After my mom died, my Christmas spirit was on life support for a long time. It was her time, and she made the most of it. Traditions were created, food was prepared, family and friends came through our house en masse and filled it with so much love and laughter that it was hard to believe that we were reveling in a residence of less than 1500 square feet. To give an example of how much my mom owned the holidays, I always love to share one of my favorite stories about her. About a year after graduating from college, we attended a Pampered Chef party together. One of the ice-breaker games that we played was where introduced ourselves and then told the group one fact about us in regards to cooking. My mom said, “Hi, my name is Loie and I hate to cook.”
If I’d been wearing pearls, I’d have clutched them. How was the same woman who was at least locally famous for her homemade brownies and potato salad looking these other women in the eye and LYING to them about her hatred of cooking? Did she really need attention that badly? I couldn’t believe that my mother, who put on lavish feasts at least four times a year, hated every minute of it. Then I thought back to the lasagna with the undercooked noodles, the chicken she barbequed that was surprisingly charred on the outside but still raw on the inside, the dry, flavorless salmon patties, and the Thanksgiving meals where it seemed that only copious amounts of Franzia white zinfandel could get her in a better mood. Also, there was the fact that until I was in the 3rd grade, I completely believed that scrambled eggs were supposed to be brown.
So, I guess that my mom hated cooking.
This isn’t a story about my mom’s culinary shortcomings though, it’s about how I lost my ability to enjoy what was once one of my favorite holidays of the year. Less than six months after she died, my sisters and I tried valiantly to put on a Christmas like the good ole days. We got an ‘A’ for effort, but between my father running out of scotch tape at 1 am on Christmas Eve as he tried to wrap presents, the involuntary crying outbursts from all of us throughout the day, and a small-scale controversy over who would cook the ham, we had to take an ‘L’ on our first Loie-less Christmas. I believe that it was then that we all realized that Christmas was going to be another painful reminder of all that we’d lost.
After that, and for about the next decade, December 25 was just another day for me. I used to tell my friends and family that my new favorite day was December 26 because that meant Christmas was over. I went through the motions, played the Christmas carols, decked the halls, smiled for the pictures, but I felt like a robot, doing all of the required things that the holiday involved and hating every moment of it. I can’t tell you when I finally shook the holiday blues, but I can tell you that it was a gradual process. The thing that people say about the healing effect of time is true. Eventually, Christmas just began to suck a little less. While I struggled through the season, the people who loved me gave me space, but not too much. I tend to isolate whenever I’m feeling down I refer to it as “ware-wolfing” but it’s me being a recluse. My sister would let me throw my pity party for a day or two then she would invite (order) me over to her home to help bake cookies, or go Christmas shopping, or wrap presents. We didn’t talk about how I was feeling, I just spent time out of my apartment and out of my head, with people who genuinely loved me. Then one year, I decided that instead of focusing on my misery and missing my mom, I’d try to see the day through her eyes, watching my nieces and nephews, her beloved grandbabies, open their gifts after rousting the grownups out of bed at the crack of dawn, listening to carols and taking a walking Christmas lights tour of my sister’s neighborhood, and continuing with every part of the holiday that was uniquely my mom. Soon enough, I was able to not only enjoy the day but came to look forward to it again.
A few years ago, one of my very best friends confessed that she found herself suddenly struggling with feeling festive at Christmas. Like me, she is single and childless and even though, like me, she is very family-oriented, she couldn’t help but feel like the holiday worked hard to make people like us feel even more alone. My typically stoic friend was open and honest about how hard it was to get into the spirit (and this is a girl who begins playing Christmas music on November 1st, so you can imagine how unnerving this newfound melancholy was for her.) Unfortunately, she also decided to share her feelings on Facebook, so instead of support she got invitations to attend Christmas with other families as if a change in atmosphere would cure what ailed her, advice for days, and of course, people telling her that it was all in her head and that she just needed to embrace the season. Typical comments from well-meaning, but completely ignorant friends and family. Ironically, I heeded the advice my mom gave me decades prior after I lamented the fact that I didn’t know what to say to another close friend after her brother died.
“Steph, you don’t always have to have an answer (man, did she know me!). Sometimes you just have to sit and listen in silence. Be there. That’s all anyone needs.”
So, I did just that. I sat with her. I told her that I understood, that I got it. Feeling ‘blah’ during the holidays wasn’t always as simple as missing your mom or another loved one who was no longer there. Sometimes, we just realize that the holiday reminds us as much of what we don’t have as what we do. You can’t escape the message that the holidays are for FAMILIES and COUPLES (I mean, one jewelry commercial re-named the holidays “engagement season” so if you were nowhere NEAR the prospect, can you imagine?) Now, seeing as how we’re best friends, that may seem like a no brainer, but again, people who were also close to her were seemingly ignoring the fact that she was saying, in plain English “I’m HURTING.” Instead, they were all too eager to let their own egos get involved. Well-intentioned though they may have been, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was how nearly everyone who struggled with depression during the holidays felt whenever they dared to vocalize their issues. Were they made to feel bad because they were killing the buzz of the season? Were they given advice that did nothing to help them out of the hole that they were in? Did they feel as though they had zero support? Did it all make them feel even more alone?
For the past few years, I celebrate Christmas morning every year with my sister and her family and they include me on every single aspect of their day. It is even expected that I sleep over Christmas Eve night, despite living less than four miles away so that I can wake up with my niece and nephew the next morning. I’m at their house all day and most of the next, and I love every second of it, but again, it’s just me. I don’t have any excited toddlers to help open wrapped boxes as I take endless pictures and videos. I don’t have a boyfriend or spouse to surprise with tickets to a football game or a new sweater, and I sure as hell am not expecting to be passed a small square velvet box across a restaurant table from the man of my dreams.
So, despite my renewed love of the holidays I can, and do, feel a bit lonely.
Before my own personal emotional stumbling block, I never grasped the concept of a “Blue Christmas.” I assumed that most holiday stress was based in the financial aspect of the day or in the attempt to make every moment “Norman Rockwell worthy” (Google it, kiddos!) Like most people, I saw the news stories about the increase in depression and I read the articles about the rise in suicides during the season, but I was immune. At least, I believed myself to be immune. The loss of my mom highlighted not just how much the holiday meant to her, but how much she meant to the holiday, and as I got older and truly embraced the idea of family during those times, it would punch me in the face that despite it all, I was alone, an excellent +1 for any and all holiday revelry, but without my own little nuclear tribe.
One of the most refreshing and surprising things that I’ve learned while working at Anxiety Resource Center is that not only is what you’re feeling valid, you are entitled to feel the way that you do, and most importantly, you have to recognize your feelings in order to process them and move on. Whether it be through journaling, talking to a trusted loved one or mental health professional, or even writing a blog, feeling your feelings is a necessary part of the process. Last week, Katy and Laura started talking about “Dumpster Diving” and my ears perked up. Of course, it wasn’t the kind that takes place outside of my apartment on a daily basis. No, this was a psychological dumpster dive, where you willingly jump into your emotional garbage and pick through it. It’s hard, exhausting and the stench can make you nauseous, but it’s the only way to truly get through anything. After listening to this and considering my own struggles with the holidays, I wondered if the reason why so many people had trouble during the holidays was that they didn’t want to kill the mood by jumping into their own trash bin. Instead, they’ll sing “Jingle Bells” with the required gusto while dying on the inside.
It doesn’t always come down to losing a loved one when it comes to the blues on Christmas. It isn’t always about being single and/or childless. It doesn’t always have to be about an estranged relationship or past trauma or fatigue over watching ONE MORE JEWELRY COMMERCIAL. It can be about anything or nothing at all, but it’s up to you to recognize it, honor it in your own way, and then put it down. If you are really struggling and find it hard to even begin to process, seek out help. I’m not just saying this as someone who works with and for therapists, I say this as someone who has benefitted from YEARS of therapy myself. I’ve been in my emotional dumpster so much; I’d give Oscar the Grouch a run for his money.
I don’t share all of this for pity, admiration, or attention. I share it because no matter who you are or what you’re going through if you struggle through the holidays for any reason, you are not alone. I share all of this so that anyone who needs to hear it hears me shout that it’s okay to feel more like the Grinch than Will Farrell in “Elf,” and it’s more than okay to vocalize your struggle and to ask for help. I share it so that other people feel comfortable with naming their pain and climbing into their own dumpster. I share all of this so that people understand that when loved ones are struggling with the season, they may not need your words of wisdom or a ‘stiff upper lip’ speech. They may not even need more eggnog or spiced cider (unless they tell you otherwise.) What they do need is support and unconditional love, a hug, and maybe some cookies.