The holidays are a time for us to give thanks and to celebrate the miracle of Christmas. It’s a time to enjoy family and friends while reflecting on all of our blessings and looking forward with hope. However, despite all the joy and wonderment of the season, for me this time of year can be extremely difficult. I find myself cringing as I admit that because I realize I may appear ungrateful and negative, but be assured the intent of this is not to complain, whine or go on a rant about the holidays. Undoubtedly this time of year can be stressful for all of us. But I want to be completely honest about how having an illness makes this time of year a struggle.

What I’m talking about is typical holiday stress magnified times ten. As I look back on my life through the lens of mental illness I realize there are many triggers I have to be aware of in order to stay healthy and they just so happen to show up all at once right about now. I recognize patterns and see how frequently and easily I experienced illness this time of year. It typically starts around the beginning of November and can last just a few days or up to several months.

For me the first domino is the time change. Spending increasingly more time indoors and being less active disrupts my sleep cycle which in turn can trigger a mild state of mania. At first it feels great and I’m tricked into thinking everything will be wonderful and I will easily be able to handle everything and anything placed before me. However, that rarely happens. It doesn’t take long for me to finally crash and burn which then sets off an emotional rollercoaster that can literally become months and months of on and off torture.

My mind will race with ideas — presents, cards, parties, crafts, cookies, vacation, gatherings…you name it, I want to do it. I make lists and set unrealistic goals . I take it all on at once but eventually my mind begins to slow and soon falling into the pit seems imminent. The hopelessness and realization that I may not be successful in getting all or any of it done sets in and the pressure of looming deadlines triggers bouts of anxiety, panic attacks, agitation and ultimately despair.

There have been times I couldn’t handle Christmas shopping because I was unable to think ahead or I simply could not figure out how to do it. I have a Master’s Degree, yet I would stand in a store and not be able to make sense of my list so I would leave defeated and empty handed. Often my doctor would make adjustments to my meds to help counteract everything going on in my mind, but more often than not it would interfere with memory and my ability to solve problems and stay organized, which definitely is not very helpful in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

This decline in being able to function well brings on the inevitable guilt that starts to take over when I am not full of joy or able to keep up. I get overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of complete paralysis, and I truly question whether I will ever survive. Then the social aspect of the holidays kicks into high gear. There are all kinds of amazingly wonderful things to do, but when my brain isn’t functioning correctly, my body is adjusting to medication and my mind is working against me it can become unbearable. One year I spent Christmas day on the floor watching my kids open presents trying to participate in their joy. The only thing I could think about was the trip I was going to be making to admit myself to a hospital the following day because my depression had me paralyzed and I truly believed I was going to be swallowed by it with no way out.

People have accused me of being ungrateful or difficult and I can understand it may seem that way from the outside. Trust me, I want more than anything to sing with joy and love and appreciate all that is going on around me. I have to be honest though, sometimes it’s nearly impossible. The crowds, the noise, the pressure to constantly smile and be involved in never ending conversations that I can’t follow or contribute to because I get lost provoke panic. My tongue gets tied or what I do say ends up making no sense at all causing me to want to isolate and be silent forever.

Years ago I went to my pastor around this time of year and admitted I didn’t think I could go on and live another day this way. I bottomed out and asked for help. He suggested I concentrate only on what Christmas really signifies and to focus on it over and over. It seemed kind of silly and trite, but believe it or not that’s the only thing that got me through. It took a total change of focus. And I’m not saying it was easy or that it immediately fixed me and as a result it has been wonderful ever since. It hasn’t and that can be frustrating. The illness in not curable. The symptoms can manifest at any given moment especially when all triggers are present at once. But there is something different about the times I’ve forced myself to try — even just a tiny bit — to think about God and what He did for us and remind myself that it’s really the only thing that matters. Those times have been bearable. In the midst of a panic attack during a large gathering, if I close my eyes and say “Please help me God,” I make it through. When my kids are screaming with joy on Christmas morning and all I want to do is crawl in a hole, if I take a deep breath and tell God I’m lost and want more than anything to make the day special for my kids, I am able to get through the day with a smile on my face. When I try to comprehend the magnitude of God’s gift of Himself to us on Christmas, it somehow calms me and there is a glimmer of hope.

I’ve learned a lot over the years. I am aware of what my triggers are so I can try to avoid them. I know what coping mechanisms don’t work well so I no longer use them. I know my pride gets in the way of me asking for help, so I try to swallow it and ask anyway. I have to accept that sometimes I get depressed and remind myself that it is not my fault. I have to give myself permission to allow myself time to get well. I have to take advantage of the times I am well to cherish every single moment so that if I do get sick I have something to hold onto.

When I sit in church I try to focus on the music and listen to the lyrics. I try to imagine what it was like for Mary and Joseph over 2000 years ago as they were searching for a place to stay, aware of the responsibility that lay before them. I think of their obedience to God and how fully they had to trust Him, despite probably being terrified and wondering how they were ever going to manage the monumental task of giving birth in a stable to the Son of God. Then I look at whatever situation I’m faced with. I know God has brought me out of darkness before. I know whenever I ask for help He is there. I know when I choose to trust and surrender myself to Him hope becomes real. Sometimes the idea of making it through the darkness seems monumental. But here’s the thing — He always gets me THROUGH the darkness. He has never left me there. God is so powerful and there is nothing that is too big for Him. He takes situations that seem hopeless or impossible and turns them into miracles.

That’s what I intend to focus on this Christmas. As the season’s demands and triggers seem ready to swallow me whole and I find myself starting to slip, I will focus on the miracle of Christmas to remind me of the miracle that is my life. There is nothing I can’t handle as long as I acknowledge that God is with me, waiting to lead me, love me, comfort me and get me through just as He has always done. That is the hope we all need to grab hold of because it is available to each and every one of us. I encourage you to focus on that this year and allow God to help you. I guarantee it will make a difference.

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