In day to day life, I think there is a certain pressure to be happy.
People are always singing about looking on the “bright side of life”, and whenever it is time to celebrate the anniversary of someone’s birth we tunelessly make our way through the all too familiar song that usually comes prior to the blowing out of some candles on a cake, a song that urges the person to feel joy that they are no longer entrapped by the walls of a womb. Even at Easter or New Year the pressure to have a “Happy” time is plastered into the holiday by cards and pictures willing joy at that time of year (this is why I like Lent. There is no pressure to be happy at Lent. Good for you Lent.)
Obviously, this is all makes a lot of sense as people want other people to be happy during celebratory times or indeed all year round. It would be a pretty miserable world if every birthday we received cards that said things like “I hope you have a horrendous day and that everyone forgets to buy you a cake” or “I hope you spend the day wishing you were back in the womb as I have since the day you were born”, and it certainly would make party hats and balloons look a little out of place.
Nevertheless, of all the times we are told to be happy, there is no holiday with a greater pressure for merriment than the month long December festival of Christmas. If you can be happy then that is great, but when you have depression this pressure for jovial smiles and antler hats can be incredibly difficult and is one of the reasons I think people with mental illnesses often find Christmas to be one of the most difficult times of the year.
Seriously, the pressure is everywhere, both from fellow humans and even foods that pop up in the bakery aisle at the supermarket, grinning at you from their cellophane packets like it is the easiest thing in the world (yes gingerbread men. I am talking about you. Smug bastards…On another note can someone please tell me why gingerbread men have buttons…as far as I can see they are naked little creatures and without clothes I cannot see the necessity for holding those non existent garments together with bright Smartie buttons…are their clothes invisible? In which case why can I see their buttons…or is the gingerbread man actually a biscuit version of a normal man in a gingerbread suit of which the buttons are a part…Oh my goodness I bet that is it…the outside of a gingerbread man is actually a costume to disguise the nature of the fact we are all eating standard biscuit men instead of these fictional gingerbread creatures…we have all been lied to…TRUST NOBODY THIS FESTIVE SEASON).
There is even pressure to laugh at meal times what with the compulsory paper hats and jokes fluttering from the folds of exploding crackers, although I do have to admit, I rather like the prizes you get in crackers. I swear every box contains at least one cracker with a bag of marbles in, which is odd considering nobody plays marbles these days…suffice it to say I have not won a stash myself yet (I do however have a life time supply of tiny playing cards and mini screwdrivers.)
Nevertheless, all this forced joy makes it seem as if people see December as a time we can all put aside our difficulties for the month just so we don’t ruin carol singing around the tree, or setting fire to a Christmas pudding with our miserable faces in the background of every photograph.
Indeed the difficulty of Christmas with mental health problems is evidenced by the fact that suicide rates go up around this time of year. I don’t know why exactly this is, but if I had to hazard a guess I would say that it is this pressure to be happy that is the cause.
Having depression and admitting to having spent three days crying into a pillow is hard all year round, but at least all year round it is more acceptable. At Christmas any sign of negativity is immediately rebuked with the instruction “cheer up! It is Christmas”, as if a bit of tinsel and a few fairy lights should be enough to cure any depression. You can’t even cancel plans at Christmas if you are too unwell or anxious to leave the house, without being charged with the accusation that you are a “party pooper” (when really it is your mental illness that has been doing all the pooping on the party rather than something you have decided to do for laughs).
At Christmas then, the pressure to be happy means that people feel more unable to talk about the negative things going on for fear of bringing everyone down. Every time you are greeted by a family member you haven’t seen in a while for one of the annual gatherings they will ask things like “how have you been?”, a difficult topic to discuss when “Pretty suicidal and this is the first time I have got out of my duvet fort all week” is not deemed an acceptable answer. For this reason, many people feel the need to lie about how they truly feel and have to grit their teeth, lying about how they are “not too bad” whilst simultaneously having to swallow the lonely truth that they wish they could reach out to someone with for comfort rather than suffer in silence, and If there is one thing guaranteed to make a mental health problem worse, it is suffering in silence. Maybe suicide rates go up then not just because of the stress and debt as postulated in the papers, but because this pressure to be happy leaves people more ashamed than usual and unable to ask for help.
Perhaps another reason as to the rise in number of those who feel there is no escape from their pain other than to end their existence, is that everyone else in the world always looks especially happy. Of course there is a good chance that they aren’t happy and we are all hiding the truth behind toothy grins together, but seeing everyone around you feeling something and being caught up in a merriment your brain will not allow, can make you feel just as lonely and isolated as the inability to speak out honestly.
Obviously I am not criticising the general population for being happy at Christmas, nor am I blaming the rise in suicide rates on the smiley faces of ginger spiced baked goods (those would be some pretty powerful biscuits), but I guess I just want people to know that if it were possible for the mentally ill to set aside our aching emptiness of depression for the festive period, every sufferer would do just that. When we are miserable at Christmas it is not because we haven’t got into the Christmas spirit or because we want to ruin cutting the Christmas cake. I personally wish I could buck up and ensure my family have a “happy Christmas” but I can’t, and it is hard to feel guilty about it every year.
Similarly, if you yourself are a sufferer and struggling with the need to be merry and bright this winter, I wanted to write this post to let you know that not being happy and able to throw caution and anxiety into the wind so you can enjoy yourself, doesn’t mean you are a bad person nor does it mean that you are alone. As you sit there grinning at the dinner table holding back tears you know rationally have no right to be there, as lonely as it feels, you are not alone. If you are struggling please do not feel such a pressure to be silent that things end up getting worse. More people need to speak about living with depression as Christmas if the problem is ever going to be solved, so admitting that you need help is not a sign of weakness or shame. Instead it is admitting that things are not as simple as checking the date on the calendar to see how happy you should be for the day, and that depression is not easily solved by a bit of festive ribbon.
If you are reading this with or without mental health problems I of course wish you a fabulous Christmas, but then again do not feel any pressure. Maybe this year is just about having an “alright” Christmas or simply getting through Christmas at all, and it is a bucket full of “have an OK Christmas” wishes that I am sending to you now. However you feel, it is ok, you have every right to feel it, and you are certainly not alone. Take care everyone. x