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You Don't Have to Be Merry and Bright

holiday depression
Halley Cornell - Blogs
By Halley CornellMental health advocate and writerDecember 19, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

A lot of people struggle this time of year. It’s the long, dark hours. It’s the busy-ness, it’s the financial pressure. It’s the family squabbles – or it’s the loneliness, for those who don’t have families around to squabble with. It’s the holes left by those who are no longer here.

And, it’s the pressure to perform “holidays.” We push ourselves to merrily walk through the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year in warmth and cheer, making sure to do our part to keep the holiday spirit alive for everyone around us. It’s as if we think our ability to pull off perfect feasts and festive outfits, provide sparkling décor and witty conversation, and keep the warmth of the hearth alive is a scorecard of how well we are doing at loving others.

Everyone is subject to the pressure to be merry. Depression can make it even more intense. This was never truer for me than the year I broke up with my long-term partner and moved suddenly out of San Francisco. For the winter months between homes of my own, I camped out at my father’s house, enveloped in both family holiday festiveness and a gold medal depression. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get on board with cheer: Christmas carols brought tears. Mistletoe brought bitter tears. Eggnog brought momentary escape and then tears. The tree, the lights, the friends – they all just made me want to disappear. I felt like the proverbial lump of coal in everyone’s stocking.

Throughout my grayness, though, my family went on decorating and baking and being kind and grateful all around me. That just made me feel worse. I wasn’t helping them. I was definitely not merry. My holiday performance was sorely lacking. So therefore, I was failing. Finally, as my stepmom arranged the Christmas mantel one afternoon, I blurted out (in tears, naturally), “I don’t know how to do Christmas right now!”

“What do you mean?” she asked, puzzled. “You don’t have to do anything. You’re here, that’s all that matters. You just have to be.”

It hadn’t occurred to my family that I should be Trying to Do Christmas. That pressure and self-disdain, that thought that I was failing everyone and ruining their time, was only happening inside my head. Their holiday wasn’t being ruined by the fact that I was in my pajamas when everyone else was in sequins, or that I had to excuse myself from gatherings after 20 minutes. To them, I was doing my best, and that’s all I was supposed to be doing. To them, togetherness and the quiet love and support it made room for was the holiday spirit. Getting through the dark times together was what mattered.

Gaining that understanding didn’t solve my depression. I still struggle this time of year, with the dark hours and the loss and the loneliness. In that moment, I still had a bad breakup to get through. In this present moment, my ex, whom I loved very much despite the things that eventually led to our breakup, died this past February. This will be the first Christmas without him around anywhere. I have loved other people, but mistletoe still makes me cry.

What that understanding did do was help me climb out from the self-imposed pressure of performing the holidays. And once I did that, I was able to recognize that what other people need most right now is simple love and acceptance, too. What is merrier than the ability to be yourself and still have togetherness? What is brighter than the knowledge that while we will always miss some people, more people are waiting to love us whether we deserve it or not? What is more spiritual than knowing we ourselves can be the ones providing that love to someone who doesn’t feel worthy of it?

So, don’t worry about being festive on my account. You’re here. Together we can wait for the darkness to grow smaller. And that’s all that matters.

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About the Author
Halley Cornell

Halley Cornell is a content strategist at WebMD who has worked in multiple healthcare settings advocating for holistic mental and physical health. She writes from a perspective of her personal experiences working to outsmart and overcome treatment-resistant depression and clinical anxiety.

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