Sometimes I catch myself longing for that idyllic childhood Christmas. Presents with shiny bows, a promise of wonderful surprises waiting inside. Wide-eyed eagerness while fiercely ripping off wrapping paper. Squeals of delight filling the room upon receiving just what had been hoped for. A festive meal stuffing me to the brim, perhaps a favourite Christmas movie, a steaming mug of hot chocolate, and when the evening is over – loving embraces of goodbye to relatives and friends. This moment would live on in my memory, sustaining me forward into the next year.
Of course, this representation of a joyful holiday experience is a fantasy. A fantasy that leaves no space for my reality: anxiety, depression, and loneliness that the holiday season so often lends me. Lying beneath this Christmas fantasy is the bitter truth that I don’t always feel like "decking the halls" and I rarely feel like “all is calm…and… all is bright”. In fact, some Christmases I’ve actually felt the exact opposite; like everything is set to collapse and crush down upon my shoulders.
I first began experiencing symptoms of severe depression when I was twelve, nearly fifteen years ago now. Counselling, peer support, art therapy, and even medication has helped sustain me, although depression has been a part of my life for so long now that it has also become a part of who I am. I may have made some improvements, but it is always there lurking in the shadows, challenging my growth and causing me to feel anxious about situations beyond my control.
Growing up with depression meant that things could get particularly “messy” around the Christmas season. First, there are the environmental challenges, the natural darkness, fewer hours of sunlight and time outside, which contributes to a sense of personal despair. Then, there’s the anxiety brought on by added social expectations, Christmas parties, pageants or plays, and the expectation to be joyful. All this topped with the (false) belief that I can’t openly share my internal distress, because I’d ruin others’ Christmas merriment.
I suppose by now, fifteen Christmases later, I should be prepared to handle the anxiety of this season. The truth is, however, that I still don’t always know how to cope and still encounter despair at this time of year.
It's no doubt draining to live in the push-and-pull of joyfulness and despair during the advent season…but sometimes it’s more important to accept the gift we’re given, regardless of how it’s wrapped. The very first Christmas was not greeting-card perfect; it was messy, confused, and filled with turmoil. Yet, even in the midst of a dirty old stable, Mary and Joseph discovered their blessing. Likewise, our Christmas may be filled with uncertainty, apprehension, and mental illness, but Jesus promises to walk through it with us, offering His blessings of light and love even in the darkest of valleys. Jesus has come as the Savior of our dark, despairing, and anxious worlds.