Eggnog, Mistletoe & Clinical Depression
I am a psychologist who has a love-hate relationship with major holidays on account of several reasons. I love holidays because, well, who doesn’t enjoy a timeout from work, delicious food and a good sale on gadgetry? On the flip side, I am a psychotherapist who works with people on the depression & anxiety spectra and the holidays can often substantially escalate the smaller moments of psychological disturbances we might have worked for months to tide over.
Full disclosure : I too have lived with clinically diagnosed depression for over a decade.
Coming from a place of harrowing childhood memories that are often triggered by any suggestion of family gathering and occasions reserved for overt socialization, I have always found myself inventing newer excuses to escape togetherness and bonhomie associated with the holidays. A lot of people don’t recognise that the onset of a depressive cycle isn’t necessarily always connected to a sad life-event; I have experienced some of my deepest and most unfathomable, distancing cycles of depression at the onset of what can be widely perceived as a “happy” occasion. A book release, successfully defending my dissertation, winning a poetry award — all of these can lead to mixed feelings of achievement and joy while also allowing some kind of anxious sadness to percolate through. A strange fear often clambers up from the pit of my stomach right to the brink of my throat and threatens to upturn my moment of joy by hissing words of impending failure. This — as I learned through my own therapeutic process — is how learned helplessness gets coded into our consciousness. I also recognized methods to reverse this with a thorough and patient mentor who coached me through my training in ratio-emotive behavioral therapy.
Once I started counseling clients/patients on my own, I started to see how a significant percentage of them would avoid or cancel appointments during holidays or, in reverse, want more time in therapy. A particularly bright young woman came in before Christmas last year and said — “I can’t pretend to be happy when am not and I feel so guilty about it.” She was from a small, middle-class family and had achieved a modicum of professional success. During the holidays, she’d often return to her parents’ home and it was expected of her to talk about how great her life in the big city was, how much progress she was making work wise and how soon would she get married. She later recollected hiding in her grandmother’s room all day the year before only because the grandmother was blind and bed-ridden and didn’t ask any questions.
It is particularly difficult to manage our depressive phases at times when we are expected to be participative and visually celebratory because the whole world seems to be watching our every step, or at least thats what we have been conditioned to believe. In that terrible yet deliciously awry holiday film “Mixed Nuts”, one of the characters tells the other that during the holidays we look at life as if it is under a microscope; it is a marker, a place to pause and take stock of circumstances past, present and future. This in itself can be overwhelming and even a little threatening. We don’t all cultivate our daily lives in neat flowerbeds. Some of us are still shaking the dirt off from under our fingernails and learning how to place a few rocks at the bottom of a pot to hold the mud and the water. In short, we are still learning and growing.
What remains invisible to most people outside the depression-anxiety spectrum is that depression makes you doubt any emotional closeness and being thrown into social and personal situations where it is desired of you to display affection on a regular basis, can lead to a depletion in overall mental and emotional energy. Sometimes it is also a function of returning to a family where your condition is invalidated or brushed off as “sad” and nothing more. A few of my clients have said that it felt defeating to do tremendous self-work, learn coping mechanisms and then have a parent or a sibling laugh off their learning curve or emotional growth as “it was all in your head anyway”.
I usually recommend this to family members/friends and others who share close relationships with people who experience depressive imbalances and are affected by the demands of socialization during the holidays — avoid forcing participation on an individual and instead give them space to feel comfortable and loved enough to want to engage and feel included. Encourage folks to find their own rhythm without feeling judged for not always being the most energetic, smiling, happy person in the room. Depression is hard and for a lot of us there already tends to be an underlying thread of guilt running through our minds during social engagement. Feeling invalidated or invisible doesn’t help those cognitive patterns & feelings.
As for those of us who experience depression and sometimes don’t quite know how to handle the holidays — breathe and deal with it in small portions maybe? At least thats what I do. Sometimes it is also about not giving into my hardwired inclinations to avoid all contact and instead trying to make memories with those people who have held my hand through difficult phases, giving something back to them and above all — being open to receiving love & happiness from those who truly care about me. The last one being the hardest.
When the holidays show up at my doorstep, my foremost promise is to myself — allowing myself to take in only as much as I can handle, allowing myself to quit those occasions, people and events where my condition or my choices aren’t respected and also, allowing myself the beauty & the wonder of spending quality time with those who have stuck to being my lighthouse despite all the storms.
And I keep Jon Kabat Zinn’s mantra on my tongue, firmly — Instead of constantly fighting to “let it go”, I claim my space and say “let it be”.
Let me be.