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Holiday Decorations Used to Trigger Me, but Here's How I Made Peace With the Holiday Season

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I love the holidays, but for a couple of years, the holiday season found me constantly holding my breath. The twinkling holiday lights and fragrant wreaths that left most others nostalgic for holidays seasons past took me back as well — to a far darker time when every day felt like a fight to survive. I couldn’t possibly comprehend why the sight of holiday décor left my heart racing and my breath tangled in my chest, but eventually, the reason for my strong physiological reactions became all too clear.

Five years ago, I was a recent college graduate who had spent four months job hunting — to no avail. I had grown weary of applying to position after position, stumbling my way through interviews and wondering if anyone would ever hire me. But that December, a dream job opening fell into my lap, and I refused to let the opportunity pass me by. I hardly felt qualified for the position, but I had a burgeoning grasp on the skill set and an overflow of passion.  

I took extra care to teach myself everything I needed to know to succeed, and I refused to let the proximity to the holiday season slow me down. After all, I had to perform these skills perfectly so I could finally land a job, one I hoped to keep for years to come.

But, I cracked under pressure. My anxiety rose so high that the moment I began a required skills test, I could barely concentrate. My mind clouded over, and my thoughts grew dark — I already knew I had failed, but I couldn’t seem to calm down until the impending news of my failure reached me.

Two days after Christmas, I discovered the job rejection in my inbox. Although I already knew I was not going to be selected for the position, I was absolutely devastated. As an unconfident graduate who felt underqualified for nearly every job on the market, the news seemed to confirm my biggest fear — I was undesirable, not hirable, and a complete and utter failure who would never find work.

Self-defeating thoughts swirled in my mind until I decided my life was better off over. I ruminated over ways I could end my pain and never return, but miraculously, when I left my home for lunch with a friend that same day, I decided to hold off and give life another chance. I spent the rest of the day sulking about how inept I believed myself to be, but thanks to my own choices, I was alive.

As months passed and I finally settled into a job, I seemed to forget about the post-Christmas job rejection ordeal — but my body never would. Nearly a year after I lost my dream job opportunity, I was strolling through a store when my breath grew shallow, my heart raced, and the faint sounds of fellow holiday shoppers became clamorous. In an instant, the store became intensely bright and painfully loud, and I was left feeling as though I no longer existed in my own body. I was dissociating, and I had no idea why — until I spotted a Christmas wreath on a shelf above my head.

In that moment, the searing pain of my previous rejection returned. My heart physically hurt, and I wanted nothing more than to escape my body and mind, even if by my own hand. I had never previously anticipated my favorite time of year would be indelibly marred by my past memories and the sensations they struck in me, but that was my present reality. I feared I would never again be able to inhale the aroma of fir trees, string lights around the house, or shop for gifts for my loved ones without feeling as though my body was worlds apart from my mind.

I continued to tread lightly every holiday season, remaining mindful of potential triggers and reminding myself just how much had changed since that defeating day so long ago. I felt as though I was constantly waiting for a storm to strike, but never knowing the forecast until the moment it hit. But slowly and surely, with plenty of time, therapy, and self-care, I began to discover new memories gradually replaced the painful ones, and my propensity to associate the holiday season with joy and light and magic returned.

I’m still painfully aware I could spot a wreath or a Christmas tree or a string of lights and reexperience the pain I felt so many winters ago. But despite the ghosts of Christmases past threatening to haunt my mind and body year after year, I’m continuing to make peace with my triggers, and finally learning to enjoy the holidays again.

Getty image by svetikd

Originally published: December 16, 2021
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