“How are you?” Every day, without fail, at least one friend will send me a message to check in. Recently it has been one friend in particular who, if I don’t get to her first, will ask about my mental state. Many people see me as brave and strong. Yes, I am those things. But I also struggle with depression, anxiety, and crippling self-doubt. I am not shy about this. But for my friends who also struggle with these things, they know how important it is to hear a kind voice over the negative ones. They know how important it is to be reminded that we are loved. I know, and my friends know, how dark mental illness can be, so we check on each other. I want to encourage you to check on your people too. Even if you don’t think you need to.
This time of year is hard. By the time Halloween rolls around, there is less sunlight to enjoy, the air is getting colder, and the trees and earth are dropping leaves and turning brown in preparation for growth that will happen in the spring. Winter blues are expected and can be easily managed with distractions, but seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a very real and scary thing.
During the fall and winter months, many people struggle with depression, low energy, moodiness, and a loss of interest in well-loved activities. SAD is more than about being in a funk; it can drive people to thoughts of suicide. Get a feel for which of your friends struggle with the changing seasons. They may do a really good job hiding their pain, but it’s important to ask them how they would like to be supported.
And within the dreary seasons of fall and winter is the holiday season. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, and New Year celebrations can be really tough for some people. They are tough for me. I enjoy the decorations (I love the lights), the celebrations of food and friendship around the holidays, but the anticipation of the day being ideal, if not perfect, is too much. And the actual holiday day brings on anxiety and depression that lasts for weeks. While it was my choice to cut toxic family members out of my life, I still feel a tremendous amount of guilt and sadness. I know I have family members missing me, and I miss what could have been.
I am not alone in feeling the strain of relationships. Some of your friends, the marginalized ones especially, may have been banned from dinner tables because of homophobic, transphobic, racist, or xenophobic parents or grandparents. Some friends may be allowed to enter the four walls of such bigotry, but are expected to tolerate it or not show up at all. Even in the best familial situations, being around family can be fucking stressful. Add the stress of the holidays, and forget it.
We still have to maintain lives as parents, spouses, friends, and employees, yet we also feel inclined to attend the special events at our kids’ schools. We need to make time to go to holiday work parties, participate in Secret Santa gift swaps, or bake three dozen cookies for a cookie exchange. Our calendars fill up, our diets are thrown off, and our budgets are under attack this time of year. So is our mental health. For those of us prone to being overwhelmed, the holidays can kind of suck.
I thrive on routine and predictability. When I am able to exercise, even if it is just a walk, I breathe easier. And when I am not expected to be thankful and full of reasons for the season, I am more peaceful and grateful. I may come off as strong, but this time of year is my least favorite. This time of year is the hardest for me. Thanksgiving and Christmas are reminders of painful childhood memories. I am absolutely appreciative of all I have now, but these days are reminders of what was lost and what I will never have.
You likely have friends who are going through similar emotions but won’t say anything because they don’t want to seem like they are complaining. I know in the darkest moments of my depression, I feel like a burden. I feel like I am just adding to other people’s stress by expressing my own. And why would I want to add stress to the stress of the holidays? Why would I want to add stress to what is supposed to be a magical time of year? So I smile and keep telling jokes. I stay productive, but I am struggling. I rely on the friends who see me, who see through my attempts at being okay.
Check on your strong friends, your okay friends, and your sad friends. Check on your marginalized friends. Check on your friends trying to stay sober. Check on the friends who seem to be drinking too much. Check on the friends who have lost family members or friends or children. Check on all your people, even if you don’t think you need to. You do. You are needed. Because in our darkest moments it’s hard to see our true selves, and knowing there is one person who sees us is what keeps us going.