Surviving Christmas when you’re
by See Change Ambassador, Lucie Kavanagh
“The world’s asleep,’ Moomintroll thought. ‘It’s only I who am awake and sleepless. It’s only I who have to wander and wander, day after day and week upon week, until I too become a snowdrift that no one will even know about.”
― Tove Jansson, Moominland Midwinter
On the year that my mother died, Christmas was very difficult. We expected that that would be the case and people were very understanding and supportive. It was quiet and lonely and I remember just feeling relief when it was over and a new year had begun. I thought of this a few years later when mental health difficulties once again made Christmas very difficult. This time, no one was understanding or supportive. This was because I didn’t give them the chance to be.
We all know the advice we can tell ourselves and others at Christmas. It’s very hyped up. It’s pressure from the media. It’s all about encouraging us to be consumers in every sense of the word. This is all true but it doesn’t change the fact that the pressure exists and can be internal as well as external. We’ve believed in Santa as children. We’ve seen the films. We know that this time of year is about families, love, coming together, celebrating, socialising, relaxing-all of the things that are next to impossible when you aren’t feeling well mentally.
That first Christmas when I was unwell, I dreaded the festive season long before it started. At times it almost felt like if I could just get past it, that things would be ok. I was working shifts over that Christmas. We were having very close friends staying with us. It was the type of Christmas I usually loved-plenty of time to be around people I loved to be around and an opportunity to be at work and help provide an enjoyable Christmas for the people I cared for. But my low mood swamped me and the prospect of these things caused tremendous pressure. Would I be able to carry off the act of being happy and relaxed? What if things got worse and I became really unwell? As Christmas got nearer, the fear stretched into things like my GP’s surgery being closed and then it began to feel like every possible avenue of help would be unavailable if needed.
It’s easy to look back now and see all the “why didn’t I” questions. Why didn’t I tell my friends and family how I was feeling so that there would be less pressure to pretend? Why didn’t I talk to work and maybe see if shorter shifts could be arranged? Why didn’t I talk to my GP about my fears and see what he might suggest as options? I didn’t do any of these things for a number of reasons. One was because I still didn’t have the language. I hadn’t really started to seek help for my difficulties and I found it hard to name what was going on. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t stressed. I wasn’t tired. And yet I was all of these things and also…nothing. No motivation. No excitement. No sense of wanting to do anything to make things better. It felt like drowning in a dark pit of…nothing.
I felt so bad in times afterwards when friends and family revealed to me that they had seen that something was wrong with me but didn’t know what. My change of mood and lack of enthusiasm was noticeable. Of course it was. I’m really not that good an actor. It made me begin to see that saying something would be preferable to leaving people wondering, and worrying, about what was happening. Nowadays I can name it. I can talk to other people with mental health difficulties and look at the options. It’s still not easy to open with the people I love. It’s not impossible but it’s definitely not easy.
Feeling unwell mentally can make you feel very apart from others at the most ordinary of times and Christmas amplifies it. You see the idealistic images on television, in your locality, on social media and even more than usual you find yourself thinking-I should be enjoying this. Why can’t I do what everyone else can? We forget that it’s not everyone. But in the moment that’s what it can feel like. Anxiety can’t be put away just because we’re “supposed” to be having fun. Depression can’t be overcome just to feel the full set of feelings that we need to fully participate. Eating disorders, phobias, OCD, addictions…all of these things are present just as much, if not more so, in the height of the holiday season.
That Christmas did teach me about little things I could do to make subsequent ones easier and I can try to share these.
Think about your ideal Christmas even if that’s sitting at home and pretending it isn’t happening. Maybe it’s not possible but it might help to show you ways in which you can keep things as low key possible or plan little escapes so you won’t feel overwhelmed.
Look at the support options. If you have friends or loved ones who support you, arrange to see or check in with them over Christmas and make times/dates so that you know those arrangements are there.
If you are worried about professional supports being unavailable, ask them about any on call options. Check what organisations or helplines will be operational (such as the Samaritans) and keep numbers with you.
One option that has really helped me is the comedian Sarah Millican’s hashtag “joinin on Twitter. This was started a few years ago for anyone on their own at Christmas but is used by people in many different circumstances-people who have been bereaved, people who are alone, unwell, unable to be where they want to be for Christmas, or simply, not enjoying it and feeling under pressure. There are tweets about peoples’ circumstances, what’s on television, the weather, food. I find it very comforting to just see that there are so many of us experiencing Christmas very differently to what the stereotypes are. Quite a few people, myself included, only use Twitter for #joinin at this time of year.
Don’t be afraid to look for what you need. More time to yourself, less time alone, practical help, emotional support. Naming them can be a first step in looking at ways to get what you need and sometimes acknowledging what we’re feeling is very validating. We might feel we need to pretend to others but at least we can be honest with ourselves.
Don’t buy into the media pressure. You don’t have to drop a dress size by Christmas, or lose two stone in January. You can eat as much or as little as you want over Christmas. It’s a short space of time. Indulging in what you want and like will not lead to any long-term health issues. You don’t have to feel guilt or the need to compensate for any treats or extras. Only exercise if you want to and not as a punishment. These things will add to the pressure and do no favours for your self-worth or self-esteem.
Don’t bankrupt yourself to give everyone everything you think they want and need. Think back to the Christmases you have ever enjoyed, either as a child or adult-was it ever because of the size of the presents or the amount of food and drink? No. It was always about something that can’t be bought. Atmosphere. And good atmosphere is about people being safe, comfortable and supported.
If you are feeling very low, try not to keep it to yourself. If you can’t talk to anyone around you, have a think about who you can ring or text and if that isn’t a good option for you, keep the helpline numbers close at hand and make a call or send an email. It helps to say it and sometimes even more so just to acknowledge it. If Christmas is causing you distress, make some plans for the days or weeks after. Have something to look ahead to, no matter small.
I realise that the above is all very easier said than done and in a quite a few spots I have felt hypocritical while typing but these are the things that I reflected on in the wake of some really difficult festive times. It’s easy to condemn ourselves, to feel that we “should” be other than we are and that we’re in danger of ruining it for those around us but this isn’t the case. No one chooses to be unwell and everyone is entitled to a Christmas no matter in what shape or form.
Just remember, it passes. The shortest day on the 21st December marks a beginning to brighter days which thankfully we start to see quite soon into the new year. Hold on to that and remember, it really isn’t just you. Your Christmas is as important as everyone else’s.
“I prefer winter and Fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape–the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show. “
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following