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’Tis the Season

Silver Hill Hospital

Many of us have had the experience of walking through a shopping mall and hearing the familiar jingle “Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la, la la la,” during this time of year. If we happen to feel excited about the holidays, such melodies can lift our spirits and kindle warm memories.

Not all will share in fondness for the holiday season, however; not now, or maybe ever. Holidays can evoke many mixed feelings, even negative ones. This can feel stigmatizing for those who feel out of synch with the season. One of the difficulties for those struggling with mental illness this time of year can be the discrepancy between external demonstrations of celebration and happiness—the peppy jingles and holiday parties—and internal experiences of sadness, loss, anxiety, depression and more.

In my work with people impacted by mental illness and addiction over the years, I have learned well the struggles of the season. For one, the fault lines of strained or broken relationships really become apparent with the added attention to family during the holidays. Those who have lost parents, siblings or who are estranged from families or spouses can feel a heightened sense of absence.  

I have also learned that facing emotional pain during the holidays can leave people feeling like “outsiders” during a purportedly happy time. Some may wonder, “what is wrong with me?” This experience of difference can fuel shame– the painful sense of being defective and not belonging. Once caught in a shame spiral, some may retreat and feel even more depressed.

There are ways out of shame and despair, and there is a way to cope. It is through connection. In fact, I believe that connection is the greatest source of hope. By connecting with those we trust, and letting them know of our struggles, we can find support and relief. We feel seen and heard.

One of the most striking things I hear from patients is just how much being a part of a community aids in their healing. People describe the impact of finding others they can relate to and who can understand their plight. Many who felt alone discover that their pain is not so uncommon. They learn that there are those who have been through tough times and came through them. As a result, their burdens are eased, and a restored sense of belonging is kindled.

You might be thinking, “How does this apply to me? I am not in a hospital.” Of course, most reading this blog are not currently hospitalized. Can anything be learned that might apply to you? Yes, I believe so. For anyone facing hardship this season, it is vital to identify a source of connection. Look in your newspaper for support groups, talk to your psychiatrist, your therapist, your sponsor, a friend, or a faith leader about what the holiday season is really like for you. It is okay to not be okay. Connect with those who can understand and empathize what you are up against. While the season may not be jolly for you, it can be faced with dignity and the strength you draw from your connection with others.