The holidays always tend to sneak up quietly. School starts, and the pools close. I go to buy a frame for my daughter’s second grade class picture, and suddenly, there are pumpkins in stores. I bite my lip, trying to remember how long until Halloween. Time seems to fly, and Daylight Savings Time ends. The days get darker earlier and earlier. Leaves change color and begin wafting to the ground. I feel a sense of dread prickling inside me at this point, right in the pit of my stomach. I try to mentally brace myself for the deluge of activity and change and commitment that comes this time of year. If I don’t tread carefully at this point, I can quickly feel like a strain on my family. My bipolar disorder has a penchant for worsening right around this time.
The holidays have always been bittersweet. Excitement fills the air as radio stations begin playing festive music, stores put out their best decorations and huge sale signs. Families gather to eat, drink and be merry. Boots and scarves and pumpkin spiced-everything pop up everywhere. You hear the words “cozy,” “warm,” and “bright.” I leaf through my battered dollar store pocket planner which is covered in notes, checking to see the date of my next psychiatric appointment. I breathe in relief when I see I had already scheduled one several months ago, right as the holidays approach. I give myself a mental pat on the back. I anticipated it this time.
While people are buying turkeys and presents and drinking hot chocolate, I am checking my medicine cabinet to make sure I have all of my emergency medication for a bipolar mood episode. Emergency meds for a manic phase? Getting low — write that in my planner to talk to my doctor about. Emergency meds for a depressive episode? Check. I want to avoid the Christmases past where I was unprepared for my bipolar mood episodes.
One year, I was hospitalized for a severe depressive episode right after Christmas. I remember being in the psych ward and seeing a few sparse Christmas decorations behind the clear plastic shatter-proof plexiglass where the nurse receptionist sat. The glaring fluorescent lights and the cheery Santa figure on her desk were incongruous with the shouting coming from down the hall or the sobbing woman in a hospital gown sitting in a corner. Other years, I have experienced mixed episodes, where I had lots of energy and ideas but also suicidal ideation. Those were dangerous times. Yet other years, I have been manic, going on outrageous spending sprees and impulsively cutting off all my hair at home or trying to dye it bizarre colors. I once thought I was psychic and spent $100 on a website so people could contact me. When I was asked how I was going to find clients, I shrugged, and claimed that “if it was meant to be, it was meant to be.” That is how the holidays have gone for so many years prior to my diagnosis of bipolar type 1. The stress of the holidays has sent me toppling over, vicariously bringing my family down with me.
Now, with medication, my family’s support and good medical care, I do battle to keep my brain from short-circuiting amidst the egg nog, pumpkin pie and mall Santas.
It can be hard. Text messages begin lighting up my phone, asking if my husband and I will be attending family functions for Christmas. Holiday cards arrive in the mailbox with pictures of friends and family, posed perfectly in a studio, smiling brightly. My Facebook feed is filled with images of happy people gathering around big tables. The next few days, I try not to let the increasing frenzy of group text messages bother me. I chafe under the expectations of dozens of people. If we went to every family and friend event, we’d be gone most of December: dinner at Aunt so-and-so’s this night, services at this church that night, gift exchange at this friend’s house, pot luck at that cousin’s house. This, all surrounded by people I don’t know very well.
My goal is to simply get through the holiday season without a hospitalization. I want my daughter to remember opening presents on Christmas morning with me and my husband there, smiling and laughing at her excitement. I want my husband to enjoy being home with us, relaxing and watching holiday movies. I don’t want my mental illness to mar those precious memories for any of us. I’ve found the best way for me to do those things is to take a very un-traditional approach to the holidays:
Making no plans whatsoever.
In a season synonymous with plans and expectations and commitments, I make none. I have found this to be such a freeing experience, and it has helped me better manage my moods during the holidays. I am certain a few people may feel slighted, or annoyed that we didn’t attend an event. But you know what? The world hasn’t ended.
Leaving behind the burdens of what others expect me to be during the holidays has helped me feel better during this festive season. I no longer worry as much about hospitalization. I am not under the crushing weight of stress trying to look and be the perfect family member. The sight of falling leaves announcing the beginning of the holiday season no longer holds as much anxiety for me. Self-care is the theme nowadays. In fact, instead of viewing the autumn and winter as the holiday season, I think of it as a self-care season. I spend more time in the gym as the days get darker earlier. I try to spend as much time in the winter sun as I can. I keep my diet and my sleep schedule consistent. I continue to take my medications and meet with my doctor. After all, bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, and managing my disorder the best I can is my responsibility. I can’t be the best for others if I am not well myself. I focus on keeping myself well and healthy, and that in and of itself creates more enjoyment of this season for me and my family.
I hope you and yours enjoy this festive time, and remember to take time to care for yourself this holiday season.
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