It was the year 2000, the first full year since I had become clinically depressed. I was so severely ill that my job had forced me to take a leave of absence. My brother invited me to come and stay with him for a few days. I accepted. My dad and a family friend took me the 200 miles south, southwest to his house where they planned to go fishing. I was supposed to go home after the fishing trip, but I stayed, and a few days turned into a few weeks.
During the day my brother and his wife were away at work and I had the house to myself. There were no responsibilities to be a husband and parent, no pressure from work to finish reports or perform daily tasks, no meetings to attend, speeches to give, or places to go. I was free to toddle around the house, watch TV, do some light housekeeping, play on the computer, or take a nap. Reformation of spirit and body was easy to claim in this environment. But, . . . Thanksgiving was coming.
I have always loved the Thanksgiving/Advent/Christmas season. Gatherings of family and friends. Feasts that included my mother’s special egg noodles. Music from long known church hymns to carolers on the streets and other holiday songs. Performances by school children, high school students, the local theatre troupe, and church plays. Did I mention food? Shopping for special and thoughtful gifts to give to my wife, children, parents, brothers, and the rest of our family. Putting up the Christmas tree and decorations. Being part of a caravan that went through town looking at the lights and seeking the best holiday display. Giving and receiving gifts. It was all great fun and I looked forward to it every year . . . except this year.
My wife and children, parents, niece and nephews gathered in to celebrate. The house suddenly became smaller and the opportunities for alone time fewer. Feasting, conversation, and playing games were expected. I could hear myself protesting silently, “I’ll take my meals in the bedroom, thank you.” And, the only contribution to the conversation was, “I would like to die now, please.” Games required concentration which was in quite limited supply at the moment. The worst was yet to come. When the festivities were over I was expected to return home and resume my role as a husband and parent, and prepare to go back to work.
Upon my return I tried to go shopping at the local mall with my family. It was unexpected how exhausted I became after walking through the first department store. One store . . . and all my strength for that trip was wasted and I had no reserves. My family deposited me in the courtyard for the remainder of the outing. I sat quietly alone, anxious for their return in order that I may go home and back to bed. It was the only attempt I made to go anywhere that season.
It was a miserable holiday season. I did not want to be around people because I fatigued too rapidly. It was nearly impossible to smile and laugh. There was no enjoyment to be found in the lines my children were learning for their school and church programs or the new songs my wife was using that year as she directed the annual Christmas cantata. I stayed home from church all but one Sunday during the season. If a genie had given me a wish, I would have wished to skip the holidays. It was too hard.
There have been other holiday seasons in which I was experiencing depression, but that first one was the worst. I did not know how to cope or compensate. Where was a Rip Van Winkle when you needed him?
The subsequent holidays have not been as difficult for the following reasons:
I pick and choose the public things I can do and inform my family about my decisions. When I am in the midst of a depressive episode I find it especially difficult to be around crowds. Therefore, it can be very intimidating to go to a play or program in a small venue. Last year our grandson was in a play at his school. The performance was planned for the school gym, if you can call it that. I have played on backyard courts that were bigger. Well, not exactly, but you get the picture. All six grades, faculty, staff, parents, older and younger siblings, grandparents, godparents, and the rest were all jockeying for position, sitting shoulder to shoulder, and standing about, leaving only a single-person-wide aisle to the exits. The press of people was suffocating and there was no place to go to make it any better. I was stuck for the duration without a means of escape. If I had been in a moderately or severely depressed state at the time I most likely would have ended the musical in the fetal position.
One shopping trip in a crowded mall may be all you can abide. One program. One church event. One community affair. And, that is alright. You know your limits and it is to your own personal hurt that you press beyond them. Explain yourself to those who need to know, offer your regrets, and do not allow yourself to be guilted by anyone, including yourself. You are your own most competent advocate and you know best your boundaries.
I pick and choose the people I want to be around. Large family, church, work, or club gatherings can be nerve-racking, unpredictable, and ruinous to one’s already fragile health. Expectations to be festive, joyful, and participatory can feel overwhelming. A game face can only last so long. And, after that there are the ones who love and care about us, but always seem to say the wrong thing. “Snap out of it.” “Have you tried . . .?” “I have a friend who is just like you. . .” We have heard all the “help lines” before. We smile because we know they mean well, but on the inside we want to scream.
Then there is that person who belongs to your group, but is toxic to you. You know the one that makes your teeth grind and your stomach churn. The one you love and would do anything for so long as you did not have to be around them. That one! It may be that a more intimate setting and an invitation only gathering is necessary this year. The key is control. The more you can manage and arrange the less likely you are to find yourself in a detrimental environment.
I do what I can and leave the rest. My mother made a table top ceramic Christmas tree back in the 1970’s that I inherited. For about three years it was the extent of my decorating. Although it is becoming common to shop online, I have done it for about ten years as a means to escape the daunting crowds. As you become more aware and in tune with your personal needs and constraints, you will better be able to rightly judge what is best for you during the holidays.
This year I am in a pretty healthy state. I can enjoy the events and happenings with more spirit than in previous years. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s will bring added happiness for me. I await joyous times with family and friends. The festivities of the season are anticipated with excitement. It has not always been so and may not be in some future holiday, but for now I will revel in the moment.
God bless you! Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!