I knew it was a bad idea, but I couldn’t help myself. On an early December flight from London to JFK, I watched the movie Love Actually. And I cried all the way back to New York.
Love Actually has long been one of my favorite movies. It’s also really, really sad. While most of the film’s characters get a (mostly) happy ending, the movie is chock full of bittersweet or downright depressing storylines, involving unrequited love, infidelity and grief. But maybe that’s why I like it so much; Love Actually acknowledges a simple, yet often glossed-over truth: for some people, the holidays are not a happy time.
I’ve always loved Christmas. And nobody did Christmas better than my mother. From her carefully-guarded sugar cookie recipe to the carols and homemade gingerbread houses and scented candles that filled our home, to the delight she took in decorating a towering evergreen tree, my Mom singlehandedly made Christmas my favorite holiday. And try as I might to remain festive, Christmas just hasn’t been the same since she died.
I suppose it’s inevitable that a season revolving around gathering family and friends together would also serve as a painful reminder of loved ones lost. If the “most wonderful time of the year” is less than wonderful for you, know this: you’re not alone. Here are a few things that make me feel better when I’m struggling to get into the holiday spirit:
Reach out. This is a tough one for me. I’ve always been self-sufficient, and asking for help is hard. But here are two things I’ve learned: 1.) People don’t know you need help unless you ask them, and 2.) Your friends and family want to help you, because guess what? They care about you. So, if you’re having a hard time, say something. Pick up the phone. Make a coffee or a dinner or a movie date. And if you’re simply too busy to get together, send a text. It’s amazing how a simple, “I’m thinking about you and wanted to say hello,” can lift someone’s day.
While I’m on the subject of reaching out, I recently re-discovered the lost art of letter writing. I’m long-distance pen pals with a couple of friends who live several states away, and I can’t tell you the delight I feel when I open the mailbox and find a handwritten note from one of them. And it’s just as much fun to write letters as it is to receive them. This holiday, I’m blocking out a couple of hours to go to the New York Public Library and write letters. Time consuming? Yes. A bit tedious? Perhaps. But always worth it. And if you’re struggling to find the time, consider how much time you spend scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, and you might find more hours in the day than you think.
Do what brings you joy. This seems obvious, but when you’re struggling with depression, it can be awfully hard to be good to yourself. My trick: think about how you’d spoil your best friend on their birthday, and do that for yourself. My favorite self-care activities are deep tissue massages and pedicures, but I also find tremendous peace and comfort in spending an hour or two wandering through a museum, or browsing in a bookstore. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it.
Give back. There are plenty of organizations that need volunteers around the holidays, and I’ll tell you something: there’s nothing like serving food to hungry people in a soup kitchen to gain perspective and realize that your life isn’t so bad. Whenever I’m at my lowest, I remember I can still be of service. And if you can’t give your time, consider giving money. I can’t buy presents for my Mom any more, but I can make a charitable donation in her name to organizations that she cared about, like The Humane Society.
Move. I know. Finding the motivation to exercise when you’ve got the blues is really tough. But be honest, has there ever been a time when you’ve dragged yourself to the gym and have regretted it afterwards? Sweating helps. When I really need a lift, I’ll make a playlist of cheesy pop songs and dance with abandon in the privacy of my living room. (See Hugh Grant’s dance scene in the aforementioned Love Actually if you need inspiration).
And when all else fails, be honest. If the holidays are hard for you, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s OK to decline the invitation to that party and stay home. It’s OK to wrap yourself in a blanket and binge watch Netflix. Give yourself a day or a couple of days to feel how you feel and know it’s all right. Remember, your emotions are just like the weather: constantly shifting. And just like the holidays themselves, this too, shall pass.