No, I don’t have the “holiday blues” — I’m clinically depressed

It’s December. I am sitting in my dark living room, scrolling through my Instagram feed. It looks as though every person I know is busy picking out Christmas trees, stringing twinkle lights, making gingerbread houses, and kicking off the holiday season with as much cheer as they can muster. I take a deep breath, hold in my air for as long as I can, and exhale with a scream.

When there is no sound left, I take a moment to collect myself before lighting a sugar cookie candle and selecting a holiday-themed novel from the shelf. I lay everything out on the coffee table in from of me and snap a carefully framed picture to post on social media. That angle leaves out the pile of tissues, the empty beer can, and the dirty robe on the couch. I caption it “‘Tis the season!” and add plenty of festive emojis before uploading it to my story. I put the phone down, blow out the candle, and turn on Netflix. I let myself cry while rewatching episodes of Bojack Horseman for the umpeenth time this year.

The holiday season has officially begun, but for me, it’s just another series of days defined by my depression. But instead of quietly dealing with my mental illness in peace and privacy, something about Christmastime puts my depression on noticeable display for others to see, to comment on, to try to “fix” with their own brand of seasonal magic.

Most people don’t seem to understand, though, that I don’t just have the “holiday blues” — I’m clinically depressed. No amount of holiday cheer is going to change that.

The holiday season is touted as ~the most wonderful time of the year~, but for me and many of the 3.3 million American adults that struggle with depression every day, it’s just another — sometimes more painful — chapter in a life-long book about mental illness. My depression is always with me, regardless of loved ones’ smiling faces surrounding me on Christmas morning. But for the entire month leading up to it, I am bombarded with suggestions, tips, and advice from well-intentioned friends and family.

I cannot tell you the number of times someone has baked sugar cookies to “cheer me up,” or played some cheesy Christmas songs to “get me in the spirit.” These gestures, which come from a place of kindness, actually do more harm than good. They remind me that I am not living up to the expectations of the season, that I am failing while everyone around me seems to be able to succeed. My heart won’t grow three sizes like the Grinch’s, because I don’t hate Christmas or the holidays or candy canes — that’s not the issue. The issue is that, during the holidays, I am suddenly expected to wrap my mental health up in tinsel and pretend to be shiny and bright, even though my mental illness follows me all year long.

That expectation isn’t just unrealistic — it actually makes the holidays more difficult for people who, like me, suffer from anxiety and depression.

Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, and host of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast explains:

"There may be the expectation that they should be happy, when the reality of mental illness is that you can’t just will yourself to feel better. This is why things like holiday movies or going out caroling won’t really work...There are often lots of rituals tied to the holidays which only heighten the feeling of loss."

I don’t blame my friends and family for thinking that simply including me in their rituals will benefit me; for so many people, holiday traditions are a source of comfort. I know my mom manages her holiday stress with a delicate balance of viewing old Christmas movies and baking with her grandkids. Getting through the hardest parts of the season — shopping, cleaning, cooking, hosting — is easier when she indulges in those more joyful moments.

But I’m not only stressed because I can’t pick out the right gifts. I’m perpetually exhausted, I’m angry, I’m deflated, and I’m struggling every day to get up and out of bed just to put my best foot forward. It doesn’t matter if that foot is donning a fuzzy snowman sock.

It’s true that, around the holiday season, we’re all susceptible to more stress and anxiety than usual. To-do lists are millions of miles long, family relationships are strained, and expectations of happiness aren’t met.

"We are conditioned to think that the holidays should be perfect, like a Norman Rockwell painting or a Hallmark card," says Dr. Lynn Linde, American Counseling Association's current Senior Director for the Center for Counseling Practice, Policy and Research. "We expect that everyone is going to get along and that everything is going to be just as we imagine it should be. Reality is seldom like that."

Even for people without depression, that kind of letdown can easily — and commonly — cause feelings of sadness or disappointment. But if a person doesn’t struggle with clinical depression, those feelings are temporary. Emotions can more easily be improved with the help of friendly company, good food, or seasonal fun. Year-round depression is more complex, and according to Dr. Linde, the way we talk about mental health around the holidays is important:

"People suffering from depression cannot just snap out of it or be cheered up by a gift or meal. [They] need professional assistance."

Take it from someone who knows firsthand: expecting others to be “cured” of their mental illness thanks to eggnog and cookies can lead to harmful behavior for those already struggling to manage mental health.

For me, years of being told to “cheer up” and “snap out of it” around the holidays led to an unhealthy habit: faking it.

For the last three Christmases, I filled my home with ornaments I didn’t care about, watched movies I didn’t like, baked food I didn’t want to eat, and most importantly, I documented every moment of it for others to see. My hope was that pretending to be spirited would stop others from calling me a Scrooge. It would save me from the negative downward spiral caused by unintentional attacks on my mental health. And you know what? It did — bur then it made the holidays more difficult for me in the end.

I’m working hard to break that habit this year. As Dr. Linde explains, “[People] need to set realistic expectations around what we can do and what we expect from others. Have a plan for taking care of yourself and don’t let others make you feel guilty. When others tell us to ‘cheer up,’ an appropriate response might be ‘Thank you for caring’ and move on.”

If someone you love is struggling with a form of depression this holiday season, don’t write it off as the winter blues. Dr. Todd Hutton, Medical Director of Southern California TMS Center and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at USC Keck School of Medicine, explains that it’s important to acknowledge and accept their difficult feelings. “Understand that they are doing the best that they can,” Dr. Hutton urges. “Know that your love and support can provide a sense of hope.”

Do you hear that, friends and family? I’m trying my best, and I love you for doing the same thing.

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