Picture the scene: Mulled wine, a smorgasbord of delicious food, and endless choices of desserts. You’re surrounded by friends and family. The run up to this day, or this string of days, has been fraught with dashes into town to get last minute presents, wrestling with Black Friday website crashes in an effort to get the best gifts for your loved ones. It’s been stressful, but it’s been worth it.
Imagine how difficult that time period is for someone struggling with mental illness.
Honestly, every time I hear It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, a tiny part of me dies inside. There is nothing more frustrating than walking into a houseful of people wearing Christmas jumpers, decorating a tree while listening to a mix of Justin Bieber’s Christmas songs and lies like the Andy Williams classic. As soon as the Pumpkin Spice Lattes have left the Starbucks autumn menu, you can rest assured that I have started the emotional downward spiral that lasts until the bloody decorations have been taken down and everyone’s focused on Valentine’s Day. I hate this time of year. Not because I’m the Grinch
(I might be the Grinch) but because I absolutely cannot handle the juxtaposition of happy, merry, ho ho ho and how I feel once winter strikes.
There is something that seems so impossibly difficult about the parties we are expected to attend, the gift shopping requirements, the prolonged periods of time around families – particularly for anyone suffering from mental illness. That’s not to say that anyone who isn’t suffering doesn’t also experience difficulties when it comes to Christmas time; the scene I outlined above can be stressful enough for anyone (particularly where financial strains are involved). For those with depression, anxiety, BPD, OCD, eating disorders and basically any other illness that causes an individual to struggle daily with functioning as well as they can, Christmas time can be essentially torturous.
It got me thinking about it, a lot. There’s absolutely nothing we can do to combat the Christmas epidemic that appears to begin the first week in November and drags out until January.
Trust me, if I thought I could steal Christmas and shove it in a box somewhere, only to come out somewhere after the Late Late Toy Show has been on and return as soon as midnight on Christmas Day has passed, I would. What we can do, however, is think about what we can do to get ourselves through the extra stresses that might exacerbate any existing symptoms, or cause temporary new ones. Last week I was looking around to see what sort of coping tools people were using for Christmas time when I stumbled upon this amazing worksheet posted by borderlinebravery.com, a blog dedicated to providing helpful hints and hacks for dealing with BPD. The worksheet is specific to Thanksgiving, but is ultimately completely adaptable for any holiday or event that may cause a mental illness sufferer added distress. In addition to that wonderful little find, I compiled a list of helpful tips that just might get you, or someone you love, through this hideously festive season.
I cannot stress the importance and usefulness of making lists.
My tips even come in list form Santa may make naughty or nice lists, but you, my friend, can make to-do lists. There are several great iOS and Android apps available for free which feature to-do lists with push notifications and reminders. Pick one night a week to outline important tasks you wish to complete within the next 5-7 days. Whether that is shopping, getting outfits together, cleaning, organising meet-ups with friends or relatives, meeting college or work deadlines – whatever is important that you do within that week, write it down. These may seem like small tasks, but as the weeks roll by and Christmas draws closer, one may find it increasingly difficult to focus on tasks at hand, and thus grow overwhelmed. List making may seem like an incredibly obvious tip, but sometimes simply reminding yourself that a task or series of tasks can be broken down in list form can help break any additional building tension at this time of year. Plus, you get the wonderful satisfaction of getting to tick off a completed task. Even if you only get one thing done – it’s still one more than you’d achieved prior to making the list, so celebrate the little victories!
- NAVIGATING SHOPS
This is a tough one. There are days where I am so anxious, I cannot handle walking into a shop, let alone going in and actually buying something. When I was in hospital, it was confirmed I had a sensory sensitivity, which just means I am sensitive to noises and sights and smells to an extent – particularly to noises. One of the coping tools I was given (and it seems like a no-brainer) was to wear headphones walking about town, or earplugs if out with friends or my boyfriend. Being able to control the noise of crowds, and the noise of whatever Christmas nonsense is being shoved down your throat
or the noise of everyone clamoring around the stalls on Henry Street from the end of November to the start of January as Christmas denotes the time period in which everyone forgets how to walk anywhere with any sense of purpose and has a tendency to stop in the middle of the street making it impossible to traverse through any sort of crowd at all ever when it happens every ten feet is invaluable in one’s quest to complete gift shopping or clothes shopping or whatever venture has one valiantly navigating crowds at this time of year. Best I have managed so far is getting up early (and I mean EARLY), using a list app so I know exactly what I’m getting, knowing what shops I need to specifically go into, and knowing where I can go to that I feel safe and can take a break from crowds. For me, my ‘safe’ place is Easons. No one is ever unsafe in a book shop. If I feel overwhelmed at any point, I’ll duck in there and spend a few minutes browsing shelves until I get my breathing back under control. It’s not easy, and there’s no pain-free way of managing it (at least that I know of!) but there are methods of getting through the process in the least overwhelming manner possible. You can do it!
Timing is everything, as they say. If you’re arranging to meet with friends or family, try ensure it is on a day that you have time to get ready. Town and shopping centres are hectic at this time of year. For someone who experiences anxiety, or who finds it hard to motivate themselves, it can be nigh on impossible to be in any of these places past noon; that tends to make weekends a potential write-off. Some people consider it bad manners to bail on a friend, and while, yeah, it is in most cases, I think we can all excuse ourselves from a meeting if the alternative is a panic attack, or if you just feel you aren’t up to it. With all illnesses, it’s important to challenge yourself to a degree – but only as long as that challenge doesn’t put you in a situation where you don’t feel safe. If you don’t feel like you can explain to a friend why you’re bailing (the disclosure of mental illness is entirely up to you, and no one else), see if you can get a friend or family member to act as a sound bail-supporter for you. Come up with a code word you can text that will prompt the bail-supporter to call or text you with an emergency. It may seem unfair to the friend/family member, but at this time of year it is IMPERATIVE that you look after yourself as much as you can. I have had to bail on two friends in the last two weeks for a couple of different mental illness reasons – but I was open and honest because I knew I could be. If you really, really think the person you’re having to cancel on is unlikely to understand, a bail-supporter is your best bet in this instance. Dishonest? Yes. Necessary in some situations? Definitely.
It might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important. Take a look at the worksheet linked above; it has a page where you can mark places you can go to take a few minutes for yourself. This can be especially useful if you are someone other than your own home where you don’t have a bedroom to retreat to. Something as simple as hiding in the bathroom a few extra moments while you take some deep breaths, listen to a song, read a few pages of a book – or if you’re really wound up, splash cold water on your face, or run it over your wrists (this is a tip that is especially useful for anyone who engages in self-harm). There are other things a person can do in a situation where they are feeling particularly distressed – these steps, outlined by dailydbt, can really reduce distress, if even for a moment, and help give you time to calm yourself. Tips specific to eating disorders were published yesterday on bodywhys to help you or your loved one(s) be aware of thought patterns that may trigger a particular behaviour.
Which brings me to my next point – know your triggers! If your racist, sexist, mental-illness-denying great-grandmother/uncle/family friend is going to be present during the Christmas period, try pre-plan what you will do if something they say upsets you. Whether it’s following the time-out tips, or having someone in the room on hand who will act as a spotter and change the subject if they can see you becoming uncomfortable, or if you can let them know using a pre-determined hand signal that something has upset you. If this is not possible for your situation, use the time-out tip above. Excuse yourself as needing the bathroom and get yourself out of the situation before it escalates.
Not nearly the same as time out: This tip literally means take some you time, both in the weeks running up to Christmas and during it. Watch a film, read a book, take a bath, make sure you get as much sleep as you possibly can. If you’re finding you’re not sleeping, get out of bed, go to a different room, read or watch something, try again. Try not use your phone while in bed, as the glare from the screen messes with melatonin production (your sleep hormone) and can lessen the quality of sleep or prevent it occurring in the first place. I know it’s hard – but if sleep is really becoming an issue, this may be necessary. It’s a million times harder to function with an illness on no sleep than if you’re well-rested. Taking time out by yourself is important for recharging. If there are a lot of days where you’ll have to be around family or friends, try plan in half an hour or hour long blocks where you have time to be by yourself. It won’t always be realistically possible, but definitely try.
It can be the suckiest time of year. But, there are ways to make the most of it. I think knowing it’s just a couple more weeks until the whole thing is over can help. Above anything else, try to enjoy even the tiniest aspect of Christmas if you can, even if it’s just wrapping presents or getting to see a family member you don’t get to see much of usually. Finding the tiniest morsel of good in the bad can often lessen the tediousness of the situation, and potentially even make it worthwhile. Look after yourselves this winter. If you’re worried about a friend or family member, make sure you have the numbers for Samaritans, Aware and Pieta House on hand. Try talk to them if you can. Simply asking someone how they are, and listening to what they have to say, could make a massive difference for someone struggling through the holiday season.