On the Outside Looking In

The holidays. I know there isn’t necessarily a way they “should” go, but it’s hard not to have expectations, right? We’ve all seen the movies, heard the nostalgic carols, and (if we’re lucky) we have fond memories of seasons past that we hope to re-create. But let’s all just acknowledge that the holidays can also be a really hard time of year. Because at this festive time, it’s not like life just stops. And sometimes, life is complicated by loss and heartbreak.

I’ve had losses this year. Most of all, my grandfather died this December. He was a gentle man with an extremely generous spirit, an infectious laugh, and an appreciation of way too much delicious Filipino food and good red wine. He was so many wonderful things that I struggle to provide even a snapshot of him here. But now he’s gone. And my heart is heavy.

And there have been other, less significant losses this year, both personally and professionally. As these have piled up, I’ve started to feel like I’m spending the holidays on the outside looking in. I picture myself standing outside in the freezing cold and dark, gazing longingly into a lighted window at the warmth and laughter inside. But try as I might, I just can’t get in.

Don’t get me wrong, the holidays haven’t been all bad. Not even close. I loved decking out my house for Christmas. I loved seeing the amazement on my son’s face on Christmas morning when he saw that Santa had visited. I shared belly laughs, and heartfelt embraces, and delicious meals with family and friends. But behind, and underneath, and around the edges of all that joy, grief crept in. For isn’t it true that profound happiness and deep sadness are two sides of the same coin? One cannot exist without the other.

Cut to Christmas morning. I was overwhelmed. I felt sad. I felt happy. My house was full of people and full of stuff.  Full of so much freaking STUFF.  Did I mention I was overwhelmed? And I’m not proud of how I reacted. I had an anxiety attack. A sweating, panting, shaking, full-on freak out. I wanted to throw open the windows of my tiny house and toss out every present, box, ribbon, and ball of crumpled wrapping paper. For a few minutes, I was sure I would suffocate under a pile of Christmas. But I didn’t. I got my breath back, and I survived and moved on with the day. It wasn’t about the stuff, not really. It was a build up of so much more.

I felt embarrassed on Christmas Day, and I feel the same now sharing this. But I do so with the knowledge that I am not the only one who has felt like this. I CANNOT be the only one. Because like so many other parents, thanks to postpartum depression and anxiety, I am now more vulnerable to these two enemies. I know what it feels like when depression and anxiety initiate a hostile take over. When negative thoughts start to obsessively run through my mind (“I’m a bad mom.” “I’m a bad wife.” “I’m fat and ugly.” “I’m a bad person.”) And because I know these enemies well, I have also learned some tactics to fight them. But that doesn’t mean I always use them.

Sometimes I use a lot of things that don’t work first. Like stuffing down feelings with too much food and alcohol (so easy during the holidays!) But thankfully, there are so many things that do work for me. I have an amazing support system (especially my husband- but also my family, friends, and an amazing moms group). There is always someone I can reach out to to talk, day or night. There is almost always a child, or a dog, or a husband who wouldn’t mind cuddling while we read a book or watch a silly movie. There is almost always an oppportunity to go to the gym or for a walk (thanks to a husband who understands the importance of this). There are soothing essential oils in a nice, warm bath. There is music that I can sing along with until I feel my lungs and heart might burst. There are so many ways I can take care of myself, take care of my heart, and fight the enemies into submission. And for that I am grateful.

But there are times when I try every tool in my toolbox, and I still feel miserable. Racked with depression or anxiety. I’m on the outside of that lighted window, and I just cannot get back in. But that’s when I remind myself of what I tell my therapy clients all the time, which is that sometimes we Just. Feel. Bad. And if we can accept that, then we can remind ourselves it won’t last forever. After all, at least I can see the lighted window. At least there’s some hope burning in the darkness.

But the darkness is there. And it sucks. On a recent podcast hosted by Katie Couric, I heard Sheryl Sandberg (of Lean In) talking about the sudden death of her husband, and she remarked on how a rabbi actually told her to “embrace the suck.” Sometimes we can’t fix, ignore, or sidestep the sucky emotions. We just have to feel them. And that’s what I’m trying to let myself do right now. Because whether or not I choose to accept them, the feelings WILL be there.

So to all of you who have felt on the outside looking in this holidays season, for whatever reasons, I want you to know that I see you. And please remember, this won’t last forever. We may be out in the cold now, but spring will come again. I’ve been watching a lot of the movie Frozen lately with my 3.5 year old (like A LOT) and (spoiler alert) Elsa learns that love melts the ice of fear, sadness, loneliness, anger, and despair. LOVE is the answer. And while that is a huge cliche, it’s also true. So as this year begins, I’m clinging to love. I’m clinging to the light, to the crack in the door that I can pry open to get inside. And I’m making a resolution to make certain that those I love feel that love and know how much I appreciate them. Because as Elsa and Anna have taught us, only true love can thaw a frozen heart.

I love you all. (Really and truly!) Happy New Year!

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