Many people experience depression during the holidays. You may be surprised to learn that I’m one of them. Each year, I become incredibly sad this time of year. I tend to spend a day in bed, feeling empty, and crying. For me, it’s not about Christmas, but my birthday. There is this overwhelming feeling of loneliness that takes over. Last year was the first time I didn’t feel this way. I made a conscious decision to do something different. Here’s how I actively managed my depression.
When people learn my birthday is within days of Christmas, I am often asked whether I get shorted on gifts. My mother was always very careful to make sure that my birthday was celebrated and that it was never overshadowed by Christmas. It wasn’t until I was an adult (and requested it) that my cake was served during the holiday rather than on my actual birthday.
I always had lots of gifts. But I always felt very alone.
You Would Cry Too
My sister’s birthday is at the start of the school year each summer. Her friends were always back from vacation and she often had a big pool party.
Me, I can count on one hand the number of birthday parties I had with friends. The best one was thrown for my 21st birthday by my friend Tim. He threw it in February, so it was definitely a surprise party. And it was epic!
But when your birthday is around Christmas, no one is around. Friends are always either out-of-town or have loved ones visiting.
I remember one year in junior high, I threw a very successful Halloween party where everyone came. Seeing how many friends I had, my mother threw me a surprise party for my birthday and expected a huge turnout. Sadly, only a few people showed. There was enough leftover pizza to last for weeks. When I returned from winter break, lots of people came to me and apologized that they weren’t able to make it. It’s not as though they didn’t care, they just couldn’t come. But to me, if felt like rejection.
But I was Never Really Alone
Oddly enough, I’ve always been surrounded by loved ones during the holidays including my birthday. I’ve never actually spent it alone (in fact, this month my husband and I will have been together for 20 years). But anyone who has experienced depression knows that the emotion usually isn’t rational.
One year I tried to work on my birthday. This was long before I became a psychologist when I was working for an attorney. My now-husband came by my work and took me out for lunch. But it didn’t seem to help. I spent the day fighting back tears (which is actually not that unusual when you’re working for an attorney, but this day they were different).
Since that day, I made it a point to never work on my birthday. Ironically, my feeling of loneliness made it difficult to be around people.
The Turning Point
Last year was different, thanks to a new friend. She is also a psychologist and was relatively new at work.
A few months earlier on her birthday, she said she had something for me and offered to stop by my office. When she arrived, she had cake-pops that she brought for her friends at work and told me it was her birthday. This gesture was so thoughtful. I offered to take her out to lunch, which I was glad she accepted. We had a lovely meal at her favorite restaurant. When the check came, she paid for me!
I was intrigued by her perspective. Most people expect others to do for them on “their day.” They want to be made to feel special. To have someone take them out. Bring them a cake. Call or text them.
Not my friend. When we went out for lunch that day, she disclosed to me that she is a cancer survivor. She shared how this experience changed her perspective on life.
She was truly celebrating the fact that she was alive to celebrate another year of life. On the anniversary of her birth, she did kind things for others to show the love and appreciation she has for them, and for life.
As an oncology psychologist and wanna-be philosopher, one would think that I would have viewed celebrations of life in this manner before. But no, this was a new and life-changing perspective for me.
Last December as Christmas grew near, that familiar existential isolation and feeling of loneliness started to creep in. As I lie in bed, I thought of my friend and what she had taught me. I made the decision that I would not spend my birthday thinking about myself. Instead, I would do a kind deed for another.
After taking my kids out to do something they would enjoy, I took my friend out to dinner. I shared with her how inspired I was by her kind acts and how truly grateful I was for her friendship.
Active vs. Passive Coping
“Do you think you can cope?” – Matchbox Twenty
But what exactly is coping? There are two general types of coping: active and passive.
Active coping is action that directly deals with the stressors (e.g., solves the problem) or our feelings (e.g., managing our emotions).
Passive coping is indirect action that distracts us from the problem or numbs our painful feelings.
Avoidance, sleeping, isolation, alcohol/drugs/tobacco, and even so-called “retail therapy” are passive forms of coping. They serve as distractions in the moment, but don’t actually help us resolve the situation. Many of us engage in passive coping because it feels good in the short-term, but in the long-term can be ineffective (e.g., problems still there when you finally get out of bed) or even harmful (e.g., developing a substance-related illness or racking up debt).
Spending my birthday in bed and isolating myself was passive coping. I didn’t directly deal with the source of the problem. So when the next year rolled around, I experienced the same feelings and reverted to my old (ineffective) coping strategy.
My friend inspired me to take an active approach to coping. I decided that I wasn’t going to lie in bed and feeling sorry for myself. Instead, I focused on what I could contribute to this world. I started acting in accordance with my goal of creating value added.
This year I will not think about what others will do for me, but what I can do for them.
My best friend from high school will be coming to visit. I am so excited to spend the day with her and plan to do something special.
And my friend who inspired me, I am taking her out to lunch at that same restaurant where she treated me on her birthday last year.
Help for Depression
If you are one of the many people who suffers from feelings of depression around holidays, especially when you feel alone, it’s helpful to be aware that this is likely to be a time of distress and to make a plan for how you will actively cope with it.
If you are suffering from clinical depression, please don’t suffer alone. Please seek professional help.
What do you do to manage feelings of depressions around the holidays?
Suicide and Debt (providing resources and information about a safety plan)