I’ve found that the holiday season can stir up strong feelings of loneliness. With so much emphasis on family, I’m repeatedly reminded of personal losses and how bipolar has disrupted my past. Now, I turn to specific coping strategies that allow me to experience the holidays with more gratitude and cheer.
I often find myself feeling lonely during the holidays. It’s not like I miss the “good old days.” I don’t come from a big family. I’m an only child. My dad had bipolar disorder, which showed its face as depression and irritability most of the time. I’m lucky my mom made up for my dad’s bad moods with plenty of affection. But, despite her best efforts, Christmas in my home never looked like a Norman Rockwell illustration, either.
The holiday season, though, feels to me like it’s supposed tolook idyllic. Every year, I’m bombarded with images of what a “perfect” family should look like. The first time I accompanied a childhood friend to her extended family’s Christmas party, I watched in awe as dozens of jovial relatives laughed and cooked and hugged. Everyone was so close, so warm, so happy. They resembled a television commercial. I feel lonely this time of the year because I never experienced that big family Christmas while growing up.
The holidays are also hard for me because I’ve lost so many people over the years. The societal hyperfocus on family this time of year illuminates the loss in my life. Even once I’ve made it through the initial grieving process, old wounds can resurface after the days grow shorter and the air gets colder.
But I’ve found some effective ways to alleviate the pangs of loneliness that inevitably appear each November and December. Now, I apply coping skills I’ve learned so I can experience the season while feeling content and fulfilled. I treasure the life I have by living in the moment and practicing gratitude.
#1 Stop Comparing Myself (and My Life) to What I Think It Should Look Like.
Ads are persuasive because they present an idealized mirage. Corporations spend millions of dollars using soft-focus filters and actors in holiday commercials to promote their products. Advertisers bank on their ability to convince us that if we buy what they’re selling, we’ll suddenly exist in a dream world filled with happiness and beauty. But none of this is real. Holding myself to impossible standards is not only unhelpful, it’s painful.
It’s not just the advertisers, though. Even posts on social media are filtered or fabricated versions of the truth. People rarely reveal their failings as often as they do their accomplishments. I’ll admit, even I don’t post as much on bad hair days. But just because my holidays don’t look like what I think they’re supposed to, it doesn’t mean I should let that get to me. Now that I stopped comparing my life to picturesque fantasies of Christmas wonderlands, I feel much happier. I no longer expect my festivities to mirror the perfect family portrait. And I’m okay with that. I still have a lot to be thankful for.
#2 Cultivate Gratitude.
I may not have a big extended family, but I have a lot of love in my life. By focusing on what I do have, I’ve learned to appreciate how lucky I am. I’ve made my own family out of friends, a long-term boyfriend, and three cats, as well as my mom—whom I’m still close with—and a handful of cousins, aunts, and uncles. There is warmth and caring and compassion in all of my relationships.
Through virtual communication, I’ve also become closer to longtime friends who live far away, because the world health crisis has brought with it a combination of priority shifts and a newfound confidence in technology. I value relationships now more than ever, because life is short, and we don’t know what tomorrow holds.
#3 Cope Effectively with Grief and Loss.
Instead of focusing on whom I’ve lost, I try to place my attention on whom I have. I don’t forget people from my past, but I don’t linger on memories too long either. If I still feel overwhelmed with grief, I try to redirect it into something positive. I honor those who’ve passed by donating to or volunteering for a cause in their memory, making a scrapbook or wearing something of theirs. My lost loved ones wouldn’t want me sitting around feeling awful while remembering them. They’d want me to live my best life by moving on and being happy.
#4 Practice Mindfulness.
I can get lost in my head, imagining the way things could (or “should”) be, or reminiscing over nostalgia. The problem is, the past is gone, and the future isn’t certain. Losing myself in “what if” or “remember when” can feel like drowning. It’s like I’m comparing my present with false narratives on TV, except the fiction is my own creation.
I—like many people—tend to idealize my own history and put too much weight on unreasonably high expectations. Mindfulness keeps me from focusing too much on the past or the future. What really matters is here and now. By stopping to smell the roses, I’m better able to appreciate the bliss of my current existence. Engaging in mindful activities like yoga, meditation, or just simple in-the-moment awareness prevents me from ruminating on negative thoughts.
#5 Redefine the Word “Alone.”
I don’t believe everything I think. The word alone is not a synonym for loneliness. Being by myself doesn’t mean I automatically have to feel isolated or sad at all. Spending time solo creates peaceful, reflective downtime in which I can recharge my batteries and practice self-care. It’s the one time I’m not responsible for anything or anyone except myself. Time spent away from others is also an ideal opportunity to work on creative projects. It’s the holiday season, so I’ve found that making gifts is the best way to prevent boredom while working on something meaningful, thoughtful, and generous.
#6 Make a New Four-Legged Friend.
Many people, like me, have recently adopted or rescued animals. There’s no better medicine for anguish or feelings of isolation than the love of a pet. Our furry (or feathered or scaly) friends give immeasurable amounts of unconditional love and keep us from feeling down. Whenever I struggle with depression, all I have to do is pet one of my cats, and I immediately feel my spirits lift a little. I also volunteer at the local humane society. Even if I didn’t have my own kitties to cuddle, I can enjoy the mental health benefits of animal companionship without any of the responsibilities.
#7 Reach Out.
In this new era of physical distancing, feelings of loneliness have become a bigger risk than before. With the holidays fast approaching, it’s important to remember that reaching out is important. When you cannot physically embrace others, you can still talk to them on the phone or participate in video chats. Just seeing someone smile (even a stranger) has been shown to dramatically lift one’s mood. Closeness and companionship can take many different forms. As a species, we’ve recently had to get creative, but we are all finding new ways to connect and combat loneliness in the new normal.
The most important thing to remember right now is that you are NOT alone. You have people who care about you. These times are unique: we are all experiencing feelings of isolation in one way or another. But we’re all in this together.
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a dad who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide. She has written a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is Darkness & Light.
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