I hate the term holiday blues. I think that’s because when I was 19, December rolled around and I fell into a full-blown depression, complete with sleepless nights, loss of appetite and thoughts of suicide. The holiday blues sound like an uptempo jazz standard compared to the nightmarish thoughts blaring in my head. I’m hardly the only college student who has teetered on the brink of a breakdown. It’s practically a cliche to experience some sort of mental and emotional suffering when you’re that age. But at the time, it didn’t feel like a cliche. It felt like the fight of my life, the recovery from which, with the help of therapy, was an epic journey up from an underworld I feared I might inhabit for the rest of my life. Months later, sitting in my therapist’s office, trying to solve a Rubick’s Cube that she kept on her desk, I clicked one row of orange squares together and felt a spark of hope. I woke up the next morning and thought, What’s for breakfast? I knew I was doing a lot better — at least enough to begin to function again.
I’ve never suffered another episode of depression, but ever since then, I’ve never experienced a happy holiday season either. I know that this is a particularly difficult time of year for many people. Especially those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or those who are grappling with more tangible hardships like financial struggles or a death in the family. I wish I could say I had a definitive reason to feel so meh in December. It’s much harder to pin down my discomfort around this time of year because it’s not related to my external circumstances — I have a wonderful family, great friends, a happy relationship and a job I love. I have much to be grateful and joyous about and I know it. The thing is, I consider myself a more-or-less happy person — at least for big pockets of time year-round. I understand how to access joy more often as I get older — positive thoughts, low expectations, balance. Even still, at this time of year, despite my best efforts, despite all my blessings, I find myself hanging on tight and crossing my fingers that I don’t spiral into darkness again.
For years after my depressive episode, I feared that the gaping hole would come pull me under again, like a big, black, vacuum of nothingness. It never did, it never has, but for a full decade after, illness claimed me instead — a sinus infection, the flu, bronchitis. I spent every year, from my birthday through Christmas, sometimes even through New Year’s, sick in bed. It was convenient, because when you’re running a high fever and vomiting, you don’t have to worry about getting depressed. You don’t have to worry about anything. You get to check out of the holidays completely and pretend like they don’t exist. No planning what you’re going to do on your birthday, no buying presents for anyone, no having to go to any parties and make small talk with relatives about what you’re doing with your life. Just you, alone in your bed, watching marathons on Netflix. Safe.
Around the time I turned 30, I stopped getting sick at Christmastime and began to physically check out. I booked tickets to Dublin, Paris, Boston with friends, to visit family. I rationalized that having some big getaway at that time of year would give me something to look forward to and distract me from myself. I was convinced I could fly away from holiday cheerlessness, as if drinking a Guinness in a sleet storm in Ireland would make me feel merry and bright. Not really. I felt the same unspecified meh-ness, just in another country, with a Guinness in my hand. Not that I didn’t enjoy these trips — I did — but enjoying something and feeling joy are two different things.
Training to be a yoga teacher these past few months, I’ve had many assignments that I now see have been helpful in shifting my holiday mindset. I’ve gone on a gossip cleanse, pondered the idea of contentedness and meditated every morning. I’ve asked myself the BIGGER questions Why bother? What’s the point? My answer being: little steps become big ones over time. Meditating every morning produces no direct results, but when faced with a difficult moment in my day, it offers me the space to take pause and gauge what my reaction is going to be. In this same way, over time, I realize I’ve taken little steps to being on more solid ground, mentally and emotionally. I finally feel secure in the fact that Santa will not bring me depression or even a flu for Christmas this year. But I still find the feeling of holiday joy elusive.
This year, I’ve decided to take a more moderate approach to the season. No fear of depression, no expectation of joy. I am going to spend the holidays with family. My boyfriend is coming along. We’re going to drive to Sedona, Arizona and do some hiking. Maybe I’ll get a massage and buy some crystals if I’m feeling really New Agey. And if all that my effort leaves me with is a feeling of meh, I’m not going to fight it. I’m going to think back on how low I’ve been, how far I’ve come and be grateful that I’m never going back there. I’m going to accept that during the holidays, maybe meh is good enough for me.