20 December 2011

Do/did the holidays make your depression worse or better?

By Nia, Pastor Jayne, and Soledad

Nia: I always enjoyed the holidays during all the years I was depressed. I liked my family, I loved the snow, I enjoyed seeing relatives who came in to visit from other states, I liked hearing old family stories, I liked getting loot, and I even liked the fruitcake. The only thing I hated, and still hate, is the turkey. Turkey was originally eaten by people who lived in log cabins, had no dental care, and bathed in buckets. I rest my case.

A few factors made it easier for me to enjoy the holidays than it might be for others: 1) I was never pressured by an employer to attend office parties held after hours. I declined every one and thus avoided having to watch idiots get drunk. 2) I never had to go to more than one house. One friend had to go to three different gatherings every Thanksgiving and Christmas until he finally moved out of state to escape the ordeal. 3) I never had to cook for anyone. 4) I'm not a big food or baked-goods person, so no diet worries. 5) We got a TON of presents every year.

Now that my depression is 12 years in the past, I consider the holidays something to minimize. I plan my schedule so that I don't have to go anywhere near a shopping mall from November to early January, and I only give presents to very small people. To me the holidays are just three hours of shopping, three hours on Thanksgiving for a meal someone else cooks, three hours of tree decorating, and three hours on Christmas for a meal someone else cooks. I am happy to see those people for that time, and am very grateful that they serve non-turkey dishes, but I do not particularly care otherwise, and if I were ever asked to host these events myself I would leave town and change my name.

My former acupuncturist Needleman (not his real name) pointed out that in winter you're supposed to sloooowwwww doooowwwwwn. So I do. I watch DVDs until my brain oozes out my ears, I ponder deep thoughts, I ponder shallow thoughts, I read, I walk. I do not run around like a crazed fool.

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Pastor Jayne: The first year of my depression the holidays made it worse, because it was as yet undiagnosed and I was overcommitted to many events, a job hazard when you're a pastor. In the years following my diagnosis I learned to anticipate how fewer sunlight hours, missing my parents (who died in the years just prior to my depression), and the expected busy-ness for me as a pastor might combine to produce disaster if I did not leave margins in my daily schedule. I gave up sending out our Christmas cards. Did you know Chinese New Year is a great excuse for sending out those annual greetings in late January? I also exercised more, said "no" to more things, and spent more time with my kids and hubby -- ALWAYS healing.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Soledad: The holidays always made my depression worse. Having to see people you haven't seen in awhile and having them ask the dreaded "How have you been?" was always the worst feeling. If I told the truth, it would wreck the whole gathering. If I fibbed and said, "Everything's fine," it's an obvious lie. Being the honest soul that I am, I have ventured somewhere in between. That way I'm not lying, but I'm not laying out all the details either. Some people say, "Pretend to be happy and then you will be." The simple act of smiling or laughing joins you with the "happy" world, they reason. There is at least some truth to that, so I will take the "fake it until you make it" route for now. It beats sitting and stewing in my own juices.

I think seeing happy people over the holidays can generate one of two reactions in those of us who don't find themselves currently in a happy place. Either you get jealous that the lives of others are somehow working out so swimmingly -- and this is generally the route my mind has taken over the years -- or you join the merriment. It's a lot easier to be happy for someone's victories if you've also seen them endure the hard work it can take to get to that happy place. No one likes to see someone get everything they want effortlessly, especially if you are having a much harder time of it.

So bring on the holidays. I resolve to take the Buddhist view and not look too far into the past and to focus only on the present. How can I improve the life I have right now? Starting with a reality check -- having realistic expectations and taking baby steps towards new successes -- is an excellent start on a new year of more smiles and fewer tears.

Happy holidays everyone!

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Illustration by M. Rhea.