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Facing the Holidays With Anxiety and Bipolar Disorder

I hate the holidays – not in a Scrooge kind of way but in an everyone’s-increased-happiness-is-rubbing-bipolar-disorder-in-my-face-extra-hard kind of way. To make matters worse, my birthday is literally on Christmas Day, so I’m supposed to be the absolutely most excited of anyone else. In reality, it’s just a reminder of all the parties I won’t be having.

I’m not sad. It’s more like Christmas decorations go up, and I can feel my emptiness intensifying or being spotlighted or something. I know emotional repression/depression/dissociation has rendered me incapable of experiencing so-called Christmas spirit, and then there’s the – surprise – guilt that comes with being unable to feel what I know I should. But I always play the part because god forbid my mental illnesses get accused of bringing other people down during the most wonderful time of the year. Plus, I always think there might finally be enough lights, garland, and ugly sweaters in the world to temporarily inflate my empty husk into something that resembles a person. Not to mention that manic Allie loves all the stuff, but I have unfortunately come to terms with still being in a depressive episode for the foreseeable future.

I can’t possibly be alone in this. Whether the holidays are imbued with a greater spiritual significance for people or not, there’s always a vague emptiness that accompanies a sea of unwrapped presents. A feeling of “OK, what next? Wait. That’s all?” For me, it’s like eating a great meal really fast. I don’t even remember what it tasted like. I just know I’m miserable now.

Sure, there’s family and all that jazz, but the immense pressure put on making the holidays a time for intense bonding and a setting aside of differences takes me out of the present moment enough to forget I’m supposed to be enjoying myself.

The first Christmas I spent with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (my other mental illness) really threw me for a loop because, while surrounded by my entire family, I had this persistent and intrusive thought that one of us wouldn’t be around for the next Christmas. Did this come to fruition? Obviously not, but there’s something about the combined newness of my birthday, Christmas, and New Years that really sends my anxiety into overdrive. Like the possibilities for terrible things to happen has just been rewound and set back into motion. Relentless pessimism, anyone?

Plus, the whole idea of a “fresh start” just reiterates to me how out of control I am, and with people throwing the word “resolution” around like it’s nothing, my inability to choose my mood/state of mind is constantly being brought back to the forefront of my everyday life. Since I’m in my last year of college, this year’s “fresh start” is particularly loaded. Four or five Christmases ago, I was a gifted kid with a lot of promise. Now, I’m behind my peers in every sense of the word and lack all motivation to regain my footing.

Trust me. I’ve done the whole “fresh start” thing before. Every time I feel even the slightest reprieve from my depression, I attempt to get my life together. When I finally have a plan in place, depression or hypomania can completely and utterly destroy it. So why bother trying to fight the wrecking ball of my moods and anxiety? There are so many things I want to and know I can do, but I am always caught off guard and suddenly at the mercy of my mind at the worst possible moments. But that’s a little bit of a digression.

I’ve definitely been trying to channel my holiday-induced hyperawareness of my mental illnesses into humor or irony in the past few weeks, but the reality is completely absent of humor. I unironically live with this every day, and neither I nor anyone else with a mental illness wants pity because of that. Just know that for all the Christmas-spirit-killing my honesty does, it pales in comparison to fighting tooth-and-nail just to exist and inhabit a reality that vaguely looks like normalcy from the outside. I’m tired of feeling selfish for not being able to push my mental illnesses to the side during moments of objective happiness.

The holidays – no matter which ones people celebrate – carry such a profound sense of “another year down, X amount of years left” for those of us with mental illnesses (and I have a birthday in there, to boot), and guess what? That is depressing, so it makes sense that no one wants to hear that during the holidays or any other time, for that matter.

Yesterday, my school held its ceremonial lighting of campus, and all I could think about was how detached I felt from everyone and everything around me. All the people laughing, hugging, and singing forced me to step back and reckon with my inability to genuinely partake in those things.

But this isn’t a sob story. I think it’s important to remember that people don’t magically get better just because the season is supposed to be magical. If I were scared to be vocal about my mental illnesses or otherwise having to struggle in silence, I would want my lack of holiday spirit validated, so that’s what this post is for more than anything else. It’s OK to not be OK even when everyone expects circumstances to suddenly lift people’s spirits.

I can acknowledge that my current depressive episode, anxiety, and OCD aren’t going anywhere. I can also congratulate myself for making it another year even though I don’t particularly look forward to the year ahead, but that sentiment, of course, is operating under the assumption that I won’t feel any differently in the near future. But I’m taking steps toward getting better. So maybe that should be the resolution of people with mental illness: remembering how far we’ve come and remembering that our state of mind doesn’t have to be permanent, but it’s totally fine if we aren’t progressing as fast as we had hoped. Truth be told, progress is simply making it to see another holiday season.

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Thinkstock photo by CentralITAlliance