Simplify the Holidays to Preserve Your Sanity

My parents do a beautiful job with decorating for Christmas – they always have. Every year they get a real live tree. They have a couple of hundred of beautiful ornaments, as well as garlands and other assorted decorations. The tree is always put up at least two weeks before Christmas. Granted, they’re retired, but it was always like this even when they both were working.

In contrast, my husband and I broke down a couple of years ago and got a fake tree (I love the smell of evergreens, but it’s not enough to counter the expense of a live tree and the cleanup). I feel virtuous if we get the tree up a week before Christmas, and it’s been done on Christmas Eve on more than one occasion. It took me a long time to let go of my parents’ standards and to stop feeling guilty if I didn’t live up to them.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Christmas. I have some great memories of Christmas, especially sensory memories. The smell of evergreen and mulled cider, the sound of Christmas music and the dazzling display on the tree. They were such an essential part of my childhood that I’m ensuring that my son has some of the same experiences. Last year we had his best friend over to decorate Christmas cookies.

But, oh my gosh. It can be stressful. Let’s face it, those childhood memories generally don’t involve spending every weekend in crowded shopping malls finding the perfect present, opening the credit card bill in January, cooking and cleaning for fifteen people and basically running around like a chicken with your head cut off. We’re always struggling to live up to an ideal that is literally impossible to match, unless we’re Martha Stewart. And really, at least half of the people who read her magazine are trying to emulate an ideal, but usually just don’t have the time, right?

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Depression and the Holidays Survival Guide

Image: Angel by Abbott Handerson Thayer
Angel by Abbott Handerson Thayer

Let’s be honest – even if you’re not suffering from clinical depression, the holidays can be stressful and often disappointing. We run ourselves ragged buying gifts, cooking, decorating and entertaining. Tempers flare as we’re thrown together with relatives whom we see infrequently, and don’t necessarily enjoy spending time with. Expectations are high that this season will be magical and perfect as we try to recapture the anticipation we felt as children waiting for Santa, or wait for a rush of emotion as we ponder the religious significance of Christmas and Chanukah. When those feelings don’t automatically well up, we’re disappointed. And, of course, we’re ready to take the nearest heavy object to the tv or computer when we see the same holiday commercial for the 487th time.

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Being Alone and Depressed During the Holidays

Image: Winter by Alphonse Mucha
Winter by Alphonse Mucha

If you’re going to be alone during the holidays and you have clinical depression, you’re looking at a double whammy that could do a number on you before the end of the year. By Christmas Eve, your depression voice might be telling you that you’re a sad loser – unless you come up with some countermeasures. Keep these thoughts and suggestions in mind:

  • If you’re alone because someone close to you has died, or because your marriage or relationship has ended, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season.
  • Ask yourself – are you actually okay with being alone during the holidays, but feel that you should be spending it with other people? We’re all bombarded with images of happy families spending time together during the holidays. Remember that as wonderful as it can be to be with family, it’s also very stressful.
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A Christmas Carol – Chapter 1

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Chapter 1 – Marley’s Ghost

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

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Managing Depression During the Holidays

Right before I got diagnosed with depression, I suffered through the most horrible Christmas ever. On the surface, everything was fine. I spent Christmas Day with my family as usual and a couple of days later my best friend got married in a lovely ceremony and reception. But the moment I was out of sight on my way home from my parents’ house, I burst out crying and cried for hours. And I was only able to endure an hour of the wedding reception before escaping. Thankfully, by the next holiday season my depression was controlled by antidepressants and I truly enjoyed it.

The holidays put a lot of demands on everyone, but are exponentially more difficult for someone with depression. Getting through the usual day to day can be painful, and the holidays add a lot of things to the mix like stress, emotional upheaval and unhealthy (although delicious) food and drink. However, there are a few steps you can take to boost your physical and mental health. Even if the steps don’t boost your mood, they should help to immunize you against some aspects of the holidays that can make your depression worse.

  • Prioritize sleep at the top of your list. Sleep is very important when you’re under stress, and sleep deprivation is not good for people with clinical depression.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Alcohol is a depressant, pure and simple. It might stave off the blues for an hour or so, but will not do you any favors. Its siren song promising temporary oblivion is very tempting, but it’s really the last thing you need.
  • I know this comes as a shocker, but foods high in fat and sugar and not much else are not good for you, and that’s mentally as well as physically. And this is coming from someone who won’t eat vegetables unless they have butter or sauce on them. For one thing, if you’re eating a lot of sugar and fat you’re not eating the good nutrition that can help stave off depression. Second, how irritable do you feel when that sugar high wears off? Not a good look for someone who is clinically depressed to begin with. I know that those holiday foods are yummy and everywhere you turn, but limiting yourself to just sampling those less than healthful foods is a good idea. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don’t go overboard on appetizers and dessert. And remember, alcohol has a lot of sugar in it.
  • Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, can be quite rejuvenating, particularly in households where there’s a lot of activity or out-of-town company. Make a cup of tea, go for a walk or find a quiet place to enjoy for a bit. The sounds of silence will be music to your ears.
  • Getting together with family over the holidays can raise a lot of issues. If you’re in therapy, you might want to discuss with your therapist how you should defuse some potential problems. Be honest with family and friends about how you feel. Don’t be afraid of bringing everyone down with your mood; your family and friends may be worried about you, and you will all feel better if there’s an open line of communication.
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