First of all, sorry for mentioning the c-word at all. Second of all, sorry for mentioning it when there’s still 3 weeks to go. If you’re anything like me, you’ll try to avoid thinking about chris that particular festive occasion until it’s literally right on top of us, so apologies for bringing it up. The trouble is, I can’t ignore it any more.
My brother and sister have announced that they are coming to spend christmas near me. We all live quite widely scattered, and they’ve decided to rent a self-catering holiday flat that’s about 30 miles away from where I live. It’s going to involve both of them making long journeys at a time when the roads are jam-packed with lots of other people making long journeys. Obviously, it’s really kind of them to realise that I might not feel up to travelling, and also not to have gone down the route of looking for a local B & B and assuming they could come to my flat for dinner and presents.
They are taking a lot of trouble to try and make sure they respect my boundaries, and to be sure they’re not pushing me into doing something I’d rather not. So they asked if I minded before they booked the place they’re staying in (although that was one of those situations where asking was pretty much irrelevant, as there’s really no way I could have said ‘No, I don’t want you anywhere near me at christmas’ without being massively rude). They’re consulting with me at every stage of planning, but making it clear that if I don’t feel up to making decisions I don’t need to. They’ve told me I can be as involved or as not-involved in the practicalities as I want to be. They’ve re-assured me that there’s no need for me to feel guilty for putting them to so much trouble – this is the first christmas since our mum died, so they would have wanted to do something different anyway.
There is no way they could be being more kind and lovely. This is exactly the kind of family response – attentive and caring, but not overwhelming – that should be taught in ‘How to Handle Your Lunatic Brother’ courses, if anybody ran them. All of which makes me feel even more like an utter heel for just wanting to just run away and escape from the whole damn thing.
I know that traditionally christmas is a bad time for a lot of people. I know I’m not unique in feeling about it in the way I do, and when I write about it I’m not trying to pull some kind of ‘Oh, I have things so much worse than you do’ manoeuvre. There’s not even any particular reason why I should hate christmas – we never had any big family bust-ups, or anything like that.
I’m not sure I ever enjoyed christmas itself all that much. As a kid I can remember being excited by the run-up, but the day itself always seemed kind of flat – a good day, obviously, but not particularly special or exciting. I was pretty young when I first realised that you had to pretend to be enjoying yourself even if you weren’t. So you had to learn to pretend to random old ladies who smelled of sherry that you were excited about Father Christmas coming down the chimney, even though you knew perfectly well he didn’t exist, because for some reason lying to small children gave them pleasure. You also had to learn to say thank you for presents, even when they were clearly shit. I got quite good at it. I even managed to smile when one of my mum’s friends gave me a small cardboard box covered in tartan at the same time as she showered my sister in jewellery and clothes and boxes of chocolates that were bigger than her head. (The friend wasn’t really being mean, by the way – she just had no idea what to buy for a little boy.)
I think that’s one of the main reasons I have such a problem with christmas. Not the lousy presents – even I don’t hold a grudge that long – but the fact that you have to pretend to be happy even when you’re not. If you think about it, all christmas is about is mood. If you ask someone ‘Did you have a good christmas?’, what you mean is ‘Were you happy?’ Any other event – a holiday, for example – there are other ways of judging it, like if the weather was good, what the hotel was like, etc. Christmas is all about doing the same things with the same people at the same time, so the question of whether it’s good or not comes down, essentially, to whether you felt happy while you were doing them.
I would guess that’s a nightmare for anyone with any kind of mood disorder, but it certainly is for me with my depression. Sometimes I have no control over my mood, and it has no connection to what I’m doing. If I’m going through a bad patch, then everything about christmas could be utterly perfect and I’d still spend the whole time wishing I was dead. But, of course, I can’t admit to it, and so I have to start pretending. I’ve had quite a lot of practice of it over recent years. It was always unspoken, but for the last few years my mum had been in very poor health, and there was always a concern that each christmas might be her last, or at least the last that she was able to take pleasure in, and so there was always a huge obligation to go and make sure it was fun for her.
This year the obligations are completely different, but they still feel like obligations. I’ve said yes to my brother and sister spending christmas nearby, not because I feel some burning need to see them on that one particular day, but because I know that by offering they’re trying to be kind, and so not accepting would be incredibly rude. At the moment I have an urgent desire to ignore the whole thing, and I’d love nothing better than to lay in a 4 or 5 week supply of food, lock all the doors and windows, and not come out again until early January. But I won’t do that (or at least I’ll try my best not to), because I know that if I did suddenly batten down the hatches my brother and sister would be worried about me, and I don’t want them to be.
In fact, I’ll almost certainly end up wading my way through the whole pointless charade, trying to look like I’m relaxed and happy when I’m far from it. I’ll end up pretending to laugh at bad jokes over the crackers, and trying to shrug it off with a self-deprecating comment when someone asks me to pass the gravy and suddenly its obvious how much my hands are shaking. I’ll try to pretend like I’m happy and enjoying myself because I’ll know that’s the best way both of thanking my family for their kindness, and of trying to persuade them that I’m fine, and there’s no need for them to spend the rest of the year worrying about me. It’s not even as though there will be some unexpected personal benefit for me doing this – I’ve forced myself through joyless christmas after joyless christmas, so I know what to expect in terms of its effect on me, and it isn’t good.
I really hate the way that writing this is making me sound. I’m actually not a completely selfish bastard, and I know not everything is all about me. I don’t mind the idea of putting myself through discomfort for someone else’s benefit. But this is absolutely the worst time of year for me, and the enforced jollity of fixed celebrations are one of the things that I struggle most to deal with. It’s having to put myself through this particular obligation at this particular time that’s the problem. I really wish there was some way of doing what’s right for me that didn’t involve being rude or worrying people, but there’s no way out. I’m starting to feel trapped, and the problem with feeling trapped is that it’s one of the things that’s most likely to make me do something stupid and counterproductive.