Everywhere we go at this time of year, people are insisting that we be happy, have good cheer, and enjoy the holidays. For the mentally ill, this can be a problem. Some of us become more depressed than usual. Some of us come apart due to the stress. Some of us, living poverty-stricken or isolated lives, will feel more alone and broke than ever. It’s not easy to give neat presents on the fixed income of Disability, or the pittance of SSI.
Holiday blues can happen to anybody, but for the mentally ill, who live so close to their emotions and the negative critics inside their heads, it can be enough to bring on a whole slew of symptoms we’d rather do without. So here are some of the tricks I’ve learned to make it through. Apply as needed.
1. You do not have to break the bank buying presents. Try out a flea market or thrift shop for gifts. The chief thing a gift is supposed to do is show someone you thought about them. If you buy thoughtfully, fitting gift to personality, you can come out on top without a lot of bucks. Remind yourself that it is retailers who have made Christmas into a shoppers feeding frenzy; the season, whatever your religion, is actually not about gifts but connecting to loved ones at this dark time of year and showing them we care. (In January, you can start setting aside a small amount every month so you won’t be caught flatfooted by the next ‘season of giving’.)
2. Or you can make things, write things, hand-paint cards – use whatever creativity you have to manufacture your own gifts. I know a woman who buys ugly bead necklaces at flea markets, takes them apart, and then puts together her own stunning necklaces in much better combinations, choosing the best colors for the individual she’s giving to. She has an eye, and people love her personal jewelry gifts. The money investment is tiny. Besides, it is illegal in most parts of the world to criticize a handcrafted gift made with obvious care. ; )
3. Stay out of the malls and stores. Mass crowds at Christmas can get absolutely rabid, growling and elbowing and making for long lines and grouchy sales clerks. If your sanity is fragile at the best of times, you do NOT need to be in places like this. (The parking alone is enough to give me spontaneous attacks of rage).
4. If you do have some money, or an accommodating charge account, a good bet is buying from offbeat catalogs. If you sign up for just one, they will propagate and you will have dozens to choose from next year. Some of the best buys can come from organizations such as SERV, which gathers fair-trade items that are handmade and relatively inexpensive, from needy economies all over the world. The advantages here are staying out of the stores (see above), finding unique items that nobody else in your family has seen, and if you can afford it, even having them gift-wrapped and mailed straight from the merchant to your family members. All of this adds up to a very low-stress holiday season. The downside: these catalogue items tend to be not-so- cheap, and you will get nailed on the shipping. Also, you must order early enough for on-time delivery.
5. Consider buying your tree, if you need one, the night before Christmas. If the local tree lot is trying to get rid of the last stragglers, they might give you a hell of a deal. These won’t be the shapeliest or best trees, but if you’ve collected enough ornaments or have bushy garlands, it may not matter. Or consider a mini-sized, tabletop tree, which will be in a low price range. Lots of people make trimming the tree on Christmas eve part of their yearly ritual, even opening their presents the night before, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
6. Spend time with your friends. If everybody is busy, or far away, spend time with them on the phone. This is especially important if you don’t have family any more. It is supposed to be a season of love, and if you have had some contact with everyone you love, you will not feel so deprived.
7. Be sure you take in plenty of music that makes you feel good. That does not always mean Christmas music – some of us abominate carols – and it doesn’t always even mean cheerful music. Maybe melancholy classical pieces give you a sense of order in the world. Music does not have to cost a lot. You can pick up any number of old vinyl records and cassette tapes for pennies on the dollar. Music is one of the best and easiest mood-altering substances known to mankind.
8. Establish special rituals for the season, so you can feel festive even if you are alone and sick. Drinking hot chocolate, for instance; decorating the house if you like that; taping up any Christmas cards you receive into a tree-shape on the back of a door. Or have a festival of old holiday movies that you borrow for free from the library. Read The Night Before Christmas out loud to yourself (by a fire if possible). These are things that will help you feel connected to the mood, or just make you feel it is a special time. (Conversely, if you do not celebrate Christmas, some special non-Christmas rituals will help buttress you against skepticism, disgust, or too much of a left-out feeling).
9. Make sure you have plenty of all your medicines. This is not the time to run out and start spiraling down. Don’t wind up spending Christmas or New Year’s in the hospital. Add extra therapy visits if things are tough. If you can stay connected to even one person who listens to and accepts your icky, non-festive feelings, you will probably be able to squeak through.
10. Remember that Christmas is ultimately a man-made made holiday, one that the Catholic Church frankly appropriated and reframed to help increase conversion rates. Even if you believe in the story of Christ's birth, historians are pretty sure he was not born on Christmas day proper. This holiday is not ordained by God - there is nothing you have to accomplish and no reason to feel you have not "measured up" if you do things differently from the mainstream. You can choose to celebrate, or you can choose to retreat into your own quiet space. There is nothing wrong with that.
And if you get tired of all that insistence that you should be having a joyous time, remember that at least 50% of the people who are telling you that are faking it, even to themselves. You have plenty of company.