As 2019 draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on this last year. My mental health was in a pretty dire state for the first few months, but I am now firmly in recovery and feeling more optimistic about the future. Recovery is certainly not linear but it is constant; I just take one day at a time and I feel stronger for it. I wrote this list last Christmas and I still refer to it at the beginning of the festive season. I hope it might be useful to anyone who finds this time of year challenging.
Christmas doesn’t have to be a big deal. Because of the massive build up, it can seem like a huge and significant event. The twinkling lights, the parties, the scent of mulled wine and pine trees should, in theory, engender a cosy sense of wellbeing. However, the enforced festive cheer is difficult if you’re grieving someone or dealing with a mental illness. It’s very easy to slip into negative thinking and obsess over how one should be feeling. I should be enjoying myself. I should be over this by now. I should count my blessings. This is particularly potent when comparing one’s own Christmas to someone else’s festive highlight reel on social media. When viewing the season with some detached objectivity, it’s clear that it is just another day. Hopefully you’ll have a pleasant time, eat a tasty meal and give and receive some well chosen presents. No more, no less. The desire for a romanticised, Hollywood version of Christmas can make the pressure unbearable and families often have storming rows over silly things. Lower your expectations and rather than focusing on having the perfect Christmas, aim for good enough. It’s unlikely to be the best day of your life, or even the best day of the year. Keeping the holiday in perspective makes it considerably easier to manage.
Try to be balanced around food. Christmas is a nightmare if you’re living with an eating disorder. You might feel pressured into eating things that you would usually avoid, or feel out of control if you have a tendency to binge. Dysfunctional relationships with food tend to run in families, which is exacerbated by the strain of Christmas. When my eating disorder was active, I would become obsessed with counting calories and planning the starvation diet I would impose on myself from January 1st. I still find it tricky, however I’ve learnt that indulging for a day or two will not make much difference. And even if I do gain weight, that does not mean that I have to start the new year paying penance for my sins. Food is often referred to as either being good or bad, with some labelled as more sinful than others. Christmas food has not immoral; a mince pie is just a mince pie. If you eat something high-calorie today, you are also allowed to eat tomorrow. There’s a poisonous narrative that’s spun by the diet industry every year, implying that December decadence can be counterbalanced by deprivation in January. This is diet culture at it’s most toxic and designed to make you feel crappy about yourself so you’ll buy into a fad diet or join a gym.
Don’t pretend you’re not grieving. If you’re bereaved, December can be one of the hardest months of the year. The festivities draw attention to a loved one’s absence. Everything can be a trigger; whether its the aroma of chestnuts or their favourite movie being shown on TV. For me, it’s naff Christmas music. When I was little my parents had one Christmas music CD with all the cheesy old songs. We listened to it every year and I can still remember the order of the playlist. Dad’s favourite was Stop the Calvary by Jona Lewie, which was number 8. He used to do little bobbing dance around the kitchen in time with the ompa ompa tempo. Two years after he died, I heard that song in a pub on a night out with some friends. I’d been doing my upmost to keep it together, trying to ignore the heartache that followed me like a stalker. A massive wave of grief came crashing down and I found my emotions were out of control. I made my excuses and rushed home. Since then, I’ve realised that it’s better to accept the pain of loss, which actually allows one to recall the more positive memories. I think of Dad basting the turkey, and shouting It’s Christmas! in a booming Noddy Holder impersonation. I miss the traditions that we shared when he was alive and Christmas will never be the same. This will be our 6th one without him and we’ve made new traditions and the day isn’t about the vacant place at the table anymore. It still hurts like hell, but my dad loved to celebrate life and he was always up for the a laugh. He would have hated the thought of us having miserable Christmases without him. If you’re grieving for someone, honour them by acknowledging their absence and allowing the sadness in, but still try to enjoy the day in their memory. The greatest tribute to a lost loved one is to live a good and productive life.
Go easy on yourself. This time of year is tough for a lot of people and you are not alone. Self-care is even more important than usual; if you run yourself ragged, you will be no good to anyone. I find that continuing my exercise routine is helpful for staying grounded. Self-care is different for everyone, whether it’s yoga, meditation, reading, watching movies on the sofa, whatever it might be for you, don’t be afraid to carve out time for yourself. Ask for what you need and resist the pressure to socialise if you don’t want to.
Wishing all my readers a peaceful, balanced and enjoyable holiday season.