My Crappy Christmas

Christmas did not go according to plan. It wasn’t disastrous in a good story kind of way – nothing dramatic happened, there were no embarrassing incidents which become amusing with hindsight and there was nothing unique about the situation. Instead, Christmas was ruined in the most mundane way possible: my whole family got a flu-type virus.

The dog was fine.

My mum and I worked extra hard to force ourselves to make preparations. I ensured I had plenty of delicious vegan food available – only to completely lose my appetite from afternoon on Christmas Day. I didn’t feel like eating my favourite foods: homemade stuffing, trifle, sprouts (yes, honestly – I know, I’m weird), cranberry sauce, mince pies… Instead, I have been living on Marmite on toast for the past week.

The lack of appetite has its advantages – I have lost a couple of pounds, kickstarting my New Year’s resolution to lose more weight.

If that had been the only symptom, the illness would have been annoying but bearable. But no, I have also been kept awake by constant coughing fits. I thought the cough I had before Christmas was bad, but this one has been kicked into hyperdrive.

I spent 5 nights downstairs on the couch, watching television until I felt too tired to concentrate and then lying in the dark hoping to snooze for a couple of minutes between coughing. I discovered that I love Rebel Wilson – I watched Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2 and How to Be Single on consecutive nights. I sucked mentholated sweets, hoping I wouldn’t fall asleep and choke on them but also acknowledging that death would provide me with relief from the BLOODY COUGHING.

I feel entirely stuffed up with catarrh – including my brain. I had to abandon my photography course assignment, resigning myself to failure, until my mind cleared a smidgeon on Saturday night and I managed to complete it in a frenzy. Yep, while other people were partying on New Year’s Eve, I sipped a (non-alcoholic) ginger beer and tried to write something about my selected photos which made sense. I paused briefly to acknowledge Big Ben’s chimes on television and wish my parents happy New Year, before returning to my assignment and submitting it online at 1:24am.

I still feel pretty crap, but am functioning a little better. I think I managed to sleep for at least 3 hours last night, which helps. I’m frustrated because I wanted to achieve so much over Christmas, but simply couldn’t do anything constructive. Or anything apart from drink hot Ribena and watch endless episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

I’m hoping to recover fully ASAP, so that I can be more productive and make progress towards achieving my New Year’s resolutions…

Your Christmas Survival Guide (Part Three)

This is Part Three of Your Christmas Survival Guide. For Part One, click here and for Part Two, click here.

  1. Focus on the good stuff

I love lots of things about Christmas, but it’s easy to lose sight of them when I’m feeling bad. I find it helpful to think about what I can enjoy when my mental health prevents me from doing a lot of the stuff people associate with Christmas, like parties. I love making lists, so it’s my go-to tactic, but I think making a list of Christmas activities I love is very helpful. I like being able to refer to a list when my thoughts are all over the place and I’m liable to forget about the things I can enjoy.

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It’s easy to think Christmas is all about the big things, but a lot of the things I love are small. Drinking champagne (or prosecco, or cava…), listening to Christmas songs, playing board games, watching my dog open his presents, making gingerbread (and eating it!), watching musicals and Christmas films, putting up the decorations, reading ghost stories, etc. They are also accessible, meaning I can do most of them when my symptoms of mental illness are bad (though not when they are at their worst) and I don’t need lots of money or anything to enjoy them.

When you make your own list of things you love to do during the festive season (which don’t have to be Christmassy, by the way), consider scheduling some of them. Scheduling activities can provide some structure, which you may be lacking since Christmas disrupts your usual routine. It gives you something to look forward to, especially if you space them out before and after Christmas Day itself.

Don’t let other people dictate what you enjoy or how you spend your time. Think about what pleases you – it could be choir concerts, shopping, pantomimes, drinking whisky, making wreaths… Anything which brings out the best of Christmas for you. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of Christmas when you have mental health problems, but there is also a lot to enjoy.

 

  1. Remember it’s temporary

“This too shall pass” is a powerful phrase and it’s true. Christmas will be over by early January. Even if the hullabaloo starts in November, that’s 2 months: it’s finite. Do what you need to get through it and keep telling yourself it will pass.

Look ahead to the New Year, if you can. What would you like to do? What goals would you like to achieve? I like to make lists (again!). Try focusing on your favourite time of year (I love late spring/early summer) and how you can enjoy it all the more. If you find Christmastime unbearable, use any distraction you can find (assuming it’s not harmful) to get you through.

Also remember that the way you currently feel will pass. It’s hard to believe, but repeating “this too shall pass” can bring great comfort.

 

Wrapped Gift
  1. Experiment

While some or all of these strategies may help, nobody can dictate what works for you and the only way you can find out is by trying different approaches.

Think about what has worked for you in the past, but also keep an open mind. Different things can work at different times, so try things which you have dismissed in the past. For example, exercise is now one of the main ways I manage my mental health, but I used to find it next to impossible to do and didn’t notice any good effects when I forced myself to exercise.

Experimenting can be a great way of coping in itself. It provides some distraction from your thoughts and feelings. You are being proactive and focusing on finding solutions, which cultivates optimism.

Do some research – look online and find out how other people cope with Christmas and/or their mental health problems in general. Read self-help and psychology books. Try to understand the biochemical and cognitive functions behind your symptoms. Challenge yourself to find as many options as you can. Have fun trying the craziest suggestions you can find.

Don’t beat yourself up if you feel unable to do something – or anything. Experimenting is as much about finding out what doesn’t work for you as it is about finding what works.

 

  1. Remind yourself you are not alone

One of the greatest advantages of the internet is that you can connect to other people without having to go outside or actually meet them. Read blogs about people in similar situations to yourself. Participate in mental health forums. Visit websites about mental health. Simply reminding yourself that other people find Christmas difficult can help you feel less isolated and more able to cope.

Talk to friends and family if you can, whether in person or via phone calls, text messages, email, Skype, etc. You don’t have to talk about your mental health, although it can be useful if you can – just chatting about trivial things helps you reconnect. Don’t forget that pets are great company, too. Spending time with animals is beneficial for your mental health and talking to a pet is often better than talking to a friend, since you have no fear of being judged.

Don’t forget that if you need someone to talk to, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 (in the UK) or visit Samaritans.org

 

To read Your Christmas Survival Guide Part One, click here.

To read Your Christmas Survival Guide Part Two, click here.

Your Christmas Survival Guide (Part Two)

This is the second instalment of Your Christmas Survival Guide. Find Part One here and Part Three here.

  1. Maintain self-care

Your routine may be disrupted, but you can still make time to do the things which help you to feel as well as possible. Prioritise anything which makes a huge difference, such as exercise or meditation. Look for ways to practice self-care amongst all of the other stuff that’s going on. It could mean making an effort to eat healthy food alongside the less healthy Christmas fare, writing a gratitude list before you go to bed, ensuring your alcohol intake isn’t too high, etc.

Self-care can also mean removing yourself from stressful situations. Remember you have choices (see part one of this survival guide) and just because it’s Christmas, doesn’t mean you have to do things with which you are uncomfortable. If any traditions or activities cause you distress, opt out. I know it’s easier said than done, but you need to take care of your mental health first and foremost.

A simple (and revealing) question to ask is: would this be acceptable if it wasn’t Christmastime?

If the answer is no, don’t pressure yourself to do something. It isn’t acceptable to expect you to sacrifice your mental health for the sake of tradition or keeping the status quo.

Do everything and anything you need to keep as well as you can. For some people, that’s a few key activities. For others, it means keeping as much of your usual routine in place as possible. It can also vary from day to day – perhaps you can get through Christmas Eve and Day without actively practicing self-care, but you might need to put a lot more effort into self-care during the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Do what you need to do.

 

  1. Make contingency plans

What can you do if everything goes wrong? If your mental health problems get worse? How will you cope?

These are difficult questions and it’s impossible to answer them completely, but try to come up with some options. Make a list of helplines you could call, such as the Samaritans (116 123 in the UK, by the way, or visit Samaritans.org). Tell your partner/roommates/parents what they can do if you are in distress. Write down everything which might help and make copies – keep a version in your phone, too.

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Think about what has helped you in the past. Something as simple as listening to a certain playlist (I have a playlist of “happy music” which boosts my mood) or spending time with a pet can be very helpful. Even if you think something is obvious, like chatting to a friend, write it down – you might not consider it when your thoughts are consumed by stress and anxiety. Having a physical list also reminds you that you have options, which you can lose sight of when your mental illness takes a nosedive.

It could be helpful to make lists for different situations. For instance, different things help me when I feel anxious or depressed (though there can be an overlap), so it is useful to have separate lists. The lists could be for different situations, such as what can help when you feel like your family aren’t making an effort to understand how you feel or when you feel overwhelmed by everything. The act of thinking things through can help stave off the problems you anticipate, since you will feel more able to cope.

Depending on your relationships, it can be helpful to share your lists with family and friends. It enables them to give you extra support and helps them understand your mental health. Having other people know about the lists can also make them more accessible, which makes it easier to implement your contingency plans.

Having plans in place for when things go wrong may seem pessimistic, but it is actually reassuring. It provides a safety net.

 

  1. Get some space

If you feel suffocated by the Christmas spirit, get away from it! It can be as simple as putting on headphones to listen to (non-Christmas) music and shutting yourself in your bedroom. Or go for a walk in the countryside, miles from any lights and crowds. Or take a complete break and go on holiday over the festive season.

No matter what your situation, you have some options available. If you will be surrounded by family at Christmas, earmark a room to which you can escape if it all gets too much. Tell people you need space when you use that room and hopefully they will respect that, especially if you explain how it helps your mental health. Fill the room with items which will help you escape for a while – books, scented candles, puzzles, DVDs, knitting, computer games, pen and paper… Anything which can provide a distraction.

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You may find you need less space than you anticipated. Knowing you have the strategy in place might be all you need or a 15-30 minute break could be optimal. On the other hand, if you do need to get away for hours at a time, it’s possible.

Giving yourself space is about prioritising your mental health, so explain why it’s important to you if anyone objects. Forcing yourself to participate in activities when you need space will only make your symptoms worse. By getting some space, you are taking care of both yourself and your loved ones.

 

To read Part One of Your Christmas Survival Guide, click here.

For Part Three of Your Christmas Survival Guide, click here.

Your Christmas Survival Guide (Part One)

Christmas can be a difficult time for people with mental health problems. Everyone seems to be happy and excited. Your routine is disrupted. You feel forced to participate in certain activities. It’s the perfect recipe for a turbulent time – even without the added complication of mental illness.

However, there are some strategies you can use to make the festive season run as smoothly as you can:

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  1. Remember you have choices

People tend to use the phrases “it’s a tradition” or “it’s Christmas” to force others into doing things they don’t want to do, but you don’t have to agree. It can be hard to take a stand, for sure, but you need to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of all your options. If doing something will cause you more distress than standing your ground, don’t let yourself be swayed.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t be tactful or make compromises.

Look for ways to make things easier for you and anyone who might be hurt by your decision. For example, if you don’t feel able to spend all of Christmas Day with your family, explain that it will be stressful for both you and your family if you forced yourself to participate. Remind them that the options you face when you are mentally ill are not between having a great time with your family or a miserable time alone; it’s more likely to be between a distressing time with family or a subdued but bearable time alone.

Point out that you are not rejecting anyone personally. You would love to spend a day of joy with your loved ones, but if poor mental health prevents this, it’s not your fault – or theirs. Tell them how they can support you and your decision.

Perhaps you can prioritise certain aspects of Christmas and celebrate them with your family while opting out of doing everything. For example, join your family for lunch and opening presents, but spend time alone in your room or go for a walk when everyone else is playing board games or watching Christmas films. Again, explain that you believe this course of action will make things easier for everyone.

You are not being selfish by prioritising your mental health.

In fact, safeguarding your mental health shows love and respect for your family and friends, as well as yourself. Some people might not understand, but you need to put yourself first so that you can be a better partner/parent/child/sibling/friend. You are allowed to make your own decisions.

If people are upset by the choices you make, it’s not your responsibility (provided you are not wilfully hurting anyone, of course) and they have to deal with their own disappointment or anger. Maybe some people will blame you for their reactions, but you need to recognise that it’s not your fault they feel this way. Remember that even if a person has never been diagnosed with a mental illness, it doesn’t mean they handle their emotions in the best way – and certainly not 100% of the time.

 

  1. Curb unrealistic expectations

The last thing you need is to put more pressure on yourself, yet many of us fall into the trap of believing that Christmas can be perfect. You can’t expect your mental health problems to magically disappear just because it’s Christmas. Mental illness doesn’t care what time of year it is – and symptoms can be exacerbated by the activities and attitudes associated with Christmas.

A lot of the pressure we place on ourselves is unnecessary because we prioritise things which simply don’t matter. Finding the perfect present doesn’t matter – it’s the act of giving which shows you love the recipient. Cooking or buying a magnificent feast is unnecessary – as long as the food is edible and you are eating it with people you love, no one will care if it’s not Michelin star standard. It doesn’t even matter if Christmas day goes smoothly – the best stories involve things going wrong.

Lowering your expectations doesn’t mean Christmas can’t be joyful and magical. In fact, the best Christmases are often the ones we think will be boring or difficult.

I’m not saying you can’t be optimistic; just be realistic and acknowledge that perfection doesn’t exist. Especially not when you are spending a lot of time with family! There will be arguments and problems. Hopefully they will be trivial, like running out of wrapping paper or accusing your loved ones of cheating at Monopoly, but they will crop up.

The trick is to handle the problems as they arise, which is easier when you aren’t expecting perfection. Arguments don’t have to ruin the whole festive season, so don’t let them.

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Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to do too much in too little time. Your family and friends would rather you were less stressed than killing yourself trying to make individual place settings on Christmas Eve. Write a list of what you would like to do and prioritise the most important. Then whittle those down to the absolutely necessary.

Aim to do only what is absolutely necessary and do other stuff if you have time and find them enjoyable.

Your Christmas doesn’t have to look like an advertisement. Having all the tinsel and trimmings in place won’t guarantee happiness – in fact, the stress of doing so much will probably guarantee you will be miserable. Neither do you need to cram your festive season with parties and themed activities. Christmastime won’t automatically make you enjoy going out, especially if it’s not how you usually spend your time. If you would rather stay at home with a book, do it – I probably will!

 

  1. Communicate

Let your family and friends know how you feel. Being open might be difficult, but it reduces the risk of people making incorrect assumptions about you. For example, letting friends know you are turning down their invitations because you have anxiety prevents them from assuming you don’t want to spend time with them. They might not always understand, but there is more chance of them gaining understanding if you are honest and talk about what’s on your mind.

Being open and honest also means that other people might come up with solutions which you may not have considered. For instance, they might suggest you spend a quiet afternoon eating mince pies at their house, rather than going out on the town. Of course, it is also helpful if you can make alternative suggestions when declining invitations, even if it’s just saying you would like to see them when you feel better.

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Think about how you communicate and what you say. Some people appreciate warts-and-all honesty, whereas others prefer not to know the details. Be diplomatic – it probably won’t help to tell someone you find them very annoying and that’s why you don’t want to go to their party! Try to empathise with the other person and think about how they would like you to express how you feel. For example, you might need to preface your main points with extra explanations if someone tends to be particularly sensitive.

Pick the right moment, too. The best time to tell your mother you feel anxious and overwhelmed is not when she is in the middle of cooking Christmas dinner. Try to find a time when the person you want to talk to isn’t busy or flustered. A relaxed environment helps and a neutral one, such as a café or during a walk in the countryside, is often better.

If it’s easier, communicate via phone or text message.

I know many people prefer to have serious conversations face to face, but if the alternative is that you don’t tell anyone how you feel, it’s best to communicate however you can. Pay attention to tone when writing written messages, as it can be difficult to convey. Err on the side of caution and make it obvious when you are being serious, when you are being more flippant, etc. Sarcasm is best avoided, since it’s easy to misread.

Finally, remember to keep communicating. Your mood, emotions and symptoms will fluctuate over the festive period, so keep those close to you informed. It doesn’t have to be a constant dialogue – just mention when you are feeling more anxious/isolated/depressed/irritated so that your family and friends can adapt.

Communication helps your family and friends help you. It tells them what to expect and how they might support you. Even if the effects aren’t what you expected, at least you have been proactive and tried to make things run smoothly – that’s all anyone can ask.

 

To read Part Two of Your Christmas Survival Guide, click here.

For Part Three of Your Christmas Survival Guide, click here.