"All I want for Christmas...is not to fall into a bottomless pit of despair". Granted, it's not as catchy as Mariah's original but for me it's definitely a more accurate representation of how many people my age feel at this time of year. Like many 31 year olds living with a mental health condition, the run up to Christmas and indeed the big event itself, for me, is not as magical as I'm lead to believe it should be.
There are so many different reasons why I find Christmas difficult. There's the crippling sense of loss; knowing that some of the people who used to make it really sparkle are no longer around and missing them so much it hurts. There's the painful memories of growing up, parents splitting up and the beginnings of my anxiety disorder that instantly punch me in the face as soon as I arrive back home. And then there's the knowledge that you've gone way over budget with your Christmas shopping and that your next pay cheque is far, far away at the back end of January.
These are all things that I've now come to expect - and to some extent, feelings that I can deal with. They don't get easier, but they're like old friends, I know them well. The one thing however that I'm still grappling with and never seem to get a grip on is the expectation that comes with Christmas. The notion that we must be jolly, joyful and most of all, sociable.
For most people, a lot of the festive season is about going out and drinking and there's a real pressure to go along with this. Whether it be Christmas markets, office parties or nights out with friends; if you don't get involved - Bah Humbug! My social life has definitely changed over the last six years of living with depression and anxiety and sometimes I'm fine with it but then sometimes I beat myself up about it, with Christmas being the optimum time for this. I'm constantly battling with myself. I know full well that I don't really enjoy going out in big groups and that I don't really enjoy drinking (the low feelings that come with a hangover just aren't worth it anymore) yet I still push myself to do it- usually with disastrous consequences.
Last year I went to Winter Wonderland with some friends and ended up having a plethora of panic attacks and fleeing without saying goodbye. I also arranged the work's Christmas party and got so stressed about it that I made myself physically ill. I ended up feeling humiliated, embarrassed and full of self-loathing. I figured everyone would think I was rude and then beat myself up some more.
Mixed in with the feeling of pressure surrounding being sociable at Christmas is the added expectation that comes from social media. And I think this is a big factor in feelings of isolation, loneliness and failure for people my age at this time of year. We see these seemingly perfect pictures of people having fun and enjoying themselves and we compare it with our own lives and are instantly left with a feeling of hopelessness. I've lost count of the times I've staged the perfect picture; Christmas tree lights twinkling in the background, perfectly wrapped presents under the tree, glass of Prosecco in hand with a Santa hat etc. The reality of course is that whilst attempting to wrap said presents I've had countless meltdowns and have actually spent the day curled up in a ball on the sofa wishing the world would go away. It's a distorted reality and it's so important we remember that.
This year, I'm trying to do things differently (famous last words), and so far I'd say I'm doing okay. I've not said yes to any social events that I know I can't go through with and I've tried to do the things that I enjoy and not the things I'm told I should enjoy at this time of year. And that for me is key. Doing what I enjoy; whether that be baking, watching movies whilst wrapped up in a blanket, walking the dog or reading and not feeling bad or guilty for not doing what everyone else is doing.
Another little tip for coping at Christmas would be to look for the positives. That could be plucking up the courage to phone a friend, going out shopping or even just getting up and showering. When dealing with a mental health issue, the smallest of tasks can seem the most daunting and it's important to recognise our achievements, however big or small.
You might not feel like speaking to your family about how you're feeling, you might not feel like speaking to your friends; but that doesn't mean you need to suffer in silence this Christmas. Mind's website has a whole heap of information to help and support those who need it. Logging on this Christmas might just give you the confidence to speak up - the best thing I ever did was reach out and tell someone.
For information on how to look after your mental health over Christmas see www.mind.org.uk/ourchristmas