As Christians we are told at Christmas that this should be the happiest time of the year — a time of joy with grateful family, colleagues and friends. Yet, for some of us this is sadly not the case. In my work with Christians in a private practice and then in my ministry I began to see that the Holidays can be a significant increase in depression. One North American survey reported that 45% of respondents dreaded the festive season.
One very blue Christmas
I reflect back on one Christmas that was filled with depression, sadness and feeling very isolated and alone. After fleeing my home at 18 fearing for my life as my home was filled with emotional, physical and sexual abuse, I spent many holidays alone. Christmas 1979 I felt like an orphan. I saved up my small amount of tips from waitressing to buy one of those special Swanson’s TV dinners with the jellied turkey, rubber cranberries and the little peach cobbler in the corner (sorry Swanson’s it wasn’t very appetizing) but it was the best I could do! I was going to make the best of this Christmas. To my horror as I cut into the turkey I found half a worm! I broke out in a torment of tears. I wasn’t just suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder, I was in cold Minnesota); I was in full blown depression as I faced the reality of loss in this expected “joyful” time of year.
The bubbling turned into an uncontrolled torrent. God opened a floodgate of grief, and I started replaying scenes from my childhood, scenes of abuse, abandonment and rejection. For the first time, I felt the full force of that teenage girl’s sorrow — a childhood filled with sexual abuse trauma, rape, beatings and then an abortion at age 17. After years of avoidance I had finally tapped into it, allowing myself to feel it and let it stream out of me.
Thank God in the next few years I became a Christian and incredible Christians became my beloved family. I became determined to always open my heart and home to similar “orphans” around me.
Healing and honesty
So what can we do if we are dreading going into the Holidays? Maybe we are struggling with the anxiety of the pressure (self-induced and commercial) from excessive commercialization of this sacred holiday, or maybe we fear the perceived “perfect” social and family activities. We may feel the Grinch in full force during the Christmas Season as we may be struggling with excessive self-reflection or unrealistic expectations.
As a therapist I began to see a pattern in holiday depression. Please allow yourself the gift of healing and honesty as you approach the holidays. So what should you do if you’re one who struggles with depression at Christmas?
First of all realize that there are no shortcuts, just a decision of faith to trust God and embrace the grieving process. Instead of blocking the immense sadness or trying to dislodge it, I let it sweep over me. I believe the year of healing was a delayed and prolonged reaction to the sadness in my heart. I realize that medication may have helped me during this process as it has helped many people. But deep down I knew I had to do everything in my power to walk through the pain and not around it. I learned something very important that year: the pain of suffering can’t be dammed up forever. It always finds a way to seep into the present, no matter how hard we try to keep it plugged up. Healing from pain involves learning to recognize, experience and share emotions rather than denying or suppressing them.
Here are some practical tips you may want to consider.
1. It is important to express these emotions in a safe environment like a qualified mental health professional or a safe support group.
2. Don’t expect to have the “perfect” social or family situation; lower your expectations and any attachment to what that looks like
3. Prayerfully be “present” and try to enjoy the moment.
4. Try to focus on what you do have, not what you are lacking — whether it be monetarily, socially or your family.
5. Become involved in giving of yourself, in prayers and monetarily, to those less fortunate.
6. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself; learn to “love others” and others well with the love of Christ, maybe not perfectly.
7. Avoid excessively ruminating about your life.
8. Take action and do something fun!
No matter what we do life is fraught with sorrows. Pain is the first experience of world-helplessness and it never leaves us. I began to see depression as a flaw in love. To be human I found that I began to thrive when I was loved and was then filled with incredible love to “give back” to countless others. I knew I was a healer, but I forgot that I too am a wounded healer. God was calling me to identify the sufferings in my own heart as I became aware that recognition of my sufferings was the starting point of my ministry.
I learned that my tears were indeed a beautiful form of worship, and allowing God to enter into my pain was a beautiful intimacy that I had longed for since birth. Our Lord was very acquainted with grief and sorrow, but I learned from the depths of who I am something rather surprising! The joy of Christ surpasses ALL of the grief, pain and depression I had suffered. I am now living with a torment of incredible overwhelming joy! The joy of Christ IS MY STRENGTH! Especially when we celebrate the Birth of our Savior!
Julie Woodley is a trauma survivor and a professional trauma counselor who completed curriculum for women and men who have suffered sexual abuse and post-abortion traumas. For information visit Rthm.CC or call 1-866-780-7846. She can also be reached at Gateway Counseling Center.