The Message You Need to Hear If You’re Struggling With Depression This Christmas
’Tis the season to be jolly. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Have a cup of cheer. It’s December and every time we step in a store, turn on the radio or walk down the street, we are reminded of the season of Christmas. Let’s be real; we’ve been inundated with these messages before the jack-o’-lanterns rotted. Whether you love Christmas or hate it, these messages are inescapable.
I’m not here to go all “Grinch” and ruin your Christmas spirit. However, if you’re not feeling the joy but in fact feel the exact opposite, this post is for you. Maybe you’re struggling with depression and it’s triggered or exacerbated by this season. Maybe you’re dealing with grief and the twinkling lights and scent of poinsettias are painful reminders of loss. Perhaps the stress of the holidays is fueling joy-stifling anxiety. You’re not alone.
Recently, my church did a sermon series tackling tough stuff, including grief, addiction, depression and anxiety. I was volunteering at the resource table set outside the worship center. A middle-aged man came up and shyly scanned the pamphlets. He shared that he was currently dealing with depression and was feeling much worse as the winter and Christmas season commenced. I was glad this man felt safe enough to reach out. He was far from the only one. It got me thinking: is the bombardment of cheer, joy, presents and decorations sending “should” messages to the many people struggling during the holiday season? You “should” be feeling joyful and jolly. You “should” be drinking eggnog and smiling by the Christmas tree. You should love every moment.
I’m not suggesting channeling Scrooge and banning all things holiday. But, here’s the thing: if you’re not feeling it, you are not alone. This year, I turned on Christmas music while the turkey was still digesting. I smiled while my kids reacquainted themselves with favorite Christmas decorations and books. But the main reason I’m embracing the holidays this year is because last year I really, really couldn’t.
I live with major depressive disorder (MDD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD). I anticipate a spike in anxiety as I try to do all the things (the pressure to do all the things is a whole other post) but last year, it was the depression that really defeated me. People say things like, “don’t let it steal your joy.” That’s like telling someone, “don’t let the rain fall.” There’s no “letting” involved.
My depression tends to have a reverse seasonal pattern — it worsens in the summer. I also have “double depression” which means I manage chronic dysthymia as well as episodic major depressive episodes that can last weeks, months or even years. During the summer of 2017, my mood took a serious nosedive. Depression is frustrating. I have coping skills and check in with myself and my doctor regularly. Despite this, sometimes it comes without warning and with no identifiable triggers. In this case, I think it was creeping in and the dismantling of an important friendship among other stressors tipped the scales. I suppose the reason doesn’t matter. With my brain chemistry, it’s easy to slide into a depressive episode. It’s much more complicated to crawl out of it.
I tried self-care, medication changes, writing, sleep hygiene; you name it. The depression deepened and persisted. By November of 2018, I was at an all-time low, and not for any particular reason. Depression doesn’t need a reason. Fun fact: depression (or anxiety, grief, etc.) doesn’t care what season it is or what kind of music is playing on the radio. I was a year and a half into a major depressive episode. I was tired. I wondered if I’d ever emerge this time. I’m sharing this because last year at this time, the festive reminders felt like mockery.
I don’t think anyone really knew where my head was. After all, I’m a mom. I always loved Christmas. Growing up, it was my favorite time a year. I love replicating the idyllic Christmases of my childhood for my own children. My dad loved Christmas. He passed on December 10, 2006, and every year we keep his memory alive and laugh as we adorn his favorite decorations. I plastered a smile on my face while the pressure in my chest expanded. That was the hardest part: the pretending. I smiled when we picked out an evergreen from the lot across the street. I took pictures while coercing my 10-year-old to stand by Santa. I dragged myself out of bed and to Christmas parties. When the sign-up sheet for my youngest son’s kindergarten class party landed in my inbox, I volunteered. Every night, I read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “Polar Express” and “Charlie Brown Christmas.”
But when I was alone, I dropped the act. The rare times I got in my car without kids in tow, I punched the audio button as soon as I turned on the engine, turning Christmas music to Linkin Park. The Christmas music I normally looked forward to sounded almost eerie. The words “jolly” and “joy” were like big red fingers pointing at me. The lights only illuminated the gloom. In the shower, when I had the energy to take one, I grieved. Depression had stolen my joy and I was helpless to get it back.
Aside from anxiety, depression‘s best friend is guilt. I berated myself for being immersed in darkness during the most wonderful time of the year. I isolated, fearing I’d fail to hide my bleak mood and it might rub off on my friends and family. Smiling was painful. Singing was painful. Visiting and talking and pretending was exhausting. I wanted to snap out of it. I know it doesn’t work that way, but the guilt was oppressive. Not only that, I was missing the season. I was sad about being sad.
Notice I’m saying “was.” This year, I can’t say I’m on top of the world, but I’m miles above where I was last year at this time. Thanks to support, a dedicated psychiatrist and counselor, and maybe some random luck thrown in, I’m in a good place. Some pretty cool things have happened since last year. I’m in the process of working with a publisher toward my book release date. Those dark times propelled me through my novel, which deals with mental health. I’ve watched my kids grow and change. I’ve learned about myself and my relationship dynamics. That’s why I’m embracing Christmas this year; I couldn’t last year. Not didn’t, but couldn’t. That’s one message I want to leave you with. Last year at this time, I didn’t think the joy would ever return. I was ready to give up on ever feeling it again. I was wrong. I’m not going to sit here and tell you “things will get better” or “this too shall pass.” I’m not going to patronize you with platitudes, because I don’t know who you are or where you are or what your situation is. All I know is life is not static, at least not forever. It keeps moving, and if you keep moving with it, it has the chance to change. Give yourself the chance. That’s the other thing about depression. It not only helps me with my writing, but it helps me enjoy the times it’s absent. Because of depression, I can appreciate the mundane, I’d venture to say more than the average person.
The other message I want to leave you with might be the one you need to hear the most if you’re in a dark place: It’s OK. It’s OK if you’re depressed this holiday season. It’s OK if you’re grieving. It’s OK if you have the urge to shatter every single Christmas light and the thought of eggnog makes your nauseous. It’s OK if you’re dragging yourself through the motions of shopping, wrapping, cookie exchanging and ornament hanging. It’s OK if you’re not. It’s OK if you’re skipping the holidays altogether. Listen: if this is you, I truly wish I could come hug you and roundhouse kick your depression, grief, anxiety, etc. in the face. I know it sucks. It sucks worse when the joy you’re surrounded by contradicts your inner climate. It’s not your fault. If I can’t remove your struggles, maybe I can help put a dent in your guilt. You’re not alone. I hope you feel safe to reach out for help. I hope the more we talk about this stuff, the more people will feel comfortable. That’s why I started writing about my mental health. I’m just one person, but I want to be part of the conversation. If you’re not ready, that’s OK too. But just know you’re not required to bathe in eggnog and feel all the joys of the season. You’re not alone. I know, I know, that’s a cliché, but based on myself, conversations with friends and the number of people who approached that resource table, I can promise you it’s true.
Be kind to yourself. Be really gentle. It’s OK if this isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for you. Whatever you’re feeling inside is legitimate. If all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, if you can’t put one foot in front of the other and all you can do is roll over in bed, that’s enough for now. You’re enough, during this season and always.
Getty Images photo via Viktor Gladkov