“Because you can't be low at Christmas, right?!” – Alexandra’s story
Christmas can be the loneliest time of the year. Alexandra, who experiences bipolar disorder, explores what it feels like to be disconnected from the festive spirit and how to overcome this.
I was diagnosed with depression at 18 and have struggled with it all my adult life. In my late twenties, I had an episode of mania where I spoke really fast, had loads of energy, wanted to do risky things and believed things that weren’t true. After the second episode, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 28.
I’ve always found the Christmas period particularly difficult because there are all these wonderful things going on around you; beautiful lights and displays, decorations, baking and food, music, present giving and receiving, time with friends and family. Things to affect every sense, things that are supposed to make you feel so wonderful and so lifted... but you already feel numb. You feel nothing.
It's like you're in a bubble and everything is going on around you. Everyone is smiling and making merry, and you have no idea if they actually feel it or are faking it, but you assume it's real for everyone else, so it must just be you.
The saccharin sweet pictures of a “perfect” Christmas on cards and TV are just an illusion.
I’ve found that I often can’t get involved in the “festive spirit” as much as others do, and sometimes that’s hard to explain. So, you have to put on the pretend smile and say how much better you're feeling. Because you can’t be low at Christmas, right?!
I’m a Christian and a musician, so there are always multiple events that we are involved in. Christmas events almost always involve a significant number of people and talking, which means that I usually have to go home for a bit afterwards to recover. I also find the church aspect difficult because I'm often not able to connect or engage with the services.
I remember one Christmas. I was home from university with my family, feeling particularly low. Everything was going on around me and I couldn’t connect with it. When I’m very low, I struggle to process conversations. By the time I’d followed what was being said and formulated something to say, the conversation had moved on. Everyone else was enjoying themselves, so I just retreated more.
It's like you're in a bubble and everything is going on around you.
I have a tendency to do too much in the lead up to Christmas – like present making, food, decorations - which can be stress inducing, but also a trigger of manic episodes. Some years, I’m excited. I love planning all the presents for people, baking, making music.
But most years, it just instils a sense of dread: will I be able to connect? Will I feel as numb as ever? Will the amazing gift of Christ at Christmas feel disconnected from me? Will I feel separated from everyone? How many presents will I be able to make without risking a manic episode? How much baking is too much?
The saccharin sweet pictures of a “perfect” Christmas on cards and TV are just an illusion, not reality. It would help if we all accept that Christmas is just family life, for it to be less commercialised and to put less pressure on people.
Will I be able to connect? Will I feel as numb as ever?
I have learnt to manage my expectations ahead of time, to try not to be caught up in the festive “buzz” so that if/when I’m in the bubble, I can just get on with it. I have learnt to regulate my workload to try to prevent manic episodes.
Christmas growing up was always really special, spending time with family and friends. My family have never told me to be cheerful, never said they expect me to stop being mopey or mournful. Remember that family who love you, and know that you struggle, want you to be real. I also now try to talk to people about how I’m feeling. That would be my advice, if you are able to.
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