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Oh no ... not the guests!

Holiday party season’s here, bringing with it host-traumatic stress disorder

host-traumatic stress (Ben Kirchner for The Boston Globe)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / November 26, 2009

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At 23, Kat Lewin - secretary, blogger, aspiring socialite - already knows what she wants on her tombstone: “Here lies a fantastically gracious hostess.’’ But her epitaph may need a postscript: “The stress killed her.’’

“I’m a perfectionist,’’ the Brighton resident said. “I forget that the purpose of the party is to get people together. I’ll do 200 hours of work to make everything just right, and I’ll get to the point where I don’t even like these jerks. I don’t want them in my home.’’

The holiday party season is here, and that means one thing: spouses, children, caterers, friends - look out. The bad economy is making an already tense group of people even more high strung. Some who’ve always had parties catered are forced to cook, confident cooks are restricted by tighter budgets, and a growing number of hosts are deciding only at the very last minute to have a party, making planning all the more rushed.

Mental-health professionals have yet to name a host-related syndrome, but party-givers will recognize the symptoms. There’s a delusional state in which the decision to throw a party is made, followed by the “what was I thinking?’’ period. Then, a sense of dread sets in which morphs into panic, and, finally, hostility.

“It’s like having road rage in your home,’’ said Debbie Mandel, author of “Addicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7 Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life.’’ “It’s your self image that’s on the line, and you start thinking, ‘How can I impress everyone?’ You’ve got the shopping to do, your house has to be immaculate. You worry about things not being perfect, and nothing’s perfect, least of all a dinner. This is a recipe for disaster.’’

Michael Nedeau, owner of PBD Events, a Braintree-based event-design firm, says he’s seen very calm people turn into crazy versions of themselves. “They’re just randomly yelling at people.’’

With all of life’s real difficulties, what’s so hard about having people over for small plates and drinks? Let us count the ways: there are the opposing fears, often held at the same time, that no one will show up or everyone will and the food will run out. Or the fear that those who do come will find your décor or other friends lacking.

Scratch, the producer and director of Boston Babydolls burlesque who goes by one name “like Cher,’’ says preparing for his upcoming birthday party is much more stressful than anticipating a professional performance.

“If there’s a weak audience I don’t take it personally,’’ he said, “but if people don’t come to your birthday party, it hits you on a personal level.’’

His friends, he adds, are a lot like the audience, and not in a good way. “They’ll wait until the last possible moment to make a commitment or to alert me to the commitment if they’ve decided already.’’

But even the prospect of a full house makes him nervous.

“I know a lot of different people from all my different lives, and I sometimes wonder: Are the people that I knew when I was a computer-security professional really going to get along with the people I know from running a burlesque troupe?’’ he said. “You always have these nightmares of 20 people sitting in a circle and silently sipping their cocktails.’’

Budgets, especially now, are also a major stressor, particularly because many parties that start out as reasonably priced affairs get ever-more expensive as the day draws near and the specter of judgmental guests becomes more real.

Consider what happened to Susan McConathy, a generally level-headed business woman from Jamaica Plain. “I was going to have this low-key multi-generational family party,’’ she said. Some homemade food, a few flowers. She went to Winston’s for a centerpiece, figuring she’d spend $40. She walked out with a $200 bouquet. “It was ridiculous. I had to lie to my husband by $100.’’

But better to sow the seeds of marital distrust than face her family with a centerpiece that the saleswoman warned was of inadequate size for the table. “I was up-sold,’’ McConathy said.

Statistics on in-home parties are hard to come by, but Christie Mellor, author of the forthcoming book that covers entertaining, “You Look Fine, Really,’’ said people entertain less in their homes now than in generations past, so they’re more nervous. “People don’t look at parties as a normal part of life anymore, so they see them as this huge thing,’’ Mellor explained. “You don’t have to have a caterer or spend the whole day cooking if it means you’re going to be in the kitchen not talking and not relaxed and you’re in some freaky, horrible mood.’’

But who can blame people? The fewer parties you throw, the harder each one gets. Robin Blackmore, a Newburyport mother, said she’s so behind on inviting people to her home “it’s almost insurmountable. I owe so many people. I can’t narrow it down. I always think, well, if I invite so-and-so then I have to invite so-and-so.’’

Alas, the guest list is just one of her challenges. “I can never figure out what to serve,’’ Blackmore added. “I can’t have a party because I can’t think of an appetizer.’’