Holidays were a huge deal for my family when I was growing up. Every year, the day after Thanksgiving, we took out all our buckets of Christmas decorations, made delicious snacks, and threw on the holiday music as we set up the tree and other parts of the house. Then after it was all done, we sat down to a small meal and watched a Christmas movie. And all of this was just the start of the celebration.
Every year I looked forward to it, that and the other traditions that we did as a family. Sadly, however, I began to struggle with anxiety and depression as I grew older. And during the holidays, seasonal depression would rear its ugly head.
I first noticed something was wrong around middle school. Perhaps it was the stress of different classes; maybe it was preteen hormones; one could also point to the stress I experienced when either of my military parents were shipped overseas. Any one of these things could have easily exacerbated the depression many experience as the world gets colder and more dark.
One wintery day while I was in my room, my parents dropped by to let me know that we were all going out to the mall soon, and I should get ready.
Right away I began to panic. Still very young, I was already experiencing mood swings and they had gotten worse during the holiday season. It was like I was having feelings bigger than I knew what to do with, and felt under stress from something I couldn’t control. The simple task of preparing myself for a family trip felt like it was too much for me at that moment. Instead of getting ready for the family outing, I became a crying mess on my bed.
My mother found me like this when she came to check on me. I cried even harder when I saw that she was already dressed in her coat and boots, and I was still in my pajamas. The way she responded to me at that moment really shaped how I handled the holidays since:
“It’s okay if you don’t want to go,” she said with a kind smile. “Do you want to talk about it?”
My preteen self immediately felt a rush of relief. In between sobs, I explained how it felt like too much for me. She explained that I didn’t have to go and I could go out another time when I was feeling better. They soon left without much incident, and I was able to process my mood.
From then on, my parents were careful about planning family events. They still did the usual traditions with my siblings, but never pressured me to participate in every single activity.
I realized that it’s hard for me to keep up with the same energy level, especially when I am experiencing mood swings. I began to recognize my limits for what I could handle during those times. If I stayed home from a family event, I’d keep myself occupied with a low key activity. If I did participate despite struggling with my mood, I would give myself small breaks by going into the restroom to de-stress, or simply limit myself to watching others enjoy themselves.
Overtime, recognizing these “limits” soon became liberating because it allowed me to celebrate the holidays even with seasonal depression. These limits became even more important as I grew older. I was suffering from a clinical mental illness, something my otherwise supportive parents and I didn’t fully understand at the time. By the time I did seek treatment, the self-knowledge I developed helped my care providers develop a treatment plan that was right for me.
Today, I still follow the same principle concerning my limits. My husband and I will keep things low key. Decorating a small and simple tree, or baking a simple recipe of Christmas cookies, are some of the best memories we share as a couple and growing family. It was a struggle at first to find traditions that worked for us, but soon enough we figured things out.
When I struggled with my feelings around the winter time and the holiday season, my parents responded to these struggles with understanding and love—even if they initially lacked awareness of my mental health conditions and that I needed treatment.
They helped me spend quality time with my family, and I bring this example into my own marriage, as well as the ability to seek out help for my depression and anxiety in the future.
If you are also someone who struggles with seasonal depression, just know that it can be limiting, but it does not have the final say in how you love and celebrate during this time. Find your limits and work with them in patient, understanding love. And most importantly, seek out support.