'Depression and Christmas just don't go'

Charlotte in front of her tree

On the day many people will be waking up to the prospect of a fortnight at home, blogger Charlotte Walker shares how she plans to take care of her mental health during the festive season.

I have often found Christmas difficult. This year I'm recovering from a mental health crisis which makes seasonal planning particularly challenging. It's common to feel under pressure to create a magical Christmas but if you are already stressed, anxious or depressed, that pressure can be magnified.

I know I'm not alone. Over recent weeks I've seen members of the online mental health community tweet their worries, or even downright dread, as they contemplate the festive season.

My friend Alice encapsulated the problem in a pithy 33 characters: "Depression and Christmas just don't go." But Christmas is here whether I like it or not - and so is my bipolar disorder. To accommodate them both, things are going to have to be a little different.

I'm beginning my plan by letting go of my ideas about what Christmas "should" be like. This can be hard with the build-up starting in early November these days, followed by the newly adopted consumer highs of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and every bipolar's favourite - Manic Monday.

Adverts pile on pressure and anticipation for the big day as we see shoppers selecting beautiful gifts and mums producing trays of spectacular food. Meanwhile, magazines and TV shows tell us we should aim for a "perfect Christmas" by making gifts and decorations from scratch.

I've been reminding myself that if I had an appendicitis or a broken leg I wouldn't think twice about the need for a quieter Christmas - but I'm still receiving treatment for a recent crisis and I need to take the best possible care of my mental health.

So perfectionism is out, and a low-key "good enough" Christmas, is in.

Christmas shopping is a problem for me. When I'm high I go on spending sprees and blow the budget, when I'm low I can't face the shops. One strategy I've adopted is to state my boundaries to family and friends. So, as I've been unwell, I've taken the initiative and told most people they will be getting vouchers this year. I'm happy for them to say what kind of vouchers, but the gift-giving is on my terms and otherwise non-negotiable. Not one person has objected (so far).

I've also announced that I'm planning time to myself. As a mum, I often feel Christmas revolves around me: what I buy, what I cook, whether people are enjoying themselves, whether there's enough of everything. Like many who suffer low mood, there are times I try to disguise how I'm feeling.

My children are teenagers now but I still don't want them to know how tough things can be, so I put on a brave face for their sake. Sometimes when I "fake it", I'm pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoy myself after all. Mostly it's a strain, though, and something I can't keep up for long.

I need space to be the real, emotionally messy me with a solo walk in the park, a long bubble bath, or time out in the kitchen with carols on the radio and a mince pie. Sometimes this can feel a bit selfish, but the truth is that unless I take care of myself I won't have the resilience to cope with the needs of my family. It's a bit like what the cabin crew say in the aeroplane safety talk: fit your own oxygen mask and breathe normally before trying to help others.

And finally, I'm trying to count my blessings. It's something I usually hate being advised to do, but this year I think there might be something in it. True, it would be nice if I could feel a little more seasonal joy but I am fortunate - I have friends who will have to rely on food banks if they're going to have any dinner at all, and I know of people who have no choice but to spend Christmas day alone. So I may not be as well as I would like but without excellent crisis care, I could have been spending the festive fortnight in hospital.

My Christmas dinner may not rival Nigella Lawson's, and my gifts might not be original or handmade, but in a month's time I doubt any of this will matter. Taking care of myself over the holidays might just set me up for better mental health in 2015. Now that would be the perfect present.

Charlotte Walker writes the Purple Persuasion blog and is a trainer in mental health first aid.

If you are affected by any of the issues in this article then contact Samaritans who are available 24/7 over the Christmas period on 08457 90 90 90.

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