Last Sunday, for the second week in a row, my priest presented a sermon on holiday depression. I think it’s so refreshing to hear a member of the clergy recognize mental illness for what it is, and not propose that if you don’t feel like decking halls or fa-la-la-la-la-ing then there is something wrong with you or your spiritual life.

I hesitate to even use the term “holiday depression”. It makes it sound like that’s the only time it occurs. The truth is, most people who experience the symptoms of anxiety and depression do so year-round, but when they are under extra stress or their schedule gets a little off track, it can trigger those feelings in a stronger and “heavier” way.

Some people don’t like to talk about anxiety and depression……ever. But they seem to take an even greater offense to the discussion during the holidays. And that’s sad to me, because it is SO prevalent. And more than anything, what most people who are dealing with it need is not for somebody to tell us we’re lacking in the Christmas spirit, but to just understand that even if our Christmas spirit may not look just like someone else thinks it should, it doesn’t mean it’s lacking.

I have done things for other people over the holidays that nobody but God and I knew about.

I listen to my favorite Christmas songs on repeat.

I spend a lot of time in reflection and contemplation.

So, my Christmas spirit is there – it just may not be boisterous and noticeable to others sometimes.

On the exterior, especially in previous years, I generally fell somewhere between the Grinch (…all the noise Noise Noise NOISE) and Charlie Brown (Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?). This pit of something more than the blues but less than a complete breakdown started around the age of 15. I don’t particularly enjoy feeling down when other people are feeling upbeat, but it’s not as simple as just deciding to get out of the funk.

First of all, I don’t deny that anxiety and depression are issues I’ve dealt with for a number of years. They run in my family. What can I say? Genetics can be a real pain in the butt.

Secondly, just in general, I don’t like being overextended. I work a stressful job. I have a family. I have church responsibilities. The holidays often mean extra obligations and, to be quite honest, I just don’t like feeling like I *have* to do anything and being busy on top of busy stresses me out.

I’ve known both of these things for quite some time, and understanding them has been beneficial in helping me combat my holiday depression. But I’ve also had a little bit of a revelation.

Several weeks ago, I was sitting in my therapist’s office and I was already feeling the dark moods coming on me and it wasn’t even Thanksgiving. It had been an especially hard couple of weeks and the anniversary of my cousin’s death hit me extra hard this year. So when I got to my therapy session, I was feeling pretty low. But we ended up having one of the most productive (though exhausting) appointments we’ve had to date. And I haven’t felt that darkness quite so heavily since.

Here was my realization:

Some of the most difficult, traumatic, painful events of my life have occurred near, or directly affected, the holidays. From a Psychological aspect, I think my brain just became conditioned to associate this time of year with feelings of sadness, disappointment, and pain.

Some of these events were from my childhood, some after I became an adult. But all of them left a mark on me. My therapist and I dealt with one of them at our last meeting. And when I tell you I felt like I had been through an emotional hurricane when I left, I’m not exaggerating.

If I wasn’t a believer in the power of therapy before my last session, I am now. I felt so released from some of the heaviness of these things that have been laying waste to my heart and soul for going on 20 years.

So, therapy has become one of my tools to fight the monsters in my head, and I’m really glad I’ve had the opportunity to have sessions both before Thanksgiving, and this week, before Christmas. It’s made a huge difference in how I feel this holiday season.

I write about this stuff, not to whine or bring other people down, but because it’s a form of release. It rips it from my heart and my mind and puts it somewhere else, away from me. And I write because I know I’m not the only one who fights these kinds of battles and you need to know that you’re not alone.

One of the best antidotes for holiday depression that I’ve found, is one that was suggested to me the very first year I dealt with this demon: traditions.

There can be a fine line between traditions and obligations. 

One of the worst things you can do to yourself if you struggle with holiday depression is to make yourself feel like you HAVE to do something or you’re doing something wrong. But you should definitely make the time to do the things that bring you the most joy.

I think I start my holidays off right. Because when I say “the holidays” this includes Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving is actually my favorite holiday, because for me, it’s the least stressful. So I kick off the holidays with my small family around my parents’ dining room table. Relaxed. And then I go to my Aunt and Uncle’s and see some of my favorite people on the planet. And in just those few hours, I soak up all the laughter and love that I can, and it’s a powerful force against the darkness that tries to push its way into my mind in the following weeks.

We begin the season of Advent at church. Going through an actual liturgical process keeps me centered and focused and we also take on some outreach ministries that are a huge blessing in which to participate.

Shey and I pull out the same classic Christmas CD and listen to Bing Crosby and the Carpenters and Elvis Presley while we unpack our decorations and hold up ornaments and smile, remembering where we got them and what was going on in our lives when we did.

I make cookies with Reagan. We cut out snowflakes and stars and candy canes and make a huge mess and get powdered sugar on every kitchen surface.

I also get together with my mom and bake. We laugh and play music and mess up recipes and sample each other’s masterpiece creations. We give the majority of all of our treats away and if the special ingredient in anything is love, then those recipients are very lucky folks. Because Mom and I have the best time doing this each year and there’s a lot of love in her kitchen when we’re together.

On Christmas morning, Shey and Reagan (if she’s home) and I have brunch. Sometimes we invite people over. Sometimes we don’t. But it’s a lazy, relaxing meal and one that I enjoy preparing.

I wait, really unintentionally, until the last minute to do my last bit if Christmas shopping. But I kind of enjoy it. There is something akin to magic in the air those last few days before Christmas. I’m actually going today, after an appointment I have. And I’m going alone. And I’m not sure, but I’m thinking that I will REALLY enjoy that experience because I very rarely get to do anything alone except work. So I may have a new tradition beginning today! I know that right before Christmas the crowds are big, and the lines are long sometimes, but if you know that going in, it becomes a lot more enjoyable of an experience because there’s nothing you can do about it but just go with it. And that’s kind of my new attitude going into the holidays.

I KNOW they’re going to be crazy. I KNOW that I MYSELF am crazy. So there’s really nothing left to do but just jump in and embrace the madness of both, and have as much fun as possible in the process.