Feeling depressed around the Christmas holiday is not uncommon for those of us who suffer with some form of mental illness. And I can’t comment on how others experience this period of time – I can only comment on how I experience it. Luckily, I haven’t succumbed to a case of the Christmas Downers yet. Hopefully, that’s a good indicator that I’ll ride this holiday out without a significant depressive episode.
But I’ve certainly ruined some Christmases in my time. And the ones I didn’t ruin, I’ve still been held responsible for ruining anyway. So for me, Christmas – with its own depression-triggering issues aside – has the added weight of dread because the responsibility for whether it runs smoothly or not feels as though it's squarely on my shoulders every year.
When I was a kid, my parents split up. It wasn’t a mutual thing. My Mother ran off with another bloke – and he's never been my favourite father-type figure by any stretch of the imagination. He and Mum ended up having their own family, and I remember one year (I was probably 11 or 12) Mum asked if my siblings and I wanted to have Christmas Day with her on a year when the alternating Christmas access-arrangements meant that ordinarily we’d be at home with Dad.
Cue the big family bust-up. My step-dad, who’d obviously been taken by surprise with this proposition, protested with a very vocal disgruntlement. “But I thought we were having a FAMILY Christmas!” he insisted.
Being offspring from her failed first marriage clearly demoted my siblings and I to something below the status of family, in his eyes. Although my Mum reacted badly to his protest, my sister later overheard as Mum was consoled by our grandparents, who were also down for the festive period.
“Yes,” they hissed at her. “He’s right…this Christmas should about your REAL family!”
And thus, three innocent kids caught up in the bitterness of post-divorce bad-feelings were downgraded from innocent, emotionally fragile children into inconsequential and bothersome baggage to which a show of some obligation was still expected, begrudging though it may well be.
A few Christmases later, on a year when the arrangements dictated we were at Mum’s for Christmas Day, I asked my Mum what present I should buy for my step-dad. And that might sound peculiar, given the hatred I felt for him. But you have to remember that as a kid, I didn’t want to upset anyone. Playing Happy Families, no matter how bafflingly unnatural it feels, seems like the Right Thing To Do. Children are expected to fall in line, and this was me, falling in line.
As it happened, my step-dad overheard me. He said he wanted some new slippers, but not any old rubbish, mind. He only liked the slippers from Marks and Spencers. But how the hell was I meant to afford slippers from Marks and Spencer as a kid of about 14..?
Instead, I bought some from my local market. And I even had the idea of wrapping them up inside a Marks and Spencer carrier bag I managed to get hold of, hoping to pass them off. Of course, come Christmas Day, he knew. The minute he opened those slippers, he knew. And he made a big old show about it too. He took me out to the kitchen with him and I watched as he threw them in the bin, making it perfectly clear that they were simply not good enough for him.
Many years later I got the blame for ruining a Christmas after making a sarcastic dig at my step-dad who himself had ruined the day by getting drunk and joking during the present-opening festivities that he was having an affair. The blame fell at my feet somehow, because I'd a go at him later that evening when - after the tension of the day affected my partner so badly that she burst into tears - he made a visible display of trying to get a better look at her.
And the list just goes on. I’ve spent Christmases as a father so drunk I can barely remember them; I’ve spent Christmases so depressed that I’ve gone back to bed and not given two shits about upsetting everyone. I’ve spent Christmases so angry that I’ve ended up in police custody for fighting. I even spent a New Year’s Eve in an alcohol detox-unit once.
So Christmas is, on its own merits, a difficult time of year for people with mental illness, but I have to confess to finding it difficult because there’s this ominous sense of concern hanging over the entire period. One of expectation and dread that I could go into a crippling downer any minute and just fuck the whole thing up for everyone. Even if that dread simply comes from within me.
Every year, I still seem to cling on to some hope that this Christmas will be a good one. The childish sense of magic died a long time ago, and yet bizarrely, I still seem to obsess over it. Willing it to feel Christmassy; willing it to feel magical. And there’s always a lingering sense of disappointment when the reality hits me that magic is for kids, not adults. So I plough my efforts into making it magical for them. Yet somehow, I often still sink down.
It’s definitely not as bad as it used to be. I’ve come on in leaps and bounds as far as my mental health is concerned. But those shadows are always there.
The reminders of being torn between bitterly resentful parents; the dread of being shipped off to my Mum’s, where I knew damn well that despite the disparity in wealth, Christmases with Dad were always the Christmases that felt happy, and magical and loving.
The knowledge that because of my mental illness, I’d spent so many years ruining Christmas for my family, and that even when I didn’t ruin it, I still found myself the scapegoat for ruined Christmases anyway.
The memories of all this, and the weight of expectation and undertones of fear that I might just go off the rails and fuck it all up again. Everyone silently hoping that I don’t.
And yet, despite all this, I love Christmas. Which is why the conflicting feelings about it can exacerbate it all. And I doubt for one minute that I’m alone in this. In fact, I know I’m not alone in this. It’s a difficult time of year for most people, but for those of us who suffer with a mental illness, it can be amplified. And I think the thing to do, is always communicate how you’re feeling. Don’t bottle it up. Speak to someone. Your partner. A family member. Hell...speak to Samaritans, or the Crisis-Team of your mental health department.
Fundamentally, it’s worth remembering this: There’s always good folk out there who’ll listen and a good listener is a real help.
For what it's worth, I hope you have a happy Christmas.
And stay well.