble is helpful. It’s ok to cancel this year, PTSD is a serious thing and staying healthy is absolutely the priority. It sounds like going home is going to be stressful and triggering and as wonderful as your dog is, is it up to working the entire holiday? Is going home going to sabotage it’s training? As a few commenters have said, cancelling for health reasons would not be a lie. Look after yourself and your lovely dog.

    1. I love that you decorate your wheelchair! My favorite aunt decorates her motorized scooter for each season. It’s like her own mini parade float! Decorations include strings of battery powered lights which look beautiful and festive, and also seem to help people be more aware of her and as she puts it, get out of her way. 🙂

      1. Thank you! My everyday decorations are geeky stickers and little plastic stars and lightning bolts that clip to the wheel spokes. And then for special occasions I have brightly coloured felt butterflies which flutter a bit as I move, as well as different colours of ribbon for tying in bows. I also made some felt flowers myself, which was the most advanced sewing I’d done in 15 years but so much fun to make. My wheelchair is one of my favourite things in the world, it gave me my independence back, and so I feel it deserves to be dressed up! It also has the added bonus of giving people something to comment on, rather than having them awkwardly decide if they should mention my disability or not. And it makes me a child-magnet, my nieces can enter in themselves for ages twisting the plastic stars around and talking about my stickers.

  30. If you go, in terms of preparations and accommodations, I would also consider how any little ones in the house are likely to behave. Are the parents of said little ones the sort to reliably warn the kids before the visit that they won’t be able to play with auntie’s dog, or back up your corrections if they leap all over them for a snuggle anyway? Or are they more like your mom, and apt to pull the ‘Geez, would it kill you to let the kids pet the dog?’ card?

  31. When I was younger I believed lying was always 100% wrong, now I see lying as a tool you are allowed to use to protect yourself against toxic people. Keeping toxic people on an information diet is a bit like lying by omission anyway and sometimes you can outright lie too.
    It’s absolutely fine for OP to fake an illness at the last minute if needed, or being unable to attend future invitations due to a fake schedule conflict etc…

  32. LW: My mom was initially not very supportive when I too was diagnosed with CPTSD, in much the same “but I did everything for you!” way. Fortunately for me it lasted approximately three months in which I was out of the house (at college) and did not have to handhold her through discovering that my problems were not about her. It was probably made infinitely easier by the fact that in my case, my CPTSD had nothing to do with her and everything to do with the schools I was raised in, and that she eventually reframed it as “it probably wouldn’t be that bad except for the family depression, good thing the pills for treating both are the exact same thing.”

    One of the things that really helped was roping in my dad and brother – my dad is very solutions-oriented so that helped a lot, and my brother offered his services as a distraction.

    I don’t think you can accomplish all this over one christmas break, or in the time before you’re supposed to travel for it, so definitely consider making these plans for mom-management well in advance of the next mandatory family gathering, so until then, please borrow my mom’s line from after she finally came around.

    “It’s okay to call out sick when the mere thought of going to a place makes you *feel* sick.”

  33. The thing that helped me was to be very selective with whom I shared my mental health diagnosis (the “label” itself). I would describe specific symptoms + specific help needed (“I need to go to bed early so I feel good tomorrow”) but leave out the medical reasons (“… because being sleep deprived triggers my anxiety.”) I think that labels can scare people, especially people who choose to project their own weird stuff onto your health.

    This involves basically making a bargain — I will “normalize” my symptoms in exchange for having them treated as “real.” This bargain won’t be right for everyone but it helped me have a nice-enough holiday with my folks.

    1. When I told my dad I was taking anxiolytics, he asked “what do *you* have to be anxious about?” And it was kinda like… idk, dad, that’s kind of the point, also remember when I was 8 and I didn’t sleep through a night all winter because I was having multiple panic attacks and we spent the entire holidays in doctor’s offices, why are you trying to negotiate my anxiety disorder out of existence?

      After that I have *never* shared *any* details with him about my well-being (I also have some physical health issues that I suspect he would litigate the legitimacy of). It’s sad, but he’s not a safe person to be close to in that way. Accommodations I need are best dressed up in boring armor; any relation to a diagnosis makes it too interesting or dramatic, things I am not allowed to be in his presence (in his case, he must always be the most interesting person in the room, but there’s definitely a relevance to the Captain’s point of “but if you have Issues, that must mean I was a failure of a parent in some way, and that’s unacceptable so I will not accept it”– especially because his own mother was abusive in a different and more blatant way to him than he was to me, which makes it easier to rationalize the ways in which he failed me).

  34. SD handler and trainer here. I tend to train psychiatric tasks and public access skills; I personally have PTSD from childhood trauma among other diagnoses for which my dogs work.

    There’s a lot of ground covered by SDiT. Is your dog just starting with advanced obedience (or basic obedience!), has one or two tasks under his belt, has impeccable public skills but no tasks, or legally counts as a service dog but is still “in training” to polish up some things? LOTS of ground covered. Where the dog is in his individual journey is what would decide it for me, and that’s why I say talk to your trainer (because of course we on the internet have no way of being informed enough to help in this decision).

    When I disclosed my (first service) dog’s new status to family, he was fully trained and had been working in public with me for at least a couple months. Mother’s reaction: “Well, at least he looks useful now.” Father’s: “WOW, that’s GREAT! What a cool trick!” Years later and now on my 3rd service dog, they continue to act the same way, dismissive in their own ways. I tell you this to say that people don’t really change. Mother is still extremely dismissive and wants me to just “stop pretending” and leave my dog at home when she’s around. Father still thinks it’s just tricks and will do anything to get the dog to “do a trick”, up to and including causing a flashback. Due to his distraction plan, father is not a safe person for a dog still in training to be around (except during basic obedience). So you have to consider EVERYONE’s response individually. If it’s a large gathering, that’s a distracting challenge even if everyone behaves perfectly. If even one person gets entitled and starts trying to distract your dog, others will follow, and soon you’re trapped in symptoms with a whole bunch of distractors saying awful things about your dog when it was their fault all along.

    Strategies for Protecting Your Dog (if you go and take him with you):
    – Think about where you sit. Everywhere you sit. Living room? Don’t sit in the middle of the couch. Sit on the end near a corner. Shift the end table a bit. Dining room table? Grab an end or corner seat with either lots of leg room or near a handy alcove. Give your dog a place to lie down out of the way – and out of reach.
    – Be ready to turn ANY moment into a training moment while not making it look like you jumped into action. “He’s practicing his down-stay length and can’t interact.” “I think he’s about to alert.” (Have a hand signal prepared that will make him do the alert action (pawing, nosing, whatever) that you can use when you need an out – this is good for keeping him safe from family and providing you an out.) “We need to take a potty break.” “He’s learning how to tuck under my legs to stay out of the way.” “It’s actually time for our practice; would you like to watch?” (Letting people watch as you train, even if only for a moment, can let them feel involved and thus shut them up re them interacting.)
    – Leave him in uniform the entire time. No vest yet? Get a leash wrap that says IN TRAINING (which might be required by your destination for public access rights anyway). Explain that IF you take that off they may ASK you to interact but that while it stays on, it is incredibly rude to interact or ask “And I know my family isn’t that rude” or “And I sure wouldn’t want to think I’m spending holidays with rude people!” (laugh awkwardly) I’m saying don’t promise they’ll have time with the dog but maybe dangle it there as a reward for good behavior, to offset having legally threatened them.
    – You know your family. You know who’s going to have grabby hands. Give your dog as much physical distance as possible from these threats. It is NOT about punishing your family; it’s about setting up your dog for success.
    – Know The Law! (Here I assume briefly you’re in USA.) Reread ADA and ACA, if you’re flying. Research the laws in your destination state, as many are different. Google “table for state assistance animal laws” – it breaks it down into easy to understand language. You need to know this before you leave the house with him, and you need to be able to leave the house if you or he needs a break.
    -If you allow him to play at dog parks (not all SDs are permitted, and that’s a personal choice), find one close to the house. Find one even if you don’t normally allow it; holidays can be quiet times when the parks are empty except for you. “Sorry, we need to go burn off some energy so he can continue to focus. Yes, somewhere other than the back yard. He will perform best later if he can have lots of space now. Would you like to come with me and WATCH him play? I’ll be happy to talk about (his training/the law/whatever related topic that IS NOT your diagnoses you’re comfortable with) while he plays.” (If you’re okay with some play time and trust whoever goes with you, you can offer that, but don’t offer it in the house or they’ll all come AND be very sure the person will not try to play at the house AND PERHAPS I would never do that for someone I didn’t trust not to start boasting the second they walked back in the house. “I got to play with him! You didn’t!” Ugh.)

    Dog-Related Strategies for Protecting Yourself:
    – Stare at your dog if someone asks you something rude. When pressed, say (to your comfort) “Sorry, Dog and I were working on ignoring rude questions.” (Or distractions, if you’re less snarky.)
    – Ask for tasks that will help you BEFORE your dog decides you need them. Does DPT calm you when a panic attack is imminent? Try asking for DPT when you start to get anxious. Trained grounding techniques get you out of a flashback? Ask for them when you start to get shaky. This has the added bonus of giving you two equally true answers when people ask: “He’s helping me manage my symptoms before they reach meltdown status” and “We’re doing some training of some of his tasks.”
    – Listen to your dog. I can’t say that enough: listen to your dog. My first dog invented a new alert in the grocery store by dancing in place and then, when I bent down to check on him, burrowing into my stomach. (It was an alert for severe nausea.) My second dog invented a new alert in a room full of 50 people by shoving her face into my crotch and pushing me into a chair. (My blood pressure was about to bottom out; I would have passed out if she hadn’t gotten me down when she did. I can’t wait to see what my current dog will invent and where. My point is that our dogs know what is right and normal for our bodies. If your dog starts doing something unusual, LISTEN TO HIM. Ask if he needs to potty, then sit somewhere to see if he offers DPT (if that’s one of your tasks), check your heart rate, check in with your emotions and symptoms. Even if you can’t tell what he’s telling you, take a break for a few minutes at least. He could be saying “I need a break!” or he could be saying “You need a break!”
    – Decide NOW, decide BEFORE you go, if you will permit your dog to task for anyone else. If you will see him alert to someone and say, “Good boy, go take care of them,” or if you see him alert and redirect his attention back to you without praise. Do NOT leave that decision for in the moment.

    Most of all, be prepared to throw your trainer (or me) under the bus if the family doesn’t like something you’re doing. “That’s the way my trainer wants it done, and she has all the experience I don’t.” “An experienced handler I know recommended I sit in these sort of places to set Dog up for success.” That’ll help keep the peace while still getting done what needs to get done. I wish I could trust your family to take you at your word as the boss of Dog, but.

  35. I just want to vouch for the potential wonderfulness of NOT DOING THE HOLIDAYS AT ALL. Or doing them yourself, by yourself, on your own terms, with nobody to please except yourself (and your dog).

    After decades (literally) of holiday misery, I did this myself: in fact, I packed a suitcase, got a membership in a hostel organization, jumped in the car, and disappeared for a week. On Christmas, I had a lovely place to myself, took a lovely walk, read a book, talked to nobody, argued with nobody, gave no presents, got no presents, gave no rats’ asses, and shed no tears — making it my first tear-free Christmas in about 30 years.

    This was admittedly a bit extreme. But it worked! It worked so well that I did it again the next two years. After that, I very carefully started doing holidays with other people again — which was still doing it on my own terms, which was what I needed.

    You can give yourself the gift of a guilt-free, family-free Christmas, if it’s something that will fit you. In my case, it was one of the best gifts I’d ever had.

    1. “I had a lovely place to myself, took a lovely walk, read a book, talked to nobody, argued with nobody, gave no presents, got no presents, gave no rats’ asses, and shed no tears.”

      This is my ideal Every Day. I loved the wording on this! It’s not too much to ask!

  36. There is a lot of great advice here. I am just commenting to send well wishes to LW and her SDiT. LW, I am glad you’re getting treatment for your illness and that you’ll have a service dog to help you along the way.

  37. I hear you loud and clear dear LW, I found this great YouTube video: New Holiday Traditions & Rethinking the Holidays (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDs_Br6lbAA)

    I really like the idea of and annual “Friendsgiving” or “Friendmas” as a new tradition to off-set the anxiety of visiting the ol’family of origin. This Saturday, my friends and I are celebrating Cheesemas. We are each bringing:
    – 2 fancy cheeses (I added cream cheese to my homemade pumpkin tarts – so excited)
    – 1-2 snacky items that go with the cheese
    – 1 cheesey movie/video
    – 1 cheesey activity

    For my cheesey activity, we’re building a blanket-fort in my living room, and playing Pirates of the Caribbean – LIFE (I know, it’s totally as amazing as it sounds). My friends and I have been excited about this for weeks, and keep texting each other about what fancy cheese we found, or what fun things we should do (like watching the pillow and blanket-fort episodes from Community while eating cheese IN our blanket fort).

    “I know there’s a lot of blanket stackers and pillow packers out there thinking it’s going to go down tonight.”

    Best of luck with your decisions this holiday season. Be gentle with you and your pup, and best wishes for all the tools you need and deserve to protect yourself and have a peaceful and restful holiday!

  38. So I’m not quite sure I fall within the commenting parameters as I’m not a service dog user, but I do have a lot of experience with trying to reconcile extensive disability adjustments with family members who aren’t 100% comfortable with my disability and want to minimise it’s visibility. If this isn’t helpful/relevant, please feel free to delete this comment.

    I have a substantial sight impairment and use a white cane to go everywhere, as well as a bunch of other quite conspicuous adaptations/assistive tech, like giant magnifiers and a handheld monocular (like binoculars, but only one – great for reading signs and bus timetables!). I don’t have a service dog but that’s an option for me in the future.

    My parents are generally fine with my adjustments, but one of my siblings hates them and has made it very clear for years that they are embarrassed to be seen with me in public when I’m using them. Which is entirely about them and their insecurities, not me, but I digress.

    To begin with I invested a lot of time and emotion in trying to persuade Sibling that my adjustments really were necessary/important, that yes my sight really is bad enough to need them, and no I really do prefer using them to having a sighted person do everything for me. After a while, though I realised they was never going to change their perspective. The tactic I happened on instead was basically the one the Captain mentions, which is sort of to call their bluff, but really cheerfully and breezily? Basically, what happens now is we have a lot of conversations that go like this:

    Sibling: Put your cane away – you don’t need it when I’m with you.
    Me: Thanks for offering to help! I’m going to keep using my cane but I appreciate the offer.

    And if they escalate:

    Sibling: That thing’s embarrassing, if you don’t put it away I’m not walking around with you any more.
    Me: Okay! I’ll meet you back at [place] at [time]. Have fun!

    Basically, what I do is try to show in as cheerful a way as possible that I’m willing to stick to my boundaries and take whatever ‘consequences’ Sibling threatens to dish out in response. As the Captain said, this tactic does take a fair amount of emotional energy and isn’t for everyone, but it can work. Sibling isn’t usually happy with me doing this and I’m often stuck with them being really grumpy (and unable to articulate why they are being grumpy without sounding like an asshole, which adds to the grumpiness), but they do usually shut up and let me use my disability aids in peace. And if they don’t, I get relieved of their company while they are annoyed about it, which helps.

    1. I love this. It’s such a beautiful example of boundaries. You make your use of your assistive devices a non-negotiable fact. How much your sibling likes this is not treated as particularly important. By being breezy and “nice” you furthermore take away sibling’s ability to blame their discomfort on you “being mean” or whatever. They are just left with the consequences of their own statements and behaviors, with no-where to hide. ❤ ❤ ❤

    2. What, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is wrong with your sibling?? They are truly a Ass of the Ages.

      1. Believe it or not we actually get on well outside of this, which is one reason I’m happy to take the breezy/cheerful approach to boundary maintenance – there’s a good relationship there to preserve and I’m not in the LW’s position of having to keep relatives on a low information diet in other areas (which may make my advice above less applicable to them). I like and admire Sibling for other things, but they’ve never quite grown out of a belief that being visibly different in any way is Bad and Wrong and will lead to social punishment – they actually believe they are helping me by doing this. One other reason it makes me sad is that I also see how that belief makes Sibling police themselves very harshly and they don’t do a lot of stuff (hobbies etc) that they otherwise might want to.

  39. When I disclosed my ADHD to my dad, he spent an hour mansplaining my diagnosis to me, telling me how he felt the same and he was totally normal so I couldn’t possibly have a condition and I was just bright but lazy and faking it for attention (you totally have undiagnosed ADHD, Dad, but go off I guess). So anyway… Dad’s on a low information diet now regarding my mental health. Now I am diagnosed with C-PTSD too and I feel super unsafe to ever tell him about this. My mom doesn’t really believe in my diagnosis, but she accepts the accomodations I need, so…yay, progress I guess ?

    Not family-related : I had an experience several times when I’d disclose my diagnosis to otherwise good friends, and they would have a giant guilt trip in the form of “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I can’t believe you were hurting all this time and didn’t tell me! Don’t you trust me?!”. I wish I had Captain’s scripts at the time to tell “I’m trusting you, I’m telling you NOW, and I need you not to freak out”. Eventually everything worked out because they were acting in good faith, they just didn’t know how to react, but I still wish they’d handled it differently. LW, maybe this script will be useful for interacting with your other family members (siblings, etc) who are more likely than your mom to be receptive, but still need might have an odd reaction.

    1. I would ask if you were me, but autism, not ADHD. 🙂
      I deal with his side of the family (who are also weirdly phobic about ever being diagnosed with any form of mental weirdness) by figuring out the accommodations I need and being like “cool cool I need be alone in a dark room for ~1 hr, you’re amazing, thanks so much in advance” “lemme set the table for dinner, where do you want me sitting, I use chopsticks not cutlery” “I’mma take the dog for a walk, have a great afternooooooon byeeeeee” (that one’s gonna suck this year, my dog died yesterday, MERRY FUCKING CHRISTMAS TO ME).

  40. When I disclosed my diagnosis to my mom, her response was “why would you want something like that on your permanent record? Don’t you know it’s going to affect your ability to get jobs, health insurance, etc?” I was young, and I picked up on the implication that it was up to me whether or not I had this illness, and I eventually decided I didn’t. I stopped pursuing treatment, and things got really bad… I’ve learned that we don’t choose our mental illnesses, they aren’t up for debate, and they don’t define us. So well done, letter writer, for not letting your mom discourage you from getting the treatment you need. Keep your eyes on your life vision and keep taking actions to get there.

    1. My mother said something very similar. She basically flat-out said that with a diagnosis, I would never get a degree, job, or partner.

      Joke’s on her: I graduated with honors, got and kept half a dozen jobs, and just got married (to someone who knows and accepts that I’m batshit insane). 🙂

      1. They would not pull that crap if it was a more visible disability (at least, one hopes not), and I am beyond tired of concern-trolling about whether people with certain diagnoses should treat them, work on accommodations for them, talk about them, or take meds for them.

        My own chronic issues are relatively minor (bad back that can lay me out if I try to pretend I have a normal, i.e., non-painful, back and do dumb things) and a chemical imbalance in my brain that makes me depressed and occasionally moody/impatient with irritating people I can’t avoid being around. That said, I refuse to not discuss them, and when I can AFFORD my meds, I take them.

        I won’t disclose up front at a job interview, because I’ve had both issues all my life (congenital hip socket defect likely causes the back pain and flat arches, even if my back didn’t really start causing issues until after puberty; was actively considering drowning and running out into traffic as some of my earliest memories, perhaps even pre-literate memories, and I learned to read early, so it’s not like I just decided depression was a super cool problem to have). They haven’t been the cause of any failures at any jobs. It’s not something about which I want to fight over getting accommodations.

        Outside of an employment-related context–because some employers are still ignorant about mental health, and people being high-functioning–I am very up-front about my mental health and bad back, and will avoid certain activities that are probably contraindicated as a result. Part of dealing with a chronic illness, even one that is less-limiting than others, seems to involve educating others about it, and as an introvert, that is difficult. Even if I don’t want to make the effort to educate on my own behalf (I’d probably let a lot of stuff slide or fester if it was only about me), I personally feel I owe a “community debt” of sorts to other depressed people who may lack the spoons to talk to someone who thinks depression is a choice of some sort, or a personality quirk, or an artistic persona, or that it can be magically cured forever if only the depressed person exercised more, ate certain foods while avoiding other ones, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and so on.

        I do not understand why some people think “your life is ruined because you have X diagnosis” is at all useful or helpful. It certainly isn’t true. And everyone has SOME limitations, somewhere; their areas of limitation just may not be something as obvious or as valued by society. For instance, people claiming a diagnosis of any sort prevents getting a degree / job / partner are limited in that they clearly have no tact or common sense, and are also wrong and ignorant. 🙂 They don’t come with signs on them, pointing out their invisible limitations, but they reveal them in short order.

    2. Yeah, my ex tried that as recently as a few years ago – “but if you’re on X drug, that will be on your record, and (problem one) (problem two) (problem three).” Guess what, though? No problems so far. International travel? Fine. Handgun license? Fine. Background check for working with kids? Fine. Background check for federal work? Fine.

      1. Funny how no one else seems to care about my diagnosis! It’s almost like it’s none of anyone’s business, and it doesn’t actually change who I am at all. I think the people that respond negatively to others getting treatment for their mental illness are just displaying their own prejudice and ableism. My life is so much better now that I have treatment, and literally nothing bad has come from it. I have a loving partner, a good job, stable housing, good friends… None of these things are threatened by my taking care of myself, in fact, they would be threatened if I didn’t follow my treatment plan.

  41. I have mental health diagnoses and my family struggles with that. Here’s some things I do, many of which I learned here, use as appropriate:

    – Refer to my counseling as “standing medical appointment.”
    -Remind myself that sharing with or educating people is a gift and a job and optional. Sometimes, I can mention a resource which educated me, sometimes I don’t have the energy.
    -Make it boring and change the subject. “Oh, talking about medical stuff is so boring! Tell me how the kids are doing, instead?”
    -Be very matter-of-fact, especially in front of kids. Destigmatizing, I do it! “I am going to have some quiet time, because my anxiety is acting up.”
    -Explain it as, “It’s just a chemical unbalance in my brain,” which it is, and I don’t get into the causes of that unbalance. Not with my family, just during my standing medical appointment.
    -Announce, not ask permission for, what I am doing. “I need to sit here and drink some water and be still, I will catch up with you at The Roller Coaster of Almost-Certain Death.”
    – “I’m not feeling well,” is true, when I need a reason, and if it’s mental, not physical, it’s still true.
    -I have also found, “I don’t want to” to be very, very powerful.
    -I hum, “I am, I’m Me” by Twisted Sister, when I need a boost around my family.
    – I use a modified saying from Ask a Manager. Some people, they stink and are never going to change. Power in acknowledging that to myself.

    My birth family are trying and they don’t get it, but by being in charge of my treatment, I am doing better with them. My in-law family, not so much; they stink and are never going to change. :p

    You are not alone, LW, good energy to you and dog.

    Sins & Needles, she/her/hers

  42. I can’t come for health reasons/my doctor advised me not to travel right now due to my health has the benefit of being pretty true, for the record.

  43. I don’t know how it is with LW, but when I would visit with my parents (maybe once a year, for a day or two), I would turn into a zombie inside; there’s no way I could have set any boundaries with them, even assuming I had had the presence of mind back then to be aware of the necessity.

    If that’s what happens to you, then I’d say, whatever you do, don’t go. But if you’re like I was, even that would be very hard.

  44. My parents are generally unrelated to my diagnoses or childhood trauma, and I *still* find that the best conversations I’ve had with them about it have all been situations in which I could easily leave. I try to say what I need to say, allow them to acknowledge the conversation, then get out of there. Especially if I need to discuss anything trauma-related, because even though they didn’t cause my trauma they tend to guilt-spiral over not preventing it somehow. Which is fine, they have feelings too, but I should absolutely not be involved in helping them with that. So I just clear out so they can process it on their own, then revisit the conversation later.

    I know escape isn’t always possible, but it really helps reinforce those conversational boundaries. It also helps to decide ahead of time what you’re willing to engage with and what you won’t. Like for me, “How can we help you?” is something I’ll talk about. “Why didn’t we know/This is so upsetting/Are you SURE…” etc. etc., I excuse myself from the room. So if you can have a place you need to go, or a job you need to do quietly on your computer, or the dog always needs a walk right then, that will help.

    Also, I have a lot of issues with people-pleasing and trying to fix other people’s emotions, so it helps me to tell myself that I am not a helpful audience FOR THEM to process things with either. By bowing out of the shame-spiral/denial part of the conversation, I give THEM the best opportunity to get their minds right and interact with me in a positive way. Just tossing that out there in case it’s a helpful reframe for anyone else.

  45. Just in case airline tickets are involved here, a reminder for those of us with an overactive sense of responsibility: “Non-refundable tickets” just mean the airline gets to keep the money you paid them. You don’t actually have to get on the plane. And you can choose to imagine that if you cancel maybe someone who is on standby who has NICE family they WANT to see can get on the plane. If you decide not to go you have simply paid to be able to stay home with your supportive dog. Nothing wrong with that.

    1. Yup! At this point the money is gone. It’s a moot point. Going won’t get you your money back. Think about it as: if you hadn’t bought tickets, but there was a free flight home, would you choose to take it?

    2. THIS.
      The money for the ticket is gone.
      If you need to think about it in terms of money, weigh “wasting” the cost of the ticket and staying home comfortably, against “not wasting” the cost of the ticket PLUS the potential/probable costs of additional therapy, PLUS the potential/probable costs of additional SD training, PLUS the cost of lost time in your mental health, PLUS the cost of lost time in your SD training, PLUS dog knows what else would come out of “not wasting” the ticket.

      Since the cost of the ticket is the same regardless, the equation is:
      staying home comfortably OR
      the potential/probable costs of additional therapy the potential/probable costs of additional SD training, the cost of lost time in your mental health, the cost of lost time in your SD training, and dog knows what else would come out of “not wasting” the ticket.

      It’s classic sunk cost fallacy, especially in our culture that trains us to prioritize costs that have a price tag with dollar sign and numbers on it over greater and more important costs.

  46. Captain Awkward is right, you are not causing drama. At the same time, I finally found some success getting my mental health needs accommodated when I just let my family think I was “over-sensitive” or “a drama queen.”

    When I tried to talk to them about depression, and what I needed, they would joke (but not really) about how I had always been SO sensitive. Then, I would try to argue about I wasn’t over-sensitive and it just spiraled down from there until we were arguing over the minutiae of events from a decade ago. So, finally when they kept saying how sensitive I was about stuff, I just kinda shrugged and said, “yep, so you won’t tease me about X anymore or do Y since you know it hurts my feelings.

    To this day, I think I get the support I need not because they understand depression or my other mental health needs, but because they’ve decided I’m overly sensitive, so they have to do this thing. Ultimately, I get what I need and if that’s how they justify it to themselves, I can live with it.

  47. Captain, thank you. Thank you for saying to LW “you don’t have to go.” I hope LW does what is best for them, and their SD. And LW, good for you for caring for yourself! That’s not always easy, but it sounds like you’re heading in the right direction.

    I believe finding Captain Awkward is my favorite thing about 2019 so far. Thanks for the excellent advice. And comment posters – there are always thoughtful, supportive posts below. What a lovely place. I wish the whole world was full of you guys+CA.

  48. Hoo boy.

    BPD = Borderline Personality Disorder
    From my understanding, BPD is generally believed to have origins in childhood emotional trauma with, you know, parental sources

    I think I was able to circumvent directly telling my parents I had BPD by first mentioning it in a more general Facebook status about mental health, and then casually discussing it in a conversation with one of my aunts in my mom’s presence (during a conversation about my cousin’s Bipolar diagnosis, actually). So essentially I made them aware of my diagnosis instead of having a big talk about it that would have involved a whole bunch of *feelings* on their end. I feel like maybe it gave them room to deal with their feelings about it without feeling them AT me verbally. Discussing it that time with my aunt gave me the added benefit of being validated about my diagnosis in front of my mom by another adult.

    I still have no idea how my parents feel about my BPD, and I hope I never shall.

  49. I’ve never had or known someone who had/has a service dog, so I can’t comment on that. But I have suffered from depression all my life. I remember, early in elementary school, being taken out of class and asked to do some weird tests about choosing shapes and colors, but I don’t remember any of the details. A few years later, my mother commented in passing that the school had told them I had depression, but that was just silly. I spent my growing-up years repeatedly being asked why I wasn’t sufficiently excited about good things.

    Untreated depression often gets worse, and so mine did. By my late 20s I spent a considerable amount of time in tears, appalled at the disgusting, hopeless, useless, ugly, stupid person that I was. About that time I was laid off (the company was consolidating units, and moving mine across the country) so I went back to school to refresh my engineering skills. A couple of years after that, I just finally became professionally nonfunctional; I couldn’t do coursework any longer. Against my husband’s advice (he didn’t trust mental health care) I finally began medication and talk therapy. Wow, what a difference they made!

    During those last really bad years before getting help, I pulled away from my parents a little bit. Husband and I didn’t visit as often, Mom and I didn’t talk as often, etc. Mom’s personality and mine clashed badly, and I simply didn’t have the energy to be on my diplomacy game. Finally she asked if anything was wrong, and I said I’d been struggling with depression. That absolutely baffled her. “But what are you depressed ABOUT?” I tried a simplified explanation about brain chemicals not working right for some people, and medication helping that problem. I never brought up the subject again, but about every third visit, sometime during the day, she would ask out of the blue, “What are you depressed ABOUT?” for the next two decades, until her death.

  50. I’m a fellow CPTSD-haver, and while I haven’t had the experience of trying to introduce a service animal to my family who caused the trauma, I do have the experience of changing how holiday visits worked.
    Five years ago, I started having severe trauma flashbacks and rage-dreams where I attempted to grapple with my abuse. For a variety of reasons, these led to me not feeling safe in my parents’ home. After talking with my therapist, she recommended I try staying with friends or supportive family members if I had any in the area. This way, I was still able to see the family I wanted to see without having to be trapped in my parents’ home. After two years of never spending the night in the house, and avoiding one-on-one time with my abuser, and knowing I had an escape available (and therapy, and medication), I was able to spend the night at my parents’ house and had also enforced the boundary of “if you are cruel to me, I will leave. I do not have to stay here and be abused, because I’m not a child without agency in this house but rather an adult guest who can end the visit.”
    LW, I truly hope it’s not too late for you to cancel this trip. The Captain and others have articulated so well why I think this visit at this time will be dangerous to you and to your partnership with your SDiT. But if it IS too late to cancel the visit, or there are other things happening in the area at the same time that you’re really looking forward to, I really hope that you have somewhere to stay (with your SDiT) that is not your parents’ home–a hotel, a friend’s house, an AirBnB, anything other than a place where you are not safe from harm.
    Best wishes, LW. Be safe, and good luck!

  51. Well done with the service dog, LW; I am really happy for you.

    As for families; my diagnosis of CPTSD was confirmed in 2000. I researched online, as you do, and found a very useful little document for friends and family, with straightforward advice about what would help; things to say, things to avoid saying; useful suggestions to make life easier for everyone. I emailed this document to my father and my two siblings, with a message saying I hoped it would help them to understand.

    Months went by, and nobody said anything. Not a single word. I thought, ok, give them time; this takes some processing for everyone. Eventually I spoke to my younger sibling and asked about the document; had they read it? What did they think?

    My sibling said, yes, they had all read it. They had talked about it among themselves, and concluded that because there were ‘so many’ things NOT to say, it was better if they all agreed never to say anything at all.

    Here we are, almost 20 years later. My father is now dead. My siblings remain committed to never ever mentioning a single thing about the issues I struggle with every day. I am regarded much as a leper in the family (no disrespect to lepers intended by saying that!), and am tolerated as long as I pretend to be normal and say nothing.

    I don’t think anyone will be surprised that when I was also diagnosed with DID in 2012 I didn’t bother to tell my parents or siblings. It is better not to expect anything from people who have nothing to give; they can only be who they are.

    I spend Christmas quietly with my d and our 2 cats. I have no idea if the extended family misses seeing me or not; they never mention it.

  52. My mother is the reason my PTSD is CPTSD. But as she had mental health issues, nothing could ever be her fault. Here’s the one thing I ever managed to say that got her to think that perhaps my dx was a real thing and that I wasn’t just trying to be a bitch: “Ok, let’s say that you had an illness with a high fever — so high you were delusional. And while I was getting you water or whatever, you lashed out and broke my jaw. *It wouldn’t matter that you couldn’t help it or didn’t know what you were doing. My jaw would still be broken.*”

    Putting it this way took the situation out of the realm of whether or not she could help abusing me as a child and put it square where it belonged–the effect on me, whether or not she was a horrific witch or just a helpless but otherwise good person. *And even that only worked for maybe 10 minutes.* Ultimately, low information and low contact were the only things that worked for me.

  53. Commenting re: mental health diagnoses stemming from childhood/home experiences – I cannot overstate the value of having a Team You on hand. For me, a virtual one worked fine. Keeping the visits short while I was still learning to assert myself and protect my boundaries was really important, too, because if I got exhausted it was easy to let a boundary slip or fall back into maladaptive coping behaviors rather than using my new tools.

    I’m about to go home for a 6-day visit, for the first time in more than a decade, and between the constant practice of my own good habits and the slow progress with my parent about the behavior I require if I’m going to be around, I feel pretty confident that it’ll be okay. I still have (I always have) regular communications with Team Me in place, of course.

    Some things that have helped me on my journey:
    Remember that it’s okay to opt out of anything you don’t feel *good* about.
    Remember that your own well-being is king and gets first priority over your family’s comfort.
    Actions you take to protect yourself and your boundaries do not imply judgment or censure, no matter how much a family member might try to make you believe that your action is about them.
    Even if you don’t feel like you need support, check in with your support network – it saves the mental effort of having to make that fraught judgement call as to whether anything “bad” or “bad enough to seek support” happened.
    Early on, a few years of radio silence really helped me solidify that I would be okay without them, and seemed to help them understand that I was serious about having a relationship that respected my boundaries or not having one at all.

    Good luck, LW, we’re all rooting for you!

  54. “Do you have any scripts for navigating what is essentially a medical treatment plan they don’t/won’t agree with? Tips on how to introduce my dog as my SDiT and have that be respected?”

    LW, I want to share a thing I (with a classic Karyl McBride mom) learned. The way to talk to a difficult parent without them getting upset and/or disrespecting your health care choices is to practice not caring if they get upset and/or disrespectful. Which is a tall order, but doable with therapy and help. I still get an amygdala twinge when my mom goes off, but I no longer experience a minor existential crisis about my worth as a person over it.

    There is no magic way to talk to my mom to make her stay chill, to make her respect my choices. Her being angry or dismissive doesn’t mean I did something wrong. In fact, most of the time, her being angry or dismissive has almost nothing to do with me – even if the discussion is about me or my choices!

    My relationship with her has improved approximately 1000% since I learned to just let her be upset. I don’t have to fix her feelings.

  55. LW, I don’t have a service dog, but I am disabled. The thing I have found most helpful when dealing with people who are close to you and/or who you *want* to be close to you but who say hurtful or ignorant things is to sort of pretend they said something nice or react to the nice core of what they mean to say. This might be crazy-making or way too upsetting for you or otherwise not a good strategy, but it can be surprisingly good at curbing unwanted or ableist behaviour/comments and changing attitudes.

    Example: I say something about how [aspect of my disability] is frustrating. $familymember says that I’m not actually disabled-disabled. Instead of arguing with them about this fact, I react instead by saying it’s true that I’m a strong and competent person, but [aspect] is still really frustrating. By dispelling the actual debate about whether or not I’m disabled, I find this helps avoid conflict but also reaffirms to me that I don’t need to care if they agree with me or not because my disability isn’t up to them. And I don’t argue if my symptoms/aspects/flares/etc are real or not, so I also keep doubt out of my mind.

    You could do this with some things that are hurtful and your family is likely to say to you, like:

    “You don’t need a service dog!”
    “I’m not always at my worst but [dog] is so wonderful and helpful pretty much all the time. / It’s so good for [dog] to have such an enriching and complex job. I’m really proud of them!”

    “You don’t have PTSD/Complex PTSD, the therapist just convinced you that you do.”
    “I appreciate your concern, but I’ve thought about this a lot and I want to take the best care of myself and have the best life possible. + subject change eg [Trivial thing] is going well and I’m excited to move forward.”

    “You aren’t disabled enough to need a service dog. That’s for [blind people, people with mobility impairments, etc].”
    “[Dog] helps me every day and we’re doing great.”

    “If you’re soooo disabled, can you even really take care of a dog/deal with strangers/do all the upkeep?”
    “We’re doing great and I know I can keep taking good care of [dog] just as much as [dog] takes good care of me.”

    Basically, any rude or ignorant or snarky comment can be responded to as cheerfully as if they’d asked something neutral or even said something complimentary–and sometimes this can curb the comments entirely. Refusing to get drawn into arguments can be a win by itself.

    The other thing I can tell you is that spending Christmas or other holidays by yourself, at least for a little while, can be incredibly healing and you are 100% not wrong or overreacting or ‘making drama’ etc if you choose to do whatever you want in a peaceful home with just you and your dog and possibly any friends you choose. Taking away their power to hurt you during the cold, dark winter can be really good for teaching you to value yourself and is always good boundary practice. Best wishes and congrats on your SDiT.

    1. Upon re-reading the letter, I think I can also offer some advice that’s a bit more general on the whole ‘how to handle them not approving/understanding/agreeing with your accommodations/medical plan’: refuse to make them agree with it.

      I don’t mean that seeking anyone’s approval or understanding or agreement is morally bad or manipulative or anything, but what has worked best with me is just working to accept in myself that I don’t need my family’s agreement or approval to proceed with what I think is best, and then stopping seeking it. I don’t know what most of my family thinks about eg my medications, because they don’t need to approve it for me to take them and so I never asked. I have to treat myself like a competent adult or just give up on life all over, so I recite to myself: “I can decide things for myself and make decisions about what’s best for me and my life. ”

      I also have taken a lot of advice or general life philosophy type stuff (whether directed at me or else just posted in general on eg their social media) as either an underlying expression of general concern (‘I hear yoga helps with that!!’ = ‘I care a lot about you and feel totally helpless to alleviate your pain/distress/symptoms and cannot cope with the helplessness or else the way [disabilities] can be as bad as they are’) or as just a sort of word vomit of manky ableist beliefs (‘You’re not being positive enough about this!’ = ‘I don’t think your disabilities actually affect your life except as much as you let them and that you being anything other than living inspiration porn is offensive’). And either way I don’t have to actually deal with it–I’m not an emotional garbage can OR their anti-prejudicial life coach. By reframing it to myself as Not My Job it helps me detach from it or else react with firm boundary-setting or coolness.

      I also agree with other posters–it might be a really great idea to keep yourself at home these holidays and just focus on doing what you want to do, and then, if you want to come around them at a different time, wait until you and the dog are a solid, seasoned team and you can shut down any distraction or nonsense. Additionally, your own confidence if you skip and come around later could really subconsciously influence how they treat you and how you react–I have noticed that even really mean, shitty, self-absorbed people sometimes react totally different to me based simply on how visibly confident or indifferent I seem.

  56. Something not at all health related, but it can be kind of difficult that make that decision to skip out on family holiday events that very first time. Every year (pre-having a child) my husband and I would go to either his parents or mine both are multiple states away. One year we decided we weren’t traveling. We didn’t really have the extra money and I do horrible flying so I honestly just didn’t want to do the travel part. I went through being relieved to not travel and feeling guilty for not going over and over. We asked a couple local friends and 2 also weren’t going home so we invited them over Christmas eve for dinner, and one other friend’s family was local and they invited us for dinner on Christmas day. Then Christmas morning came and I didn’t have to get up at 5am, I didn’t have to get dressed up before breakfast, husband and I lounged around in pajamas, ate leftover cake for breakfast, opened presents and just relaxed until dinner. Went over to our friends house just for dinner time, like an hour or two tops, enjoyed some tasty food and went home after. Our friend was thankful for us coming over because it made his parents act super nice to him, we got free Christmas dinner! Win win!
    Since then we’ve had a child and every year either my husband’s parents or mine pretty much invite themselves to stay with us for a week or two. It’s been exhausting. This year I said no visitors, we are having a break this Christmas. Neither set of parents were thrilled to hear that, but we reminded them that they both have other children they can visit this year. It was another hard at first, but now I am so glad to have just one year of relaxation.
    So it can be hard that very first time you change up the holiday plans, but it gets easier. I also felt like it made it easier to stand up for myself (and later my child) when we have had other visits. I’ve already broke the ice on doing it once and now it’s more expected I won’t always do what they want.

    Also remember you don’t have to tell them you are going to have dinner with friends, that is totally up to you if you include them on what your solo plans are. Some years I have just set aside a certain amount of time to chat on the phone with my parents and the in-laws and not brought up plans at all. They’d ask what we’re doing and I’d say “Well nothings really open for Christmas and with how cold it is just best to just have a nice day!” Very open ended in case they wanted to try the “Oh so you can go see friends but not see us?” road.

  57. I have C-PTSD and a pet dog – which is not at all the same as a service dog – but training my dog has taught me such a lot about self regulating my emotions. I thought the goal was to be the strong human with all the answers who showed no fear. In reality, me and my dog are learning to calm our nerves and find safety together. Some triggers are too much for my dog, some are too much for me, that’s ok.

    I’m an incestual sexual abuse survivor and this time of year I focus a lot on caring for my feelings with the same patience and love I give my dog. I create a self soothe kit and plan in lots of private time where I can let my emotions out, just like he has his blanket den and soothing toys. Christmas is a time to be gentle with yourself. A couple of years ago I released myself from the bind of tradition and opted into the parts of my family Christmas that don’t cause my pain and skipped the rest. It was hard to set that boundary but it really broke a cycle of setting myself back health wise and then resenting my parents. I’d echo the things other say here about not going.

    If you had just had a baby or adopted a child, you’d be well within your rights to put aside travel to focus on your family. I don’t know if it fits with how you see your bond with your service dog but I think you’re totally justified in staying home to establish your baseline festive training routines; training is hard work for both of you. Give yourself the gift of a Christmas for you.

  58. I have CPTSD, and my mom reacted similarly to LW’s mom when I told her about it. I tried a lot of different things with her, but no matter what I did, having contact with her was still re-traumatizing. I still felt awful when I was around her, and before I was around her, and after I was around her. Contact with her sucked up all my energy so I didn’t have anything left over for basic life functioning. But I kept trying to make things work for a long time, because I thought I had to. I was in therapy and trying to learn how to take better care of myself, but something about parent/child relationships made me feel like I couldn’t set standards for how people treated me. I kept coming back.

    Things only got better for me when I was able to decide that parents aren’t that special. There’s nothing so fundamentally different about a parent/child relationship that I have to accept behavior from my parents that I wouldn’t accept from other people. There’s nothing about them that makes them worth enduring infinite suffering. I don’t have a responsibility to endure that suffering for their sake. I’m allowed to prioritize my own needs.

    It’s different for everyone, and some people do get something of value out of maintaining contact with abusive parents. But in my life, I was never able to feel safe until I promised myself that I could walk away from anyone if they hurt me, even my parents.

  59. All the love to the LW. Being a veteran in these days, I have several friends with PTSD (and not all of them vets), and I know how utterly terrible it is to have your validity challenged. I cried a little reading your letter and the good Captains reply.

    You are valid. Your issues are valid. You deserve this self-care in the form of your service dog, and i hope the two of you are wonderful together.

    Jedi hugs.

  60. Dear LW,
    I’ve been in a similar situation and it’s hard, so I agree with everyone. Don’t go. I ended up spending Thanksgiving at my home, (I don’t consider my childhood home my home home anymore) because I realized how triggering it would be to spend five whole days with my mom. My dad was abusive (hence the therapy and EMDR), but my relationship with my mom sounds a lot like yours. I love my mom, but she needs therapy. She reminds me a lot of Captain’s internal monologue. Also, I love the “Faaaaamily” thing because it’s so true. My mom accidentally answered a text my brother had sent to both of us complaining about me not coming home for Thanksgiving. That kinda sealed the decision. I knew it would be fun, but the bad would outweigh the good. I went to two Thanksgiving dinners with friends. Now, I’m so, so excited to be spending Christmas alone! I get to deal with my family the following weekend, but even then, I’ve decided when I am arriving and when I am leaving. And I can leave early if I need or want to. It’s only a few hours away. Alas, my cats cannot come.

    I encourage you to spend Christmas alone. I did a couple years ago and it was fab! (my mom did not like it since she chose to spend it alone and ignored the invitations offered her and then complained to me like it was my fault for not coming “home”). I loved it. I’m so excited!
    This year: Christmas Eve Carol Mass tomorrow at a local historic cathedral preceded by lunch with friends. I bought puzzles (thrift store). I got presents for my cats. I bought presents for myself to open on Christmas Day. I may have pad thai for Christmas dinner. I have a huge list of Christmas movies to watch and projects to work on. I will probably do a footbath. I may go for a walk. It’s so freeing! So I encourage you to do that. Spend some time on yourself and on your SDiT. You will not ruin Christmas for yourself. And you’re the most important person. Sending you love and encouragement.

  61. Oh my gosh OP, beyond the service dog I have had the same issues with my family right down to the PTSD and triggering responses. I have also gone beyond the initial disclosure to them to the teary wine-induced conversations of “I was a bad mom/I’m so sorry for not doing better” and my brother swinging between validating that my mom has been particularly pushy and cruel with me to saying “it would be easier to just come by for holiday XYZ” and so I can chime in with some advice and camaraderie.

    First I’d like to say, I dont know you but I’m so proud of you for advocating for your needs and being at a point where you felt capable to share some of your health Intel with your family. As someone who was also keeping her fam on a restricted info diet I know that can be hard and sometimes makes them act up extra. I would also say that it is not your responsibility to manage the feelings of adults in your life when they get hurt in response to you taking care of yourself, no matter how sad or guilty they feel. It is very very tempting to fall into apologizing and I still do it myself, so I hope you arent too hard on yourself about it.

    My mom tends to get progressively frantic and mouthy with her worries, and the whole cheery gaslighting element is a great suggestion on the captain’s behalf. It has been 5 years since my diagnosis and I would say that my family still doesnt “get it” but I have seized a lot more control over my interactions and this has helped: I have 3 excuses for every holiday or event. I always drive myself. I dont drink and I got friends on call, sometimes even with me. I reread all the Captains advice on family and boundaries. I Have a Plan! As much as I can anyways.

    In terms of getting my family to understand/if it got better… it is hard. My mom knows the silent question and itll flare up now and then. My siblings all know it too, even though they fall into denial occasionally. Sometimes it is like I am talking to my moms defense mechanisms, and other times it is like my mom is lucid and herself vs the part of her that led to me being traumatized. On the Good Days, she gets it more than she used to. I’d say it took 3 years for her to stop trying to suggest my doctors were misdiagnosing me, and some of that was because the therapy I was in made me able to know where my emotions ended and hers began. I’d say there was one year where it got worse, noticeably; she would engage with me like I was a child again and it was the most triggering set of holidays and talks I ever had. I think this year was the “extinction burst” and it was incredibly challenging not to default to people pleasing or a weird rebellious defensive response. Im not sure if you’re seeing someone talk therapy style but I now plan to have an appointment after an event and before it if I can, because I almost always have a meltdown (even if it is internal only) after a visit. I have had to cut visits short and miss out on holidays too. I’d advocate for this even if it feels bad at first because if I hadnt missed some of those holidays it would have been bad.

    Id also suggest to make a group chat of friends you know to have your back, if you can. I have 2 that I rely on during these time, one is filled with snarky friends who will get fiesty on my behalf when I vent and the other is a gentle chat with friends who are empathetic and grounding. The fiesty friends correct me if I panic and message feeling bad, the empathetic friends remind me to breath and that they love me. Sometimes it is easier to tap into justified anger and wield that as a wall between harm, sometimes it is easier to secretly cry a little in the bathroom and hear that it is okay and have people soothe me and share stories about how they treasure me. Dont be afraid to tell these people what you need specifically. I often ask for reasons I am not the meanest worst daughter ever etc, and they remind me. Or I’ll ask for distractions, and theyll send me memes. Or I’ll ask them to remind me what they like about me and theyll remind me.

    Ultimately the things I keep in mind are:my mom’s feelings about my trauma and how I handle it are her own and my empathy helped me growing up because I needed it, but now I need to be empathetic to me. When I cant remember that, I ask myself what I’d tell a friend to do or what I’d say to them. I let myself grieve the mom and family I never had and will never have, and cultivate gratitude for my chosen friends and family on the days I am not struggling. I let myself rest and escape if I need to. I tell myself that adulthood isnt given, it is seized (in dynamics like ours). I tell myself how brave I am to press forward and make any decision at all in this area. How kind to try to be kind to those who are insensitive to you, but that I can change my mind too. I also tell myself, we end the cycle by doing what we need to thrive (and not just survive).

    I’m not sure if this is helpful but this year I also cancelled, because I was not able to avoid being triggered by my mom and brothers comments, and I am doing my best to be okay with it. Sometimes it doesnt feel okay but that doesnt mean we are making a wrong choice in prioritizing ourselves

  62. Oh LW, I know that trap of “if she would just acknowledge that this is real, it would help so much…”

    Over time, I had to come to terms with the fact that my mother will never truly acknowledge that I had an eating disorder. She is right up there with what the Captain described: fear of being wrong and looking bad. Because it WAS her. I was trying to get back at her for body-shaming me, and that started me down a path that led to a very dark place for a very long time. As I was starting to emerge from that dark place (which in itself was years of a pretty messed-up roller coaster ride towards recovery) I started to be even angrier with her. Why hadn’t she looked at what was going on (which was absurdly, painfully obvious, enough so that I was getting checked up on by health services at my college) and been CONCERNED about me rather than just “yay you’ve lost weight”? All I wanted was for her to just have a conversation with me where she admitted that it was serious and real and that I was in physical danger for a time.

    And then, as my recovery progressed, I started realizing how much wanting this acknowledgement made it STILL about her. I also realized that for her to admit I had a truly serious eating disorder, in her head she would also be saying out loud “I failed as a mother”. Even if in some ways she *did* fail as a mother, neither of us can change what happened back then. I had to decide, ok, my brother knows and acknowledges how serious it was, that has to be enough. Trying to get more from her was just dragging me back into the thing I was trying to escape, and was triggering as all hell.

    So now, any time she makes a comment about my body, I just make a noise that’s somewhere between a “hmph” and a grunt, or I don’t say anything at all. The few times that my previous “weight problem” or “you know, your body issue stuff” has come up, I’ve just stared at her with a look of disbelief. Maybe she knows it deep down and won’t admit it; maybe she has minimized it so much to herself that she believes the version of the story she tells; honestly, it doesn’t matter much to me anymore. *I* know what happened, I know it was bad, I know I survived it and somehow (miraculously) managed to get to a pretty healthy relationship with food. She can minimize it, but I’m really proud of myself for coming so far.

    (Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve managed to shift expectations such that saying in November “Work has been pretty stressful and I’d rather just have some chill time than schlep there for the holidays, so I’ll come visit in late January/early February” was met with an “aww ok, well let us know when you book your flights!” So it can be done!)

    LW, hoping that you managed to work out something you can handle for this year. I wish you the best with your service dog and all of your other treatment and therapy. You’re incredibly brave for just getting up and dealing with this shit every day, and we all see that even if some people won’t.

  63. @OP: I would be problematic around you – but not because of your mental health. I’m one of those people who loses her mind every time she sees a dog or a cat. I’d have to restrain myself so I wouldn’t ask to pet your dog!

  64. I also have C-PTSD co-morbid with other diagnoses and have had anti-support from family members, so all the advice in this post and the comments has been enormously helpful for me.

    After 5.5 years of fighting, poverty & homelessness I’ve finally gotten Social Security Disability Income. I’m seeking housing (which is hard; I get a lot of resources & advice from a site called ‘How to Get On’). I have a letter from a healthcare provider to potential landlords prescribing an assistance dog to get reasonable accommodation. I learned a lot about the Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing Act. Also about the tasks service dogs can be trained in for people with PTSD that would honestly help me function so much better.

    Does anyone have any tips on finding a place that can help me get a service dog trained in these tasks? The only place in NC I’ve found searching online only provides service dogs to help with PTSD to veterans. I don’t know where to seek a place that can help me in my goal to get a service dog trained in those PTSD-specific tasks to assist me. I’d welcome any suggestions from service dog owners & trainers!

    1. I believe Custom K9 Solutions in NC does training, but it does involve cost to the handler unlike some organizations.

  65. small formatting issue: several paragraphs after “some practical considerations:” are unreadable grey-on-grey in my rss reader. I’m guessing you set the background colour but not the text colour?

    1. I use a basic-ass WordPress template and set nothing about it – it’s black text on white. Sorry for your inconvenience, wordpress support is probably your best bet.

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