When I sat down to start writing this post, I agonised over the title of it: 'Christmas and depression' - talk about putting a downer on the most joyful, happy time of year. It feels a bit wrong to be putting any kind of negativity out there when the general vibe is fun, family, togetherness and excitement. I'm as guilty as the next person of being drawn in by the pre Christmas frenzy of overindulging in every area of my life which inevitably impacts my wallet and my waistline but somehow, it feels as though I'm allowed. Hey, it's Christmas, this is not the time for compromise or restraint, we're supposed to indulge. But I guess therein lies the point. My reservation over the title of the blog was motivated by my inherent need and desire to be a part of the whole festive merry go round. What happens then, when despite all your best efforts or perhaps because of your circumstances, you find yourself well and truly off the merry go round, standing in the corner watching everyone else seemingly have the time of their lives?
When I was a child I absolutely LOVED Christmas. Literally every single aspect of it filled me with pure joy and excitement. To be fair, there was nothing not to like. Loads of food that I wasn't allowed the rest of the year, amazing TV (this was the era of 3 channels and no means of being able to watch The Wizard of Oz on tap so the fact it was shown every Christmas was a really big deal for me), being around friends and family and a ton of presents. I mean it was the stuff of dreams. I know I am really lucky that that was my experience as a child and I really do cherish those memories but the fact is that they're also very painful because they're a sharp reminder of how things changed so significantly and what was lost.
The first realisation I had that Christmas can also be a time of sadness and pain was when I was 11 years old and my grandfather died suddenly from a heart attack on Christmas eve. I woke up that Christmas day and my mum wasn't there because she was with my grandmother. I remember feeling bemused and frightened because I didn't know at that point what had happened and why she would have stayed away and not watch us open our presents. It was of course a very sombre time and seeing my mum crying and distracted was awful. I was experiencing a complicated mix of grief for my grandfather, fear and anxiety for my mum and her grief but also a huge amount of disappointment that Christmas had in effect been ruined. There is no doubt that the fact he died when he did compounded the sadness and there was an overall sense I think for everyone that the time of year made his death more shocking and tragic.
Three years later, I was facing my first Christmas without my mum who had died 4 months earlier. Her death changed everything but I remember that first Christmas without her as being the time when I really noticed how different things now were. Our family of 3 was broken and over the next few years we went our separate ways all of us entrenched in our own loss. For me, Christmas had gone from being the best of times to the absolute worst of times. I would feel a sense of panic as although I had relatives that I knew would let me stay with them, I didn't want to be a guest in someone else's house where I felt slightly uncomfortable and in the way. I didn't want to watch families opening their presents while I politely waited my turn on the sidelines. I craved my own home and a feeling of belonging and never did I feel that more than at Christmas. There is something about this time of year that creates such a heightened sense of any loneliness or sadness that may be lurking inside us. For several years during my late teens and early 20's, Christmas became a time I just had to endure.
Even if we're the type who'd get a first class degree in locking painful stuff in a little box somewhere and faking it till we make it, Christmas has a very powerful ability to knock that out of us and force those painful things to the surface. When Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO) found herself a widow in her 40's with 2 young children, one of the first things she asked friends and family was that they guarantee her and her children would never be left alone at Christmas. The fact is that if you're going through a really tough time, Christmas can become a time to dread and tolerate. There's no quick fix. Being kind to yourself is probably a really good start. We're so good at punishing ourselves to deliver something that we think other people may want to see and it can create an extra layer of pressure particularly at this time of year that is just not helpful. Reaching out and talking to someone is a brilliant way of helping yourself through tough times and organisations such as the Samaritans have 24 hour helpline support throughout Christmas. It doesn't have to be a professional counsellor though, telling a family member or a friend how you're feeling can also be a good step to help you through. Sometimes a problem shared really can be a problem halved. If all else fails, it's probably worth remembering that although the shops start selling Christmas merchandise in October and the build up seems to last months, it really is a few days. When I was going through some really tough Christmases, holding that thought was often what got me through and of course there's nothing like a New Year to have a sense of new beginnings and fresh starts. Things never stay the same, the good stuff and the bad stuff always evolves and changes and everything ends up looking a bit different simply due to the passage of time. Proactive change takes a lot of courage but maybe Christmas and all the challenges it throws can be the motivating force to make that step.