My heart sank when I saw the first of the ‘It’s been a wonderful year!’ type pictorial summaries pop up in my Facebook feed. It seemed to start even earlier this year, and just as the equivalent gimmicks did over the last couple of years, it’s spreading like wildfire; like some sort of contagion. In addition, I know that come 31 December, my feed will start filling up with expressions of festive cheer, thankfulness and the highlights of my friends’ lives over the last year.
If there were a Scrooge of the New Year season, I would probably be it. If there were a New Year’s alternative to ‘Bah humbug’, I would probably use it. But at the risk of losing those of you at this point who think I’m simply a mean and grumpy party-pooper – I have a serious point to make.
As soon as Christmas is over there can be a tendency to breathe a sigh of relief and to think “we did it – we survived the holidays”. However, for me, and perhaps for some others with mental health difficulties, the worst part of the holidays is still to come. Christmas is never easy – spending time with my parents and my parents-in-law is generally full of different types of triggers. As with previous years, there have been times of holding back tears during the day, and letting tears flow at night. But I have been dreading this coming New Year’s Eve ever since last year’s New Year’s Eve; and over the last month, as I have felt it coming closer, the more worried I’ve become.
I know that my anxiety over New Year’s Eve is fuelled in part by what came after it a couple of years ago – several weeks of one of the worst periods of depression I have ever had. Whether New Year’s Eve was the trigger for it, or just the beginning of it, I don’t know, but the whole experience has left me dreading this coming January and the night that heralds it in.
Christmas is widely acknowledged to be a difficult time of year for many, including those with mental health difficulties. Because it is a time of year traditionally spent with family, it highlights issues of loneliness or alone-ness; issues of family relationships and difficult dynamics. Add to that the pressures of trying to make the day ‘perfect’ for yourself and for others, and the sheer logistics involved, and it can make for a horribly stressful and potentially unbearable experience. The sheer number of articles published on the internet and through social media at this time of year on surviving the holiday season, is testament to that.
But for me, the pain of New Year’s Eve is of a different kind. It’s not about the people or things that are present, or even absent. It’s about the things that are lost. For me, the pain of New Years’ Eve is the pain of grief. Let me explain.
New Year’s Eve is all about looking back with thankfulness and looking forward with hope. Last year, as I read the constant stream of Facebook posts highlighting all the good things that had happened to my friends, all the things that they were grateful for over the last year – I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by immense feelings of sadness and hopelessness. It makes me feel as awful to write it, as I felt guilty for feeling it. I didn’t begrudge my friends their happiness, or even their expression of happiness. I was glad that they remembered people and events that they could be thankful for, and even more, that they were able to feel thankful for them. But one of the things social media does so well, and often to such detriment, is to facilitate comparison between oneself and others. When I see so much joyfulness and light around me, it’s difficult not to dwell on my own lack of joy over the last year, and on the lack of hope and the blackness that’s inside me.
I know – I know – that what I see on Facebook is selective. It is what people choose to show others –and often times, they choose the highlights, and leave out the rest. I know that some of those friends who shared ‘It’s been a wonderful year!’ type posts on their timelines, have had a far from easy and joyful year. They have had personal illness, family illness, difficult circumstances of all kinds. But they are still thankful – they are still finding things to be grateful for. It’s one of the cruelties of mental illness, I think, that it can rob you not just of joy itself, but of the desire or capacity to look for joy or hope, wherever it may be found.
Last New Year’s Eve, while other people were feeling grateful for good times, despite the bad times, I was grieving over my time. Time wasted and lost to the mire of depression; to the self-absorption of pain; to the hell of mental illness. Time lost looking inwards instead of outwards; time wasted living inside my head instead of living in the moment. What strikes me over and over again as I read blogs by those with mental health difficulties, are the expressions of grief over months, years, and decades spent living with a mental illness, striving towards recovery and release from pain. In an article in the Sunday Times in December 2014, Rachel Kelly, author of ‘Black Rainbow: How words healed me: My journey through depression’, wrote about her recovery from depression, but “at a huge cost in wasted years, especially when my children were young”.
And that, of course, was the other aspect to my grief. It wasn’t just my own time I was mourning. It was my children’s time as well. People are always saying, aren’t they –“enjoy your children while they’re young” – but what if you can’t? I grieved the times I could have spent with them and they with me – but with a ‘me’ more capable of laughter rather than raised voices; more capable of tolerance rather than impatience; more capable of paying attention rather than withdrawing. Added to the grief was a heavy weight of guilt for not giving them the ‘quality time’ they should have had – for robbing them of something. For giving them their own grief, whatever subconscious form it might be taking at their age.
So this year, I’m not going to join in the social media New Year’s Eve jamboree. I’m going to watch some DVDs, and then go to bed. I’m going to post a ‘Happy New Year’ message on the morning of 31 December, and then try not to log onto Facebook again until January 2nd. I don’t think anyone will notice my absence, but if they do, I hope they will forgive me. I hope that they will understand that I’m not a kill-joy or mean-spirited; I’m not wallowing in self-pity or unaware of the fact that everybody hurts. I’m not sad about their happiness or resentful of their joy. I’m simply grieving for my time; for my wasted year. I wish I could see it as something other than wasted – as a necessary step along the path towards recovery and fulfilment. But I’m grieving the loss of that ability too.
I wish more was written about the difficult feelings that New Year’s Eve can trigger, particularly in those with mental health difficulties. I’d like to ask you to increase awareness by sharing this as widely as possible on social media – but there’s a slight irony in that. As well as a touch of hypocrisy. Perhaps I should be asking you, instead, to increase the chances of your own well-being by joining me this December 31st in a DVD marathon of your favourite TV series and a twenty-four period of Facebook or Twitter abstinence.
Go on, give it a try –and I’ll see you on the other side.