Holidays with Mental Illness
Like many kids, when I was younger, Christmas was my favorite time of the year. From the presents to the food to the traditions to the time spent with my family, it was an all-around magical experience. Snapshot memories like riding the “Polar Express” in Essex, portraying an Archangel in my church’s Christmas Pageant, and exploring Rockefeller Center in New York City have stuck with me to this day, many years later.
But the holidays weren’t always a joyful time for me. In eighth grade, I was struggling a lot with my mental health. Food, once one of my favorite parts of Christmas, had become something I dreaded. I wouldn’t allow myself to enjoy my favorite childhood treats, like peppermint bark and sugar cookies, I loathed the way my new clothing fit me, and I was constantly at war with my parents. Everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, was a battle with them to the point where we were better off not speaking at all.
Ninth grade was even worse. I was at such a low point in my life that I genuinely believe that the excitement of Christmas was the only thing worth living for. So, when Christmas morning came, I tortured my family by opening every gift painfully slowly, desperate to drag out the experience for as long as I possibly could. And then, when there were no more presents under the tree, I cried. That small shred of hope that I was clinging to was gone, and it was devastating.
This idea that Christmas was the temporary cure for my problems persisted in the years that followed. While my mental health slowly improved, I continued my new tradition of making Christmas last all day. I would block out times to open gifts around my scheduled meals and would frequently take breaks in between. And of course, when the time came to open my final present, I was overcome with sadness and disappointment. No matter how amazing my gifts were, it was never enough to compensate for the fact that the next morning, I’d return to my miserable daily grind. The vicious cycle of deprivation, denial, and defiance that had dominated my life since eighth grade seemed like it would never end.
And then, propelled by external support and internal strength, it did.
This holiday season, I decided I would not let my mental illness dictate how I spent Christmas. Instead of preoccupying myself with worries about food and dreading the moment that the festivities ended, I focused my attention on everything that was good in my life. I’d recently been accepted into my number one college. I had a book on the market that was doing well. I’d even begun to enjoy food again.
I know that I will never forget those miserable Christmases, but at least I have the opportunity to create new memories—better memories. Unlike in the past, I’ve found reasons to look forward to the year ahead. I’m excited to embark on new experiences, to meet new people, and to continue improving myself as a person. After all, isn’t that what the New Year is about?