You may think that Christmas should be a time for unbridled joy, but I beg to differ. You might think I’m cold, frosty, without heart. I understand. You don’t want someone like me messing up your good cheer with bad tidings, but the truth is that mental illness is a guest that arrives at the most inappropriate times. When I had a mental breakdown I was twenty-six. I had a well-paid management job, lived in a two-bedroom home in the suburbs and was part of a loving relationship. I was physically well, going to the gym a few times a week and spending weekends at the pub with friends or having dinner with my family.
And yet, on one spring day in 2012, I found myself trapped in a toilet at work, unable to go on. I was paralysed by fear, anxiety, self-hatred and overwhelming sadness. I cried uncontrollably but I didn’t know why. I looked at my phone and googled the symptoms of depression. Less than 24-hours later I was still crying, but this time I was leaving a doctors office with a sick note stuffed into my pocket.
Author Fiona Thomas
I had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and it took a year for me to get back to work. Relapse was frequent and unexpected. For example, in the lead up to my wedding, on a beach holiday and after my book was published. For me, happy times are often tinged with negative emotions. This conflict is even more prevalent when I use social media.
Instagram recently announced that they were removing all augmented reality filters that depict or promote plastic surgery, presumably because of the mental health implications of encouraging people to go under the knife to be socially validated. For me, the problem with Instagram isn’t necessarily the pressure of looking like a Kardashian/Jenner clone, but the expectation to have a picture-perfect Christmas.
The Kardashians living their "best life" at Christmas
When I sink into a depressive episode as I do almost every December, it's hard not to feel unworthy as I scroll through my social media feed. Whether it’s a family of four donning matching Christmas onesies (surely there was at least one tantrum behind the scenes?) or two airbrushed beauties saying cheers at the German market (those crowds give anxiety that even the promise a footlong Frankfurter wouldn’t cure), I’m sick of being told to get in the spirit. I love tinsel as much as the next person but my brain doesn’t give a damn what I want. If my brain wants to be sad it's going to be sad, and no amount of carolling, tree decorating or elf-on-the-shelfing is going to trick me into feeling festive.
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Social anxiety has been a dark cloud over my existence for the best part of a decade, one that I’m proud to say I’ve almost completely dispersed. I know my triggers and going out partying two nights in a row is a no-no for me, but it seems like in December all that logic goes out the window. People are always telling me to take care of myself. “Self-care isn’t selfish,” the Insta-gurus say. But when I’m cancelling on my besties on Christmas Eve societal expectations loom overhead, making me feel pretty selfish indeed. And the worst part is that mental illness sufferers are plagued with feelings of guilt as standard. It’s a symptom that’s only exacerbated by the pressure to be merry and bright for the entire month of December.
I spent too many years trying to distract myself with twinkly lights. I constantly ignored a deep pang of sadness in my chest, choosing instead to focus on creating the perfect life when underneath I was battling with something serious. I know that mental illness isn’t something that people want to talk about at any time of year, never mind when everything is supposed to be cinnamon-scented and covered in a light dusting of snow. But if you’re feeling sad, angry or anxious please don’t try and mask it with an Instagram filter. It may be the most wonderful time of year for the majority of people out there, but if you’re feeling blue this Christmas that’s OK too.
Fiona Thomas is the author of Depression in a Digital Age: The Highs and Lows of Perfectionism, out now.
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