Depression in a Red Suit (v. 2.0): On the Holidays Past and Future

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So that was Christmas, or whatever you celebrate, … and what have you done? … It happens every December, the moods of so many darken in the midst of the season of joy, and bloggers write up their tip lists about how to survive the holidays. Depression is the Grinch who wraps for you a perverse present of guilt.

It feels so wrong to be lost in the isolation of this illness and yet so impossible to match the glow and warmth that seem to be everywhere. So guilt tops off the other miseries. All the more reason to look for help – what can I do just to get through this? Where are those ten tips?

The season seems to concentrate both happiness and sadness, the way a magnifying glass focuses sunlight in a tight pattern so hot that it can start a fire. But in depression, it’s darkness, not light, that is intensified, and the fire is cold.

It’s especially easy to feel that chill at the darkest time of the year (well, at least on the northern half of the planet) when the sun hits the winter solstice, dipping to its lowest point in the sky. Maximum darkness, minimum light – so easy to fit life into depression when it seems close to extinction. I’ve read, though, that, far from dying, life is concentrating itself into its most intense form – that of a seed. It looks pretty drab and dead, but there’s a lot of power hidden inside. … Another year over … and a new one just begun …

In the best times, I’ve been able to sense in this season a time of reminders that life keeps coming back. It doesn’t matter how ugly the mood I’m in or how much I’ve thought about cutting out of a life I believe is hopeless. Even without knowing it, I’m trying to find the fallback, the base of being human, even the start of finding purpose in staying alive.

Everything comes together, from the cosmic to the personal, and people are telling me it’s all about hope and renewal – even salvation. The message of many faiths, however little I feel like hearing it, report that there’s hope from the spiritual world. That’s one thing humming in the air. Then there’s the universe’s freebie of the winter solstice. Sure it’s the darkest time, but it’s also the start of the sun’s return from its annual decline. Light and life are renewing.

Family bonds are celebrated – at least symbolically – through feasting and gifts. And there is that unmistakable feeling of expectancy and energy that flows through crowds and is felt at no other time of year. In that atmosphere, most people feel the personal hope that things can be better in the new year.

But then there we are, the depressed ones, even more self-conscious than usual about not being able to share all the good news.

During my own long years of depression, the feelings of loss and loneliness were keen, even in the midst of family and friends. How I wanted to be able to stir the energy and let the love I knew was there be felt, both by me and by them.

Instead, I would try to stage-manage a lift of spirit, making the motions I thought would work but never fooling anyone. I’m sure you know what it’s like – trying to reshape a face worn out by depression into a cheery mask. Not a pretty sight. And it’s a huge strain that’s impossible to handle for long. Pretending to be what I’m not can never feel good.

Nevertheless, I felt that I should be there not just to keep others happy but because I had to be there. The obligation seemed to come from something basic, even ancestral. A clan gathering to feast and exchange gifts must be the essential affirmation. Keeping life going takes a lot more than one person. It takes a family – like it or not. … I hope you have fun … the near and the dear ones … the old and the young …

So there’s a primal draw – get to that table and make the best of it! There’s likely to be every kind of love, tension, anger, hurt, loss and hope breathing through each person. The family can be a wreck or a loving support, but it’s mine to love, hate, learn from and leave. It may not even be there anymore, but it’s still inside.

And then there are those most complicated things – the gifts, the giving, the receiving. Also age-old tradition – symbols of the relationship. How much do we value each other? That’s not just childishness, pettiness or commercialization, though these days it can involve all those as well.

There are memories in the blood long lost to awareness when gifts were signs of what holds humans together. But of course you know that the gifts aren’t a matter of what you pay for. They’re also in preparing food for the celebration, spreading the table, accepting what’s offered.

All this universal and ancestral stuff is part of who I am. So what if there were times I couldn’t believe that was true or that I’d ever deserve a place in anything. I’d been convinced so often that I’d screwed up my life forever, couldn’t do anything right, might as well die. But there’s still something going on with the convergence of so much in these few weeks. It’s out there trying to tell me, impossible though it seems to believe, that even I belong.

As I’ve been writing here recently, beliefs like this have finally found their way inside. So this year’s holiday season was different. I wasn’t lost, out of it or absent. I felt good, and, for the first time in years, I was there. The worries about meeting expectations, dampening good feeling around me or disappointing the universe vanished.

That’s the strange thing about getting well. There you are, just being you. You can even feel grateful about being alive. It’s almost January, and I don’t need to double check the ten best tips from my holiday survival guide.

What does depression bring you in a season that’s supposed to kindle happiness and warmth? Perhaps like John Lennon, you can feel hope even while fighting the demons. So have a happy new year. … Let’s hope it’s a good one … without any fear.

9 Responses to “Depression in a Red Suit (v. 2.0): On the Holidays Past and Future”

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  1. Donna-1 says:

    As early as August, I start feeling anxiety build. By Thanksgiving, the architecture is quite substantial. By Christmas? It’s like the Notre Dame Cathedral. Worked on for centuries, stone by stone, the toil of many hands, rather imposing and cold. Once it is filled with people, the warmth and good cheer and beautiful music and a sense of awe are supposed to lift spirits, give hope and comfort. But all around me still feels like a framework of anxiety and depression that is not coming down anytime soon. And the holidays and relationships that should imbue it with a sense of meaning simply don’t.

  2. Thank you for posting this entry! While I have found it several weeks to late, it is certainly uplifting and something I can relate to. I will be referencing it in the future, it is an excellent resource.

  3. Maggie says:

    Thank you so much for composing this blog. I found it when I needed it over the recent holidays and have returned many times for its thoroughness, wisdom, and brightness. It’s your attention to writing that gives me the most hope. I can’t say I’m clear, have had depression for many years, but I am doing a lot of the right things I think. I saw a therapist last week, but I’m not sure it was a good idea because I talked a lot about my past, quite an unpleasant one. I’ve read that depressed people respond better to cognitve therapy than psychotherapy. I’m not on medication, but am actually considering them at this point. I’m in my third week and have experienced some moments in the past several days of calm and relief. I’m counting on prolonging the moments.

    • John says:

      Thanks, Maggie –

      That’s very kind of you – I’m glad the post is helpful, but I’m sorry to hear about your depression.

      I’ve found cognitive therapy to be most effective by providing specific tools that are simple enough to use every day. They’ve become second nature to me and constantly help me to interrupt depressive thinking.

      My experience with psychotherapy is long and mostly positive. Talking about the past is certainly painful, but I needed to understand what the connections were to present behavior that was undermining me and hurting others.

      Cognitive is the norm, for sure, partly because it promises much quicker results – and that’s what people need. There aren’t any rules, though, about what’s best. Whatever works is the best treatment.

      My best to you in finding more help.


  4. Bill White says:

    Great post. You know, I can remember the seemingly most amazing Christmas ever some ten years ago. My parents hosted at their home in South Carolina. I mean, it was all there…gifts, family, food, going to a Christmas musical, church. Heck, my wife, son, and I spent two weeks there. As I look back I see how absolutely “pathological” the who affair was. And the fact that it can still bring a lump to my throat all the more enforces the fact that something was very much amiss.

    • john says:

      Thanks, Bill –

      I guess a lot of us have stories like that. My scattered to the four directions long ago so I never had that experience of revisiting, but something very similar kept repeating every year when my mother came for the holidays.

      Thanks for that story.


  5. WillSpirit says:

    Thank you for the uplifting way of looking at the Holidays. I am glad they are past, and the burden of sadness was heavy for me during the season. But now I can see brightness, and the fact the days will be longer fills me with hope. My resolution for 2010 is to look at things more positively, and I was glad to find this post today. It helps to look at the recent holidays, with all the pain they caused me, from a more optimistic perspective. You remind me there is always more than one way of seeing things.

    • john says:

      Thanks, Will –

      I’m sorry you had such a heavy burden – it’s a strange and miraculous time at once. Good for both of us that you found this post. That has also brought me to your blog. Don’t know how I’ve missed it until now, but I look forward to reading it. You really have a wonderful perspective on spiritual experience.

      My best to you for the new year –


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