When the holidays bring heartache instead of joy, I think they do so because they stand as an unforgiving yardstick against which we measure our losses and troubles.
If no one reminds us, we can sometimes overlook the fact that loved ones are gone, or that our lives are filled with painful conflict in exactly the intimate areas that should be sources of strength and comfort for us. But then along come the holidays, imposing upon us once again a template for what happiness and interpersonal success is expected to look like.
It can be hard to measure up. It is far easier to overlook the death of loved ones when you don’t have to stare across the holiday table at their empty places. It is far easier to pretend that family trauma or conflict don’t exist when you are far away and on your own.
But the holidays force us to either return to painful family interactions or to fully own our isolation and spend the season alone.
It is a terrible choice. I’ve treated many patients over the years who reliably became depressed during the holidays out of dread of having to interact with their families. On the other hand, the silence of Christmas morning on one’s own carries its own unique pain.
I never cease to be amazed at how often both emotional well-being and mental illness hinge on how we negotiate these types of impossible choices. Because the choices really are often insoluble and the losses are often so actual …..