It’s that time of year again. When Christmas music plays loudly at the mall, people are always smiling, children play in the snow, people tend to “pay it forward” more often, and everyone’s heart seems to have grown! However, for those of us who suffer from mental health this is a different type of season. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD, ironically) is a type of depression that tends to affect people more during the dark, cold, gray, winter months. When the leaves and flowers die, when everything turns gray and drab, when the sun and its heat seems to hide, that’s when it really hits for some people. The Mayo Clinic reported around 3 million cases per year of SAD symptoms. These symptoms typically belonged to people who already suffered from depression and it only worsened in the winter, however, some people developed symptoms ONLY during winter months.
This time of year can be stressful for anyone, but it can be exponentially exhausting for those of us with mental health issues. It’s almost as though we “over-act” to appear super happy. We put on the mask of joy that everyone seems to naturally have, and we pretend to be on the same mental level as everyone else. We sing, we laugh, we drink hot chocolate, and we open gifts, all the while wishing we could just be at home away from people. We don’t want to be the Debbie Downer during Christmas so we make others laugh and sometimes even become the life of the party to guarantee that no one sees through our facade.
I’ve learned over the years that this can be not only painful for us, but also very harmful. This year I have skipped two holiday family functions because I knew I was not in the right state of mind to handle it. I knew there would be drama, whispers, and judgmental glances. I wasn’t prepared for it, so in the name of self care I stayed home and watched a movie with myself and my dog. It was great! And it was perfectly okay that I didn’t go. Yes, it’s tradition, but I didn’t owe anyone an explanation or apology as to why I wasn’t there. If I had cancer and was just tired and not up for it then no one would bat an eye, but having an invisible illness means that people often overlook it.
I’ve included a short list of things I do (in moderation) or keep in mind every year when it comes to the holidays:
- It’s okay to avoid a family get together if you’re not feeling up to it. There is nothing wrong with protecting yourself.
- If you do attend a family dinner and the conversation or situation becomes too much feel free to excuse yourself. Go outside, go to the bathroom, whatever it may be, just get away for a few minutes.
- If something or someone triggers you then, again, feel free to step away. If you’re the type that can have a civilized conversation in the midst of a trigger then by all means, go ahead. Sometimes I can, it just depends on the situation.
- Remember that YOU ARE VALID!!! Your identity, your illness, your happiness, all of it is valid and you are important. Just because Uncle Bubba talks about mental health like it’s a joke, or refers to you by the wrong gender (if you’re trans) it doesn’t mean you are any less of a person. Sometimes ignorant people say ignorant things. You’re better than stooping to their level.
- Carry a fidget toy, stress ball, or even a relaxing game on your phone to serve as a distraction when you need it.
- If at all possible drive your own vehicle to the dinner. If it becomes too much you know that you always have an escape plan.
- Tell a trusted family member that you probably won’t stay very long. I do this one quite a bit. I go, I socialize, I eat, then after I feel I’ve been there long enough I excuse myself to go home. Just because some people can stay around for hours doesn’t mean I can. It’s exhausting.
- The most important, and probably most difficult, is to not let your mental illness control the situation. Please don’t use this list as a way to get out of spending time with people. During my years of therapy I did exposure therapy. It’s extremely uncomfortable, but it’s not going to kill me to attend a family get together. Use this time to challenge yourself to sit with your anxiety. Allow it to be present, but know that you are in control. You can leave if you want to, but try to stick it out. This year you may be able to stay an hour longer than you did last year, and that’s a great accomplishment! If you don’t then just try to work on it next year. Recovery in mental health is a process and will not get fixed over night. You’ve got this and I have faith in you!