We have all likely walked through a shopping mall or grocery store this time of year and hearing the familiar jingle “Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la, la la la la” piping through overhead speakers. If we are excited about the holidays and their promise of time spent with loved ones, such melodies can lift our spirits and kindle warm memories. Sadly, not all share such fondness for the holiday season.
Many who struggle with mental illness feel left out of the advertised frivolity, thus exacerbating the stigma they already feel. One of the difficulties they wrestle with is the discrepancy between the ubiquitous external symbols of joy, peace and happiness—such as the peppy holiday jingles found on TV commercials and in grocery stores—and the internal experience of melancholy. For many, especially those who do not find comfort in their connections with family, the holidays are yet again another reminder of an aching gap between lived experience and the pleasures commonly associated with the winter holiday season.
What patients have taught me
In my work with patients, I have learned well the struggles of the season. The fault lines of broken or strained relationships are revealed more clearly with the increased attention paid to families. Those who have lost parents, siblings or who are otherwise estranged from families or spouses can feel the heart wrenching awareness of loss and absence.
From this I have learned two valuable lessons. First, the emotional pain stirred up is not only painful—it is harder to bear in isolation. Alone with painful experience, it is harder to gain perspective. We can feel like the only ones struggling and that no one can relate. This sense of disconnection can fuel shame—the painful sense that we are defective and do not belong—and once caught in a shame spiral, we are prone to retreat further, becoming more depressed in the process.
The second lesson closely follows the first. If isolation and aloneness, coupled with nearly unbearable pain, makes matters worse during the holidays, there is a way out. It is through finding connection and understanding. It is through learning to be vulnerable enough, with the right people, to let them know of our struggle. The number one healing influence I hear from patients every day is the power of connection, usually with peers they can relate to and who understand their plight. Individuals who felt utterly alone and unable to relate discover that their pain is not so uncommon and that there are others who have felt like them. Sharing the burden helps lift its crushing effects and rekindles a sense of belonging.
Not everyone reading this post is in a hospital with peers who might be able to offer support this holiday season. Can anything be learned from those currently hospitalized that might apply to you? Yes, I believe so. Find a source of connection. Look in your newspaper for support groups, or talk to your psychiatrist, your therapist, your sponsor, a friend, or a spiritual leader about what the holiday season is really like for you.
There is no need to try and pass off the holiday season as something it isn’t, but at the same time, you don’t need to go through it and only experience misery. It is okay to struggle and find parts of it painful, while being out in the world and living your life anyway—but make sure to do it by relating with others who can understand and empathize with what you are up against. This will help buffer you through a season that is perhaps not so jolly … but can be lived with dignity and supportive connections with others.