Depression and the Holidays Survival Guide
Let’s be honest – even if you’re not suffering from clinical depression, the holidays can be stressful and often disappointing. We run ourselves ragged buying gifts, cooking, decorating and entertaining. Tempers flare as we’re thrown together with relatives whom we see infrequently, and don’t necessarily enjoy spending time with. Expectations are high that this season will be magical and perfect as we try to recapture the anticipation we felt as children waiting for Santa, or wait for a rush of emotion as we ponder the religious significance of Christmas and Chanukah. When those feelings don’t automatically well up, we’re disappointed. And, of course, we’re ready to take the nearest heavy object to the TV or computer when we see the same holiday commercial for the 487th time.
I broke down in tears twice while trying to juggle visits to my ex-husband’s family and my own (parents and two sets of grandparents on his side, an hour and a half away from my parents and siblings). I wasn’t even depressed – both those times I was on antidepressants and doing great. The sheer stress of the holidays was just too much for me.
Being Depressed During the Holidays – I’m in Hell, Right?
So that’s my view of how the holidays can be when you’re not depressed. When you are depressed, it’s like Dante created your own private circle of hell. The idea of doing all this holiday stuff while you’re depressed is beyond overwhelming. Shop for Christmas or Chanukah presents? You’re having trouble getting out to shop for food! Decorate the house? You don’t even know if you’ll get laundry done so you’ll have clean underwear tomorrow. Send out Christmas cards to 50 of your closest relatives and friends? What would you say in them – “Doing awful. My new pastime is staring at the ceiling. I hate myself. My clothes are falling off me because I don’t eat anymore. I can’t wait till the holidays are over. Don’t bother to call. By the way, Happy Holidays!”.
It’s miserable to be depressed during the holidays. One reason is that you know that you really should be enjoying all the wonderful things that come along with them. As down as I sound on the season, I really do enjoy a lot of Christmas-sy things – decorating the tree and the house, giving and receiving presents, watching Rudolph and the Grinch and even sending out Christmas cards. But when I’m depressed, the fact that I can’t enjoy these things makes me twice as miserable, and I berate myself for not partaking fully in the joys of the season.
The second thing that makes it so hard to be depressed during the holidays is that doing the holidays right requires planning and organization. If you’re depressed, you’re so far from having those capabilities that it’s pathetic. You can’t even plan past the next five minutes, let alone a whole holiday season. And organization? Please! You probably are about to have your electricity cut off because you haven’t been able to get organized enough to pay your bills.
Have a Holly Jolly Christmas? I Don’t Think So
Another horrendous aspect of being depressed during the holidays, potentially, is spending time with people. Parties, dinners, get-togethers, etc. You’re having so much trouble smiling that you’re sure you have an absolutely ghastly expression pinned to your face. You feel like bursting into tears when someone asks you to join in singing a Christmas carol. Worst of all, you’re overly sensitive in general – to noise, to anything sad, like the other reindeer teasing Rudolph, to really garish decorations that make you really depressed for some unknown reason. So you have to try to act normal while all this turmoil and pain is going on inside you, instead of being able to cry and scream or stare at the ceiling like you can do when you’re alone.
On the flip side, being alone at the holidays (not by choice) can exacerbate depression also. You’re being bombarded with images of happy family gatherings that won’t be part of your holidays.
I’ve saved the worst for last – the thing that makes the holidays least bearable in a depressed state. It’s that everyone you know (and even strangers and TV commercials) is telling you how much you should be enjoying this time of year. Even if they’re at the end of their rope trying to get everything done, they will be telling you what a downer you’re being. You know you should be happy and having fun. No one has to tell you that. But they do anyway, and you just want to slug them and burst out crying at the same time. Yes, they “mean well.” But they’re not making things any easier for you.
Ways to Get Through It
Well, that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to be that way. I have some suggestions for the depressive’s holiday, drawn from my experience and what I did wrong during my miserable depressed holiday seasons. (By the way, these are also good for the non-depressive who’s totally stressed out and at the end of his/her rope.) You have to be willing to throw away all the “shoulds” that come with the holidays, though.
The number one rule is: Give yourself permission. Permission to drastically cut back on holiday preparations, permission to feel emotions other than unqualified joy and happiness and permission to gently but firmly say “no” to family and friends. Remember that you are ill. Clinical depression is an illness that is affecting your body, mind and personality. You are as fragile as any invalid. Keep this rule in mind during the season, and you should make it through okay. Remember – you are not a loser for scaling back. Other people would probably love to do it too, but there’s major peer pressure to “enjoy” holidays to their fullest.
That’s the rule; here are the suggestions:
- Instead of making yourself go through the ordeal of sending out paper Christmas cards, send electronic ones instead. Hallmark and Ojolie.com have a good selection of free holiday e-cards.
- When it comes to giving gifts, think gift certificates or gift cards. They’re the perfect present. You can get them online or, at least in the U.S., at most large drugstore chain stores. Yes, everyone will know what you spent – who cares? If you have the energy and the inclination, do an extra-special job of wrapping. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. Also, consider shopping online, which also keeps you out of the mall. Maybe I’m the only one, but malls at Christmas freak me out when I’m depressed, and I’m ultra-sensitive to the noise and crowds.
- Another option is to gift an experience. One Christmas my sister gave us a cooking lesson and meal at the chef’s table in a local restaurant. You could also gift a meal from a chef cooked in the recipient’s home.
- Do not, under any circumstances, have Christmas, Chanukah or Kwanzaa at your house. No way. If it’s your turn, switch with someone else and tell them you’ll make it up to them. They’ll just have to understand. If you’re going to someone else’s place and you’re expected to bring food, buy it, don’t make it. If they want home-made, too bad. Let them make it, then. Just say, “I’m sorry – I’m just not up to it.” End of story.
- You’ll need excuses. To people who know you’re suffering from depression, tell them that you’re just not up to doing all the holiday stuff, or going to all the holiday events, or expressing all the Christmas cheer. To people who don’t know what you’re going through, perhaps co-workers, tell them, “I’m just so busy, I can’t fit it in.” Or, “It’s just so hard to get into the holiday spirit sometimes, what with all the work that comes with it.” If someone calls you a Grinch say, “Well, what would Christmas be without at least one?” and spit in their eggnog when they’re not looking.
- If you must send out cards, just sign them instead of racking your brain trying to come up with something cheerful.
- If the usual Christmas music is really grating on your nerves, try different music, like classical or choral renditions of carols.
- Scale back on your decorating. Don’t wrap the house and bushes in lights. Put the wreath on the door, and you’ve taken care of the decorating for the outside of the house. Decorating a Christmas tree is a monumental task, especially if you get a live tree. Consider scrapping it for this year, or just having a mini tree. Or use evergreen boughs to decorate a room, maybe with some lights or ornaments woven in. Simple can be beautiful.
- Don’t beat yourself up over feeling empty instead of full of the joy of the season. You’re feeling empty because that’s a part of the illness. It’s not your fault, and you’re not a bad person or a loser because of it. Even people who are not depressed are often having trouble getting in touch with the real meaning of the season.
- Try to stay away from the alcohol that’s flowing freely this time of year. Very simply, alcohol is a depressant. It’s the last thing you need. It may relieve the pain for a little while, but you’ll probably end up feeling sad and maudlin.
- If you can afford to, arrange to take a vacation during Christmas. Go somewhere tropical or where Christmas isn’t celebrated, and just avoid the whole thing. You can use the excuse of getting ready for your vacation as a way to avoid social commitments.