We are told that it is the season to be jolly, however for many Christmas is not the most magical time of the year, but the most difficult. Sometimes it brings back memories, it can be an exceptionally difficult time when we are grieving or navigating loss.
For others the memories are of people they would rather forget. The obsession with family at Christmas is painful for those whose families are abusive, who have cut off contact, who have to remain apart for their own safety and sanity. Then there are those whose families have rejected them, who would love the Hollywood movie ideal of sitting round the table together, but for whatever reason are excluded from the list.
Those with chronic mental health conditions can find all the old clichés coming out. People asking them what they have to be depressed about, or telling them to cheer up, its christmas! As if an illness has a calendar and will go into remission when it notices the date. Comparisons between mental and physical health issues can be problematic. For one thing it reinforces the idea that one can only have one or the other. Even so it is telling that people in hospital for physical ailments over Christmas are seen as needing special treatment, visited by celebrities and news crews, while those struggling mentally are seen as letting the side down.
The guides that are written to surviving the Christmas season seem to take it as read that you want to be joining in, and that you have unlimited income and “spoons”. (For those not familiar with spoons there is an excellent explanation here. I remember struggling through one Christmas with a toddler, a new-born and post natal depression. 20 handy hints to the perfect Christmas party food were not going to help me when every advert reminded me how I was failing as a mother.
This is hopefully a different type of survival guide, one that I hope might help those struggling this Christmas.
- Give yourself permission.
A common feeling among those who find Christmas hard, for whatever reason, is that they should feel differently, a guilt that they aren’t behaving in an acceptable manner. Give yourself permission not to enjoy Christmas, to feel low, to want to avoid the parties or family activities. How you feel isn’t any less valid that how the most Christmas obsessed reveller feels, it’s just different.
A few years ago I met a woman in her 90s who had refused all invitations from her family for Christmas Dinner. People fussed, insisted that “you can’t be alone on Christmas Day”. She pointed out not only could she, but that she would be. After 90 years of doing what she was supposed to on Christmas Day she finally did what she wanted too. What she wanted to do was watch old movies with a Marks and Spencer ready meal on her lap. This is how she spent every Christmas until she passed away at 101. Before she died she had given herself permission to have the Christmas she wanted.
- Reach Out
It can feel like you are the only person not caught up in the whirlwind of Christmas excitement. This adds to the guilt, to those “shoulds” that fill people with anxiety and a sense of failure. The fact is you are not alone, and simply realising it can be a huge help. If you are on social media organisations like @mind run twitter chats, there are hashtags like #SurvivingXmas on Masto, Instagram and the bird app, and Sane run their text support as well as their telephone support lines.
Reaching out to those around you can be hard, and for some it simply isn’t possible, but if you can simply letting them know you are struggling can share the load. It links with the giving yourself permission, you don’t have to put on the face the world expects.
- Know your triggers.
Obviously triggers can come from nowhere, and I am not suggesting here that we can be aware at all times of them. However sometimes thinking about what might be flashpoints in advance can help, especially if you combine it with the previous two suggestions. If food or alcohol are issues for you think about ways you can avoid them, talk to those you trust to work out coping strategies in advance.
This can be an especially hard time for those who have suffered a bereavement. Often they feel compelled to do things exactly as the loved one would have done, adding more pressure and guilt into the mix. One of the things that can help is to change what you do at Christmas, instead of an empty chair at the table go out to a restaurant or change venues some other way. It is not saying you didn’t love, or don’t miss the person who has passed on, it is acknowledging the pain their loss has caused and taking steps to manage it.
- Know your limits
Be it alcohol or credit cards Christmas can be a time of excess, here though I mean different limits, the need for self-care, and saying I can only do so much. Perhaps you can make a visit but only if the next day is one of rest and recuperation. Perhaps you can go to the work Christmas Party if you leave early. There is no perfect Christmas, despite what the adverts tell us, no magic formula which will turn everything into a John Lewis ad. Giving yourself permission, reaching out, and knowing the danger areas might mean that you can have the Christmas you want, and need, and isn’t that a great place to start?