Christmas and the Blues

Last week, I wrote a post that discussed an observation that I had of a worker at a nursing home and her aversion to Christmas.  A good friend and pastor in North Dakota – Danelle Olson – commented on the post, and I have asked him to collaborate with me on today’s post to provide a Christian perspective on Christmas and mental health.  Thanks, Danelle!

Danelle and I share are kindred spirits in that we each have a mental illness diagnosis, but we are impacted by it differently.  I shared about my diagnosis and a bit of its impact on my life in a post titled Bipolar Nature.”  Danelle – could you share a bit about your story?

I grew up in Bowman, ND and attended both elementary and high school there. From the time I stepped into the kindergarten classroom until the time I graduated from high school, I struggled immensely with anxiety.  I worried about everything from grades to social activities in an exaggerated manner, but was never formally diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) until much later in life. 

I have served the United Community Baptist Church in Anamoose, ND as a solo pastor for the last 10 years.  During this time, my GAD has, for lack of a better term, “morphed” into Major Depressive Disorder.  I have taken a variety of medication for the affliction, including such drugs as Lithium, Pristiq, Efexxor and Celexa. 

What are some of the struggles that you have with enjoying Christmas?

One of the major struggles for me during Christmas has to deal with expectations during the season.  There’s an unwritten rule in our society which says: “You should be happy and joyful during Christmas.”  Everybody puts up Christmas lights.  Everybody buys things on sale at Wal-Mart to use as presents.  Everybody walks around saying “Merry Christmas!”  Again, everybody is “supposed” to be happy, but with clinical depression, it just doesn’t work that way. 

On a similar note, it hit me this morning (December 21, 2011) that I can’t seem to feel the right way at the right time during Christmas.  For example, in just a few hours, my family and I will be driving to a town four hours away to celebrate Christmas with my parents.  Since I love both of my parents dearly and get along with them very well, I should be happy about making the trip, right?  However, because of a brain chemical imbalance (i.e. depression), I don’t feel as joyful as I should feel.  (NOTE:  I understand full well that nobody can control their emotions in the strict sense, but I am referring here to the inability to be happy about what would normally make me happy if not for depression.)  

You are a pastor, and Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ – central to your faith.  How does that interact with your struggles with depression?

Since the birth of Christ is indeed central to the Christian faith, one would think that a Christian believer/Pastor such as myself should feel joy during this time of year.  However, as stated previously, my not being able to feel the right way at the right time gets in the way of my experiencing joy. 

Having said this, I of course feel extreme GUILT at Christmas for NOT experiencing joy like other Christians do.  In fact, I wonder sometimes if people think that I’m simply being ungrateful regarding the birth of Christ and how he came to save us from our sins.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  I KNOW the truth, but the joy that is “supposed” to accompany knowing that truth is often absent.  

Because of the nature of struggle, some Christmas seasons are worse than others.  Where are you this year?  Is there an explanation for that?

As previously stated, my family and I will be travelling to my mom and dad’s farm near Bowman, ND.  Usually, we have some relatives from Indiana who join us for Christmas, but t they will not be making the trip this year for family reasons.  So, this Christmas will be a little sadder for me.  (My belief is that people who struggle with clinical depression feel more deeply than others.  This means that I take disappointment harder than others do.) 

 What are some coping strategies that you use during the Christmas season in your personal life and in your family life to maintain a healthy outlook?

My greatest coping strategy has been to surround myself with loving and friendly people.  With that in mind, my church family has been absolutely wonderful to my family and me, and we enjoy their company very much.

A second coping strategy-and I hate to admit this-has been sleep.  Sometimes, when I am overwhelmed by “the black cloud”- a term I have coined which I think describes depression- I’m almost compelled to rest for awhile.  Now of course, this strategy wouldn’t be possible in most work situations, but my church people  have been gracious to me, and although none of them have said it out loud, I think they understand after 10 years that their pastor is not going to be 100 percent all of the time.   Most of my people have no idea what it’s like to have Major Depressive Disorder, but nonetheless, they seem to understand that I’m not just “making it up”.  This awareness on their part is helpful for me as well. 

 You commented in a Facebook thread that “even depressed people must make an effort to focus on the birth of Christ. He continues to hold on to us, even when we are unable to hold on to him on account of our mental and emotional afflictions.”  How have you experienced this in your life?

I have already said that I have been the pastor of church for 10 years here in Anamoose.   During that time, I have had VERY few times when I could honestly say that I wasn’t troubled with depression and/or anxiety, but God has brought me this far.  This is what I meant when I said “He continues to hold on to us, even when we’re unable to hold on to Him.”  I was trying to make the point that somehow, and in some way, God has brought me through 10 years of ministry and, I hope, has used me in some small way to make a real difference for his Kingdom. 

I would also like to add that last June, I admitted myself to the psychiatric hospital at St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck, ND to undergo a major medication change for a week.  While I wasn’t there a long time, it was one of those deals where I looked back at the experience and said: “God, I would never have made it through that experience without you.” 

 Any other thoughts that you would like to share with me?

I once posted on FaceBook that I would like to write a book that asks the question: “What does God do with genuine Christian believers with depression who experience very little, if any, real joy in their lives?”  Of course, the quick “answer” to that question is that happiness and joy are two different things.  The former is based on circumstances and feelings while the latter is based on a decision.  This sounds good on paper, but does it really reflect the kind of Christian life God wants us to live?  Can a person really live a true Christian life, be in a true relationship with God, and feel NO positive emotions whatsoever?  (Think about a wife who says of her husband: “Oh, I love him very, very much.  I just never have any positive, loving emotions towards him.”  In my mind, this just can’t be.) What’s more, if the part of my body (i.e. brain) which I use to decide to be happy is sick,  what am I to do? 

Although this post may bring up more questions that it does provide answers, our hope is that others who struggle – especially at Christmas – will feel a little less alone.  That feeling of isolation and a lack of understanding from those around us is probably the worst thing to experience.  I resonate quite well with some of the lyrics in “Falling” by the Civil Wars.

Tell me it’s nothing
Try to convince me
That I’m not drowning
Oh let me tell you, I am

Please, please tell me you know

Although the intent of their lyrics are for a far different purpose (a woman breaking up with her man), I feel them deeply in my soul when I hear them because I just want others to see me as I am and not try to convince me otherwise.

One of the ways that I manage my “issues” is by being very honest with my huz and kids about what kind of day it is in Stacy’s brain…if I am aware enough to know.  The other thing that has helped a whole lot is to give them the freedom to ask questions about what is going on.  Am I responding in that way because I am just having a “regular person” bad day, or is there something bigger that needs to be addressed and managed?

Danelle and I hope that readers find kinship or understanding in this post.  Please comment and share with us; we would love that!

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One response to “Christmas and the Blues

  1. Penny Korkki

    I so appreciate your sharing candidly about your struggle with bi-polar disorder and that you are battling the illness openly with your family at your side. As you know, my mom struggled with the same affliction, that wasn’t clearly diagnosed until very late in her life. I so wish that we could have understood more sooner. I am so thankful that you have opened yourself up to the opportunity to having your family and friends share in your battle.


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