The Nightmare Before Christmas
A reindeer derailed my equilibrium this week. I was in M&S grabbing lunch, when I caught a glimpse of the festive season’s favourite antlered creature adorning a glittery object. A suffocating lump rose in my throat immediately. The welling tears that followed were halted by a phone call. I swallowed hard, picked up the phone and got back in the room.
Later that day as I walked back to M&S (clearly a fan) after work to get my evening meal, I felt both the literal and emotional darkness of the season fold around me.
Once again, as with every year at this time, I thought I was getting away with it. The weather has been surprisingly mild and the sun still shines in the morning as I walk to the bus. The leaves have turned into all of my favourite golden, rust-tinged shades and I’m enjoying cherry red sunsets from my lounge, as the light casts a warm comforting glow through my window in the evenings. I recently ordered my first hot chocolate of the season, which will soon become a daily chai latte. I have started to dream of cosy nights at home and Sunday lunches in the pub with my friends.
However, for me, things at this time of year are never that simple. I’m a November baby and my birthday is both a marker of where I am and where I could be. I usually enter the celebrations with glee and go full throttle, only to endure an emotional hangover that ends in February. I progress from birthday cheer/comparison anxiety in November, to the dreaded December – a whole month when I am reminded of the passing of my beloved stepfather, Carlo, in the days before Christmas almost four years ago, followed by his funeral on new year’s eve and a family fracas that still stings like it was yesterday. January is always pretty much a non-event punctuated by colds, flu and inertia.
In recent years at this time, I’m reminded more than ever of the children I thought I’d have, a conversation with a specialist a year ago that means this is a quickly fading dream, and too often I imagine a life that I might be living at Christmas with a family of my own. Last year, I’m ashamed to admit that even while spending Christmas on a beautiful white sandy beach, my heart was heavy with this same thought.
I feel ashamed because I know that I have so much to be grateful for. I am here. Six years ago, I did not believe that this would be the case. I had three days to say goodbye to Carlo as I held his hand, when many people’s loved ones die without them having that same opportunity. I am alive and there are too many who are not here today, those who have lost children, those who are in ill health and those who have far less than I do – I acknowledge this and also know that there is only pain in craving what you don’t have.
I’m thankful for my health, my beautiful home, which is my sanctuary, my blended family that consists of both actual relatives and a circle of amazing friends that I quite honestly cannot believe I have – those who are hatching plans to celebrate me in a few weeks, those who’ve booked trains, planes, babysitters, and are truly excited to come and celebrate 40 years of me!! (I CANNOT BELIEVE IT).
However, as most of you know reading this right now, depression and anxiety are indiscriminate, and they can be triggered around the festive season – a time when there is a heavy emphasis on being with family and having fun. If your family set-up is far from your ideal, if you’ve lost people and if you’re not feeling sociable for whatever reason, then this can be a difficult time. While many are enjoying the glitter and the anticipation of the first Coca-Cola ‘Holidays are coming’ ad, I’m battling a wave of mixed emotions. Even with the tried-and-tested skills I have, even though these days I can see and feel the wave coming from miles away, drowning can still feel like a possibility.
My family situation has never really been easy. My mother and I haven’t spoken since June. It’s been a difficult time that is intensifying as I approach a landmark birthday and a season that represents togetherness. Sadly, nobody wins and the details of what happened are not to be shared here, but what I can tell you is that it’s a heart-breaking and exhausting situation. It burns like acid within my stomach throughout the day and there’s an ache in my heart that hurts so much sometimes that I think it could actually be breaking (I googled whether that’s a possibility at 2am the other night, in between conversations with God about why I was born into this).
I’m not without family. Only a few days after ‘reindeer-gate’, I had a meltdown at home and my uncle was over within an hour, bringing Cadburys, wine and listening to Barbra Streisand with me (don’t judge) as I cried my heart out. In recent years, I’ve reconnected with my biological father and my stepmother, who live in Ghana, and my half-siblings. They really care about me and we are now at a good place on what has been a long road for us all.
Despite the kindness, generosity and love they show me, there’s something that keeps me lonely in this situation and it’s a thing I can’t describe other than to say that sometimes I notice the memories they share, jokes I wasn’t there for, and an unparalleled instinct that they have for each other. I’m glad to say that I now love to see that without feeling excluded or unloved, but I do still feel the years we missed and worry sometimes about sharing too much that might make them distant from me.
And so, this brings me to Christmas day itself – the place my head sprang to in seconds at the sight of that reindeer – the pinnacle moment of the season. This week, at home in the ‘Wide Awake Club’ (2am-5am FYI) I’ve imagined spending Christmas at a hotel on the coast, walking lonely like Cathy in Wuthering Heights with the wind in my hair and sleeping through ‘the big two’ days. (Perhaps too dramatic and I’m sure I’d regret it after a few hours of being there?)
I’ve also imagined myself in an ashram (Too far to go?), at home with my friends (I’ve been there before…Can I keep it together long enough not to feel like a loser at their table?), with my dad and the family in Ghana (Can I retreat and lie on a bed there and cry when I feel like shit?) and in London (Surely my Uncle Simon and Aunty Sam are tired of me by now – I slept through one Christmas at their house already!) and it goes on … and I just can’t place myself anywhere. I’ll let you know where I land – hopefully I’ll come through it all, bypassing the booze-fuelled, tear-stained, snot-faced version of me that I have been during Christmases past.
Right now, even though I sense a wave coming, there is also more hope than I have known previously. I feel I might be carried above it all by the love I feel around me. For once, I am leaning in to it. I’m having conversations about my feelings with those who want to be there. I’m writing this piece, I’m doing all that I can do to express in healthy ways rather than bury it and I’m starting to interrupt my thoughts with a different narrative when I hear the voice of doom. I want to do this differently, I really do.
If you feel like me, then please know that you’re not alone and that you don’t know who else is suffering. If you met me briefly, or at work, I can guarantee that you would never know my pain, so bear that in mind when you feel ashamed, embarrassed or alone. I hope that Surviving Sundays can be a place for you to come when you feel lost. Know that I see you and that if you lean in to love, it might help you to swim closer to shore.