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When it’s not the most wonderful time of the year

AT ITS BEST, Christmas is a magical reprieve from real life. But alternately, it’s a reminder of how hard life can be.

by Anne T. Donahue

AT SOME POINT in mid-November, everything changes: the holiday decorations go up, plans for dinners and gift exchanges begin, and shopping malls morph into shrines dedicated to all things merry and bright.

For many this signals the start of the very best time of the year. You may thrive on sending cards, organizing Secret Santa, or planning and plotting what to serve on Christmas Day. And to an extent, I’m right there with you. I love Christmas music, decorating my tiny vintage-looking Christmas tree, and serving my family and friends an infinite number of shrimp rings until they beg me to please serve them a vegetable. Each year, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide which cards to send, and then I spend even longer working on them because I get distracted by watching Home Alone on repeat. At its best, Christmas is a magical reprieve from real life. But alternately, it’s a reminder of how hard life can be.

The holiday blues are very real, and it’s no secret that depression and anxiety tend to spike over the holidays. Thanks in part to everything from finances to travel woes to dealing with family (especially if your relationships are strained), emotions are charged and stresses are high. Plus, for some the holidays are defined by less-than-ideal (and unrelated) life events: the first Christmas after my Nana died, I cried in front of the tree with my whole family watching after I unwrapped a present she’d left for me. I was 17 then, now I’d just cry in the car like a grown-up. And a few years ago, my Uncle’s death loomed over us, especially when we realized he wouldn’t be coming over for dessert like he normally did.

Then, there are the years where everything’s simply gone wrong and the holidays are just making everything feel worse. And while the CDC reports that self-harm and suicide attempts don’t go up, general malaise absolutely does. Which isn’t news: I haven’t met anyone who’s completely evaded the holiday blues, nor have I personally endured a January/February without a touch of the blahs (or more). And sometimes, the arrival of Christmas—while joyous and fun and an excuse to eat appetizers for dinner—is merely a bittersweet reminder that within days it’ll be time to take down the tree and fight the urge to spend the rest of the season curled up on my couch, hibernating until spring. Sometimes, the new start of a new year is a reminder of how many long, cold weeks are left before we can wear t-shirts again.

But the thing is, if this has happened to me, it’s obviously happened to people we know, love, and care about—and perhaps even in a deeper way. So ultimately, that awareness comes with a responsibility on our part: while we may be having the time of our lives during Christmas or New Year’s Eve, it’s also up to us to break from the party long enough to make sure everyone we love, like (or even tolerate) is doing okay. Each winter, we wax poetic about mental health awareness while posting tweets with #BellLetsTalk. So why not begin practicing what we preach today?

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