When a Loved One is Feeling Depressed at Christmas

It happened every single year.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas Day, my mother was the poster mom for holiday fun. She decorated the house inside and out, she bought and wrapped more presents than we could ever need, she drove us around to see lights on houses and made hot cocoa for us to drink by the fire.

My brothers and I loved every minute of it, but in the back of our minds we were waiting for the inevitable. On Christmas Day, every single year, our mom went into a depression that would last for weeks.

Mom didn’t only suffer from mental illness during the holidays- her emotional state would ebb and flow throughout the year—but it was the one time that we knew it was guaranteed to make an appearance.

For someone who loved Christmas, Mom sure made it a hard holiday to celebrate. By the time the festivities of Christmas morning ended, she would have begun snapping at us for little to no reason, sarcastically responding to anything we said, and criticizing our reactions to our gifts as ungrateful.

Then she would withdraw into herself, usually hiding away in her bedroom, and would be virtually unreachable for days or even weeks. Her interactions with us would be forced and strained, clearly not wanting to talk, and occasionally short-tempered.

My dad would privately remind us that mom’s childhood holidays were a source of pain for her, and as badly as she wanted to put those feelings behind her, she just couldn’t. Her own fractured family life still haunted her, and she had always refused to go to counseling for it. And as much as we wished she would, we simply couldn’t make that decision for her.

By the time we hit adolescence, my brothers and I would calculate it into our holiday plans. We learned to walk on eggshells at that time of year, desperately trying to avoid anything that might set Mom off.  Sometimes it almost felt like we were ignoring her, and I wonder if that added to her pain. But there was no “right” way to handle it, at least not one that we knew, and so we all just did the best we could. Mom included.

There is pain in my holiday memories; I can’t pretend that there’s not. But I also have the good fortune to have memories of excitement, anticipation, and even joy too. My mom struggled and she wasn’t perfect, but I know she did the best she could. It’s possible for the holiday season to be wonderful and disappointing at the same time … just like family.

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