Living with mental illness: How Christmas has changed

Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy talks about how her mental health issues have changed how she celebrates Christmas now

Christmas shopping,

Image: People doing Christmas shopping at nightime on Henry Street Dublin. RollingNews.ie

I sat down to write this piece and every time I tried, it came out wrong. It sounded preachy, it sounded clichéd, it sounded tired. I don’t want to tell you what you need to do to mind your mental health around Christmas, because there are any number of people already doing that. Instead, I want to tell you how Christmas has changed for me, and how having more insight into who I am and how I operate has helped to bring about that change.

Christmas has been a tough time of the year for me for most of my adult life. No more than any other big event, I got caught up in the weight of expectation of how it ‘should’ be, because for a very long time, that was how I operated in all aspects of my life. So I would panic about having the right food, enough decorations, decent presents (because we can’t be seen to be cheap, no matter how difficult it makes things for us financially), meeting people... Every aspect of the season caused me anxiety. I felt bad for not enjoying it as much as other people seem to, for not being in the Christmas spirit. I tried, I really did, but it just felt like pressure and stress. It confirmed my very strongly held belief that there was something wrong with me, that I was deeply flawed in some way because I couldn’t buy into the whole season in the way that I perceived I was supposed to.

Fun story - I’m not everyone else. None of us are! I’ve recently begun to embrace a part of me that I denied for most of my life because I was ashamed of it. I will never be the life and soul of the party. I will always find group situations more challenging than sitting down one on one with someone. I want to know the real you, not the surface you that the world sees. This isn’t a flaw. It isn’t anxiety, or depression, or borderline personality disorder, or any other label you’d care to give me. Some of us are introverts. Some of us are extroverts. Some of us are likely a mix of both. Me? I’m an introvert.

I’m not entirely sure 21st century western society really caters for us introverts though, and this is something that’s glaringly obvious at Christmas. It’s a time that we’re expected to go to parties, family gatherings, old friend reunions, be in good form all the time... it’s unrealistic, and it causes so many of us to put immense pressure on ourselves. My most spectacular Christmas fail happened a couple of years ago on a work night out. I got ready. I drove to the venue. I parked in the darkest part of the car park I could find for fear of being seen, and then sat outside and watched all my colleagues going in. I didn’t join them, I simply could not face spending the evening with a group of people that at the time I barely knew. It was terrifying. So instead of having a lovely night out, I got completely overwhelmed, cried, and drove myself home again, berating myself viciously the entire time for being so utterly socially inept. It was horrible. I felt wrong, in every possible way.

Looking back, with the benefit of both hindsight and insight, that was never going to be a situation I would enjoy, not because there was anything wrong with me, but simply because it’s not where I’m comfortable.

This year, Christmas is very different. I’m not going to try and be all things to all people, but instead I’m going to consider what I want. This could be construed as selfish, and chances are even six months ago, that’s how I would have felt about it myself. But if I constantly put myself under pressure to pretend, to be something I’m not, that will ultimately impact on how I am, and equally, how I am around other people. I don’t want to do that anymore.

I want to have a good Christmas with my family. I want to enjoy the fact that this is the first Christmas in a really long time that I’m not depressed. For those things to happen, I need to be a little bit selfish, in so far as I need to acknowledge what works for me. Honestly, what settles me most is space and quiet. So I’ll do the family chaos, but I’ll also make time for me to breathe. That might mean retreating to an empty room for twenty minutes, it might mean going for a walk. For that time, however long or short it is, my attention will be on me, how I’m feeling, how I’m doing. And once I know I’m ok, then I can go back to doing Christmas. My way.

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Fiona Kennedy writes regularly about mental health issues on her blog sunnyspellsandscatteredshowers.org. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie

 

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