This week’s blog is a public service message about depression and the Christmas holiday season. I do not hide the fact that I live with depression. I want to educate people. I have learned to share. I think all stigma of mental illness should be taken out of the shadows and put into the light.
Depression sucks on the best of days even when you have a strong support network and a strong focus on recovery in your life. It sucks worse during the holidays. Let me explain to those of you that do not live with depression 9 things that are especially difficult for people living with depression during the Christmas holiday season so you know what is going on inside the person in your life that lives with depression. You can use these insights over the holidays to better support people in your life that live with depression.
There is a societal pressure to be holly and jolly.
If I could force myself to be holly and jolly I would every single day of my life. I don’t have that switch. While every Christmas celebrator seems to find their happiness overdrive this time of year, the person with depression may feel even worse that they do not have such an ability. Ask the person in your life with depression to participate in things like tree trimming and caroling and gatherings, but don’t assume that just because they choose to participate that they will suddenly be happy and “in the holiday spirit”.
There will be parties. Lots of them.
If you are an introvert and live with depression this is akin to French kissing an electrical socket if you are forced to go on a day that you are quite down. If you go, and you are having a down day, people will ask why you are down – even if they know you have depression. (“C’mon, man, it’s a party! Lighten up a little!”) If you don’t go, people will think you have no holiday cheer. On days when my depression is in check I can handle parties. On days when I am not in a good place, I avoid them at all costs. But you can’t win – people will hold it against you if you show up and seem down; they will hold it against you if you were invited and don’t show up. So maybe ask the person with depression if they feel up to going to the party and don’t hold it against them if they say no. Also, just because the person with depression doesn’t want to go doesn’t mean they do not want you to go. Do so, guilt free, when they tell you it is okay. And one more tip – under no circumstances if you live with someone with depression should you plan on hosting a large party. They will want to hide all night.
No matter how hard you try, you can’t buy your way out of depression.
I am not the only person I know with depression that has tried to overcome the guilt of being depressed during the holidays with buying more gifts for people. It’s kind of like “I bought you nice things so you will not make demands of me when I am down during the holidays”. But what happens is that you make no one happy and are broke. I have also had the experience of feeling more down because I have tried to find the perfect gift for someone that has supported me the rest of the year through my depression. Because I suck at buying presents, this has, historically, made me feel much worse. The best thing that ever happened to me is learning to ask the people I care about what they actually want for Christmas and then buying one of those things. Maybe give the person with depression an out like, “I know I can be difficult to buy for and that may be a lot of pressure on you. Would it help if I gave you a list of ideas?”
Then there is the whole Grinch thing.
If you are not the life of the party or heck even if you are not halfway happy at work when it is close to the holidays someone will say something like “What made you the Grinch?” There are few times in life when an actual throat-punch is warranted. This is one of them. Or spit in their egg-nog while you crotch kick them. Okay, so that is probably not going to fly. Like any day living with depression, I have come to accept that some people will choose not to hang out with me when I am down. While it may be more magnified during the holidays, we have to accept that it may happen then too. To support the person in your life with depression that may be accused of being the Grinch, ask them from time to time, “How is your depression with the holidays coming?” I can think of nothing more thoughtful to be asked by people that love me.
Ugh. Generally speaking I am terrible at receiving presents. Many days I feel like I don’t deserve them. On some birthdays they have reminded me I am alive another year – which you think should make me happy, but sometimes has had the opposite impact. On Christmas, I could walk downstairs, see what Santa has brought, it could be the exact thing I have wanted for a LONG time, and I still don’t have the “I am going to do cartwheels through a meadow of mistletoe” reaction that people were hoping I would have. I may love it but have no clue how to show it. Take people at their word. If someone tells you they love it, even if their body language doesn’t seem to show it, believe them. Or another strategy could be to wait until later in the day or the next day and do a little check in, “Hey, it’s cool with me that you didn’t smile ear to ear when you got the present from me. I just want to make sure you actually like it.”
“You have ruined Christmas.”
Thankfully most of the people that have said this statement to me in past years are no longer in my life. When already feeling low and being unable to cheer one’s self up, being blatantly told that YOU are the reason why Christmas sucks doesn’t trigger a “snap out of it” response. It just makes things worse. Christmas not only brings joy for people, it brings stress. The person that seems the most down can become the scapegoat. Be sensitive to that. And never, ever, ever tell someone with depression they have ruined Christmas unless you are trying to convince them to end their life.
“Everyone’s here. Can’t you try to be happy for just an hour or two? Or would it kill you to smile just once for your grandparents?”
So many of us go through the annual ritual of hanging out with family that we see at no other time of the year other than Christmas. At some points in my life I have more or less been asked to hide my depression for the sake of family. If happiness or a smile is not genuinely there, trying to get someone in the throws of depression to force this to happen is about as likely as you licking your own elbow. Let people with depression be in whatever mood they are in.
Writing out Christmas cards can be a very trying task
However, there have been two great inventions in the history of humankind that have made Christmas cards easier for people with depression. The first is electronic cards. The second are photo cards from the likes of Costco where you can plaster your offspring wearing cute matching outfits whilst on Santa’s lap at the mall. Why are these inventions so great? Neither requires trying to force yourself to say cheery things on the inside of the card. Like me, you may actually love reaching out to people near and far with Christmas cards. But the pressure of getting them out the door when you have to write holly jolly things can be too much to handle. Go the route of the electronic cards or photo cards. Trust me. Or if there is someone in your household that does not have depression, share the duties of writing cards allowing some to be just for signature and other ones for writing inside. If you start LONG before Christmas there will likely be a number of good days where the person with depression is able and interested in writing in some of them, without time pressure.
Alcohol seems to flow very freely in the holiday season.
It is in abundance at gatherings. Even your own house may be stocked up more than other times of the year with beer, wine, special liquors and other spirits. In the pit of deep depression, alcohol can seem like a magical elixir. It can get the depressed person through many social situations of the holiday season but makes matters worse in the long run, not better. This doesn’t mean everyone that deals with depression has an addiction to alcohol, but it should be acknowledged that many people living with depression turn to alcohol to cope. Being sensitive to choices of sobriety is critical, as is ensuring that alcohol isn’t the primary focus of engagement at the party. And if you have someone who is feeling really blue around the holidays in your house, you may want to think of making sure that there isn’t alcohol readily available in your own home.
So there you have it, from a person who lives with depression, on how you can be really supportive of people with depression during the holiday season. Perhaps putting some of these into practice will be the gift that person has always been waiting for.