Health Care, Mind, Surviving the Holidays, Love, Life Stories, Wellness

My anxiety makes every Christmas a living nightmare

Christmas can be overwhelming when you have an anxiety disorder.

The holiday season is in full swing and unlike many, I am not keen.

I don’t hate Christmas or have any particularly deep philosophical issues with the holidays, I just find this time of the year overwhelming.  I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which came with varying degrees of depression at the beginning of this year.

I have spent the year learning how to navigate life in a way that is best suited to my needs. This included learning my triggers and ways to minimize my anxiety. Large crowds and loud noises in confined spaces are a huge cause of anxiety for me. The cold sweats, shakiness and overall feeling of sinking into myself – these have all caused me to fear large gatherings of any kind. I have managed to avoid many of these situations under the guise of studying (thanks, law school) but now that the holidays are here I no longer have an excuse.

Coming from a large Christian family made up of people of color, this time of year is particularly busy. In between ensuring the house is clean, stressing about not making enough food and playing Christmas music prematurely, family trips are still placed high up on the list of holiday-musts.  I have a tight-knit family who spends most of their downtime together. Considering I am the only girl in my family, I am expected to be involved in family gatherings. I usually help out in the kitchen or keep the kids entertained. In short, I am constantly surrounded by a lot of people.

Since I have anxiety, this is hugely difficult for me. 

Mental illnesses are not spoken about in my community as it is still highly stigmatized. If it’s acknowledged, it isn’t something that happens to us.

So it’s not surprising that my parents were very concerned with what the rest of my family would think and quite honestly, just didn’t know how to ‘handle’ me and my mental illness. Nobody was informed about my diagnosis and for the most part, we carried on as if nothing had happened.  

 This is pretty much standard procedure in my communities.

My parents would plan weekends away with my family in an attempt to get me to ‘snap out of it’ and get back to normal. We usually spend the weekend in a small coastal town. I love being near the ocean, despite hating the beach. There is something about the crisp breeze and salty air that makes dropping my shoulders and unclenching my jaw automatic.  But the constant stream of people is an assault on my senses and cancels out any sort of relief I initially felt.

Being in that space only made my anxiety worse and I would count down the hours until it would be acceptable for us to leave.

My most recent experience included me staying in bed for two days wishing I could go home and be in my own space away from everyone. My anxiety was heightened as I knew if I were to have an anxiety attack or get sick, which I often do during periods of extreme anxiety, I would have to face my family.

An explanation would be required, which would quickly be followed by advice along the lines of “you need to go to church and get right with Jesus” or “you shouldn’t stress so much, you’re too young.”

These words invalidate my own feelings and experiences.

It also exposes the reality that many of those closest to me are not good for me and my health overall.  This is what makes it a difficult time for me. I want to be around my family and be part of all the festivities but it can all get a bit much.

To avoid this, I chose to stay in my room and didn’t feel guilty about doing so. It was easier than trying to power through social interactions. I have put in a lot of work into learning to listen to my body and what it needs. I can’t let people who see me every few weeks or months undo that.  

I had to acknowledge that telling myself, “It’s only two more sleeps until it’s home time!” or using my studies as an excuse for my behavior could only get me so far.

I will admit that most times that is easier said than done, but I managed to do it this time and I am proud of myself for taking that step.

I am fine being subjected to dodgy comments from random aunties if it means I am in a good place.

For now, this is the best plan I’ve been able to come up with to survive the holidays with my family, so I’m going with it.