Christmas is a very difficult time of year for those of us with mental health problems. Particularly, those of us in the middle of a period where our condition actively affects a lot of aspects of our life. For me, this time of year is particularly difficult. Why? Because three days ago it was my birthday. I’ve just turned 24. I find, and always have found, that birthdays lead me to thinking about where I am in my life now and comparing that to previous years as well as thinking about how I compare to others my age. This is where I start to go wrong. As my boyfriend pointed out to me only last night, comparing myself to others is a very bad thing for me to do. I’m not very good at comparing myself on the good things or the positive aspects of my life or the things I do well when my life is going badly. I tend to focus on where I’m being outperformed by others, not achieving as much or areas in which I’m less talented than them.
At this particular time of year you’re surrounded by expectations – expectations to be happy, successful, coping, even a joy to be around. When you’re mentally ill these expectations are not necessarily something you can live up to every day and this can lead to you feeling very worried about any social encounters you might have with other, more successful and joyous people, or indeed anyone. On a day-to-day basis I try to ignore these thoughts and feelings and mostly, I do very well at just muddling along and keeping busy. Christmas really does compound the problem though because I normally love this time of year where you get to see people you’ve not seen since the previous year or travel home from Uni for the holidays filled with exciting stories of the fun you’ve been having there. Normally I get to enjoy the carol services, Christmas lights, food shopping, present shopping but this year all I’ve been able to join in with is decorating my Christmas tree (it is a stunner though).This can lead to you wanting to just isolate yourself and spend the whole festive season on your own but then you’re left feeling lonely knowing that so many others are all having a lovely time together. So you put on a brave face and try to ignore your own pain and suffering so that you don’t ruin Christmas for those you’re spending it with.
However, I know I am not great company. To put it bluntly, I feel I have nothing to offer currently. I don’t have a job to talk about, I can’t tell you about my children, how busy the shops have been or the latest deal at Tesco. I don’t have any events to look forward to or talk about, any gossip from the office Christmas party, or plans to excitedly make for New Year’s Eve. This is probably one of the reasons why I feel so anxious every time someone calls or visits me because I don’t know what to talk about. This year I’ll be spending Christmas at my dad’s with his partner, a couple of their friends and my brother. While I’m excited about it and looking forward to spending some of the festive season with my family, it’s also filling me with dread because I feel that I have so little to offer. What can I talk about? What can I tell them? No one wants to talk about an anxiety disorder or my latest medication side effects over Christmas dinner and beyond that there’s not an awful lot going on in my life. I watch a lot of films and TV but not the same things as they do so we can’t discuss the final of Strictly or The Apprentice or the latest episode of Holby City. So what do I have to offer to a conversation?
It feels like my life has been on pause since the day I had to stop work. That’s 9 months and counting of my life being on pause while everyone else’s are racing by. People I graduated with are now in amazing graduate jobs as Assistant Psychologists, Research Assistants, Psychology teachers or training to be Mental Health Nurses. The offer for the job I interviewed for in March was withdrawn in September because they needed to fill the space and I wasn’t well enough to work. People I went to school with are able to drive cars, have got married or are buying their first house while I’m living in a rented flat with my boyfriend having to financially support me because I’m not well enough to work. This is not how I envisaged my life to be and despite knowing that it isn’t my fault, I can’t help but feel like I’ve failed and let myself and everyone else around me down. Today, as you can probably tell, is not a good day and I’m feeling pretty hopeless, but I’m not like this every day and it’s certainly been exacerbated throughout December knowing that Christmas has been looming. I for one, am very much looking forward to the 1st of January and will be doing everything in my power to make sure that I’m not as ill, or restricted by next Christmas because this has been no fun at all. Worrying about what to say and how to behave when your life is almost solely consumed by an anxiety disorder leads to a very challenging Christmas With Mental Illness.