Coping with the Holiday Blues

The holidays are upon us. I was pleased to find in my research that the rumors of increased suicide attempts during the holiday period has been proven inaccurate. In fact, the opposite seems to be true — with more people reporting improvements in mental health, possibly because we typically interact more with other people during this season than during the rest of the year.

But what if, due to no fault of your own, the holidays reflect more about what you’ve lost than what you have?

That was my feeling about the holiday season for many, many years. Memories of happier times did not comfort me. I went through the motions, but felt like Christmas — the major holiday of my childhood — was simply another day where the thing I wanted most (my mother) was missing.

Not only was the thing I wanted unobtainable, but gifts in general felt like a poor substitute. Carols? Cookies? Reindeer? Nah. Didn’t do a thing for me. I was looking for something that could not be found in a store or under a tree or even in a church.  Like the first part of the song, “Where Are You Christmas?”, I had changed, but the holidays were a chain to my past.

This is my 21st Christmas without my mother. That’s a lot of crappy holidays. Too many. But I’m please to report some improvements over the past few years. The major reason is the birth of my own children, who are enchanted by the magical side of Christmas. They believe in Santa, and I love watching their excitement. It has brought a new joy into the season. Hang around with young children during the holidays. It’s much more fun.

I’ve also focused less on myself and more on others.  Giving to others is one relatively simple way to find the spirit of the holidays when it feels like it’s missing. I make donations during this time of year. They are small, but I make sure they count. I give to people and charities doing work I believe in. I donate time to organizations that make a difference. In helping others, I help myself reconnect with what is truly important in our lives. And in this economy, the need is greater than ever.

I also have given myself permission to give up parts of Christmas that feel more burdersome than celebretory. I made three batches of simple cookies instead of 10 batches of those tasty, but very complicated, recipes handed down by my grandmothers. Our dinner is also simplified — only the dishes we truly enjoy will find it to our table this year. No homemade gifts from me either — great idea, but I don’t enjoy crafting enough to make that my priority. I still do Christmas cards because I enjoy receiving them, but the letter inside is printed from a computer instead of handwritten (my preference).

Another idea that I like is simply skipping the holidays. Leave the decorations in the attic, find someone to pick up your mail, get a cheap flight and hotel on the Internet, and then take off for someplace tropical. If the holidays are painful, I think doing something radically different is an okay way to cope with the situation. I confess that I have not put this option into action, but I reserve the right to in future years.

My own experience has led me to believe that time does help.  Those 20 years of cruddy Christmases are not a life-long sentence. Each year is gets a little easier as I find ways to make the holiday season reflect what I feel is important. It’s a journey, not a destination.


My Struggle with Postpartum Depression

After my son was born, I was deliriously happy for a few weeks. His first night at home, I remember feeling happier than I ever remember being in my life. It was if we had known each other before, and only recently found each other again. He completed us — we were a family at last.

Then I started into a slow decline – so slow that neither my husband nor I realized what was happening in the confusion of caring for an infant. I ended up in the hospital after complications from gallbladder surgery when my son was six months old. He got a very nasty virus from visiting me in the hospital. He was sick for a month, and my decline spiraled out of control, compounded by my own struggles to recover from surgery and too many sleepless nights. The official diagnosis was postpartum depression. All I knew is that the world felt bleak and hopeless. I glimpsed the void that caused my mother to take her own life. For a few nanoseconds, I understood.

My husband made an appointment for me with my doctor, who put me on Zoloft and recommended a therapist. I hated going. And I’m not sure I would have if my husband didn’t insist. But he did, and I went. The Zoloft help stabilize my mood, and the therapist helped me work out some issues that parenthood brought up.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do – I resented the time and the expense. However, with hindsight, I now see that I really needed to address some major issues, mostly around my parents. And it was important that I break the cycle – my mother was also prone to depression as well as bipolar. I was beginning to repeat her patterns, and I wanted to be a different mother to my kids. It’s still a constant battle, but I feel like I’ve made some progress.

I’m off the Zoloft now, but we’re all watching me very carefully, as the stress of parenting two small children could trigger another round. Motherhood, particularly when it involves small children, does not provide many opportunities to care for yourself. Yet as the family member of someone with a serious mental illness, I know how important it is for the ill person to seek care. It was far harder than I originally thought it would be, and I understand at some level why mentally ill people resist their own treatment.

I tell this story because I believe two people were key to ensuring I got the care I needed. The first is my husband, who went so far as to make the initial appointment with my doctor himself and ensure I had babysitters so I could make every appointment with both my doctor and therapist. The second is my ob-gyn, who took action immediately — getting me quickly to the people who could help me. They did the right things.

If you are the depressed person, and you don’t have a partner who is as proactive as my husband is, know that doing the right thing for your health is HARD. You will have to force yourself to make that first phone call. And you’ll have to force yourself to keep the appointment. And you’ll have to resist the excuses to back out or not show up or stop your medication.

But I’m here to tell you that you are worth it. Whether you are the ill person or the family member of someone struggling with mental illness, take that first step. Pick up the phone. PSI Postpartum Depression Helpline: 1.800.944.4PPD

Telling Others About A Family Member Who Has Committed Suicide

I’ve struggled with one question for 20 years: “How do I tell my new friend that my mother committed suicide?”

It always comes up eventually, so I have to prepare myself. Not because I’m ashamed of my mother. I’ve come to terms with the circumstances of her death and accepted it as a part of my history.

But when it comes to dealing with other people? I wonder what their reactions will be. Will my new friend still want to be friends or will I be stigmatized because my mother was mentally ill? Will she be able to see me, not my mother’s death?

And now that I have “mommy” friends, will they feel like they need to protect their children from someone with mental illness in her family? After all, most people are afraid of mental illness, and most people calm their fear through avoidance. It makes them feel like they can control the situation.

As my sister mentioned in an earlier post, we grew up in a small town, a small pond where our mother was a fairly big fish. For years afterward people saw not me as an individual, but as my mother’s daughter. Even today I sometimes find that my relatives look at me and see a reflection of their own pain of losing my mother. I’ve learned how to diffuse those situations with charity and – I hope – a bit of grace.

However, when it comes to telling someone about my mother for the first time, I still have to brace myself for their reaction. I’m so used to the surprised and shocked expressions that I can’t just say, “She committed suicide.” I feel like I have to break it to them gently, as if their feelings are more important. I have to make a face or sigh; I am compelled to prepare the other person for what I’m about to say.

Part of me thinks, why should I worry about making the other person comfortable? But I guess that it’s a defense mechanism that makes me more comfortable. I can react in a preemptive way so that they know it’s a sensitive and important subject. I also can avoid pretending to be stoic, which can also close off any further discussion.

Most importantly, if I tell the truth, I’m bringing light to a subject that most people want or feel they need to hide.

Secrecy is not an option for me. I hope to be an example of openness and the beauty of survival, and I hope to inspire others to do the same.