It’s time we start being honest about the holidays. It’s true that holidays can be a time of great joy, family gatherings, and sharing of goodwill. For many of us, they bring back childhood memories of wonderful gifts, doting grandparents, home-cooked feasts, and snowy adventures. It’s years later now though, and our realities have changed. Many of those whom we remember so fondly are no longer with us. They’ve been replaced by loneliness, stress, and regrets. There are sad memories, old wounds, and conflicts between family. But we put on our happy faces, for the kids, for those whose holidays have not yet been tinged with pain. We don’t let anyone see how we are feeling. Our pictures on social media make everything seem perfect. I think it’s time to end the lie that holidays are always happy. It’s time to tell the truth.
I recently read a popular article on Medium called Facebook’s Mental Health Problem, about how spending time on social media can make people feel worse when we’re dealing with depression. It’s something I’ve experienced myself, and seen in my friends, some of whom choose not to be on Facebook or will step away from social media for a few weeks or even months when they’re struggling. The article explores some of the reasons why, such as feeling afraid to share feelings in front of people, pressure to appear happy, and a perception that other people’s lives are successful compared to our own. This pressure is magnified during the holidays. Social media is the new Christmas card. Status updates are the new holiday newsletter. It’s where we display the best, happiest versions of ourselves and our families. But it’s not just the once a year letter anymore, with the goofy family photo that you got in the mail and might read if you have a moment. It’s a daily fictionalization of reality. We can’t help but feel bad about ourselves when we look at people who post relentlessly happy messages all the time, because their lives seem so perfect. We have to remind ourselves it’s just a facade. No one’s life is a fairy tale.
With social media, we can feel so connected, yet so alone. We don’t see the full scope of other people’s lives, only what they choose to share, yet somehow we assume it’s everything. We can hurt each other unintentionally because we don’t see or show what’s real. I recently had a bit of a falling out with a friend because she virtually ignored me for months when we typically would talk a few times a week. Meanwhile her Facebook page was filled with upbeat messages and images of her performing in a theater production. When I finally talked to her, she said she was terribly depressed, and I replied, well why didn’t you tell me, or say something on Facebook? I would have understood, and done anything I could to be supportive, if she had just been honest. Instead, I had the wrong idea for months. From my perspective, it seemed like she was simply too busy with everything else, and couldn’t even be bothered to drop me a quick message to say hello. I didn’t go to her play because I didn’t think she cared. When I found out the truth, I felt awful. I needed some time to process it all. Eventually, I realized that at times, I’ve pulled away from people when I was depressed too, or felt pressure to say or not say certain things on social media.
I don’t know why I assumed all was well with her; I’ve had enough friends share true confessions with me about their real lives versus their Facebook lives to know better. People will post message after message about how much they love their spouse when their marriage is really a shambles, or paint a rosy picture of their child who actually just got suspended from school. They might not talk about the illness or death of a beloved relative because some of their other family don’t like that person. I’ve had more than one friend tell me each of these things, and many more. Every time, it just makes me sad. I respect everyone’s choices about what to share or not share, but in my heart I wish that people could share their truth. Then we would all know that we’re all hurting, and no one’s life is perfect.
My truth is that the holidays have been difficult for a long time, since my mother passed away over 15 years ago. This year I’ve been depressed for the past few weeks, and I haven’t said a word online. I’ve been fairly quiet, posting the occasional picture or sharing a funny video that made me smile. As far as anyone who views my life digitally is concerned, everything is smooth sailing. That couldn’t be further from the truth. To be fair, things could be a lot worse, and they have been in the past. I don’t feel like I want to hurt myself. Although I’m having some problems, my life isn’t falling apart. But I feel like I’m standing a couple of feet from the edge of the cliff. I’m not falling, but a few more steps in the wrong direction and I could be.
I always miss my mom a lot on Christmas, but a few years ago I started to feel at peace with her being gone, and was able to enjoy the holidays again. I reconnected with her relatives, with whom I get along well and have a lot in common, and started spending Christmas with them. Then the robbery happened, and I had to move. I’m still not at peace with moving, and I don’t know when I will be. I had to spend tens of thousands of dollars I couldn’t afford on moving and paying for caregivers while I got switched over to the state program here — not because of my own bad decisions, but someone else’s. I hope I can get some redress through victims compensation (who are fighting my claim) because I don’t know how much longer I can live with my life being limited by someone else’s selfish actions. But I don’t want to ask friends or strangers for money, beyond what I’ve already received from family, whom I will pay back as soon as I’m able. I want the people who are responsible to pay — the criminals who hurt me, and the state of California whose IHSS program is so poorly managed that it puts people with disabilities in danger.
I spend the holidays with immediate family now, and we get along pretty well. I am fortunate that my family is stable, and isn’t fractured by personal conflicts; some of my good friends find themselves torn between relatives and trying to attend multiple gatherings due to divorces and old family feuds. I love my family and it’s great being close by, but I still feel like an alien in this town. I don’t hate it, but I just don’t quite belong. I’m not sure I belong anywhere. That’s one of the reasons why I love to travel. I like having a home base, and here is as good as anywhere, but when I travel I really feel at home experiencing different people and cultures, and spending time with friends all over the country who are like family to me.
Speaking of friends who are like family, one of my best friends has cancer. She’s only 40 years old, a single mom, and it has spread to her liver. As if that’s not bad enough, she has been struggling financially, and worrying about things like how to keep the heat turned on when she should be able to focus on fighting her cancer. First, I felt like this was yet another problem I can’t do anything about, but I realized I could. I started an online benefit for her in Second Life and on the web, and we’ve raised a couple thousand dollars so far. Knowing that she has some stability is the best Christmas present I could ever receive. If you’re still looking for somebody to help out this holiday season, check out her fundraising page.
When you have a disability and rely on caregivers, the holidays can often bring extra stress. I had a caregiver give two weeks notice at the worst possible time, just after Thanksgiving, and it was clear her main motivation was to be able to travel in December and not feel bad about taking off work. I like her, but she let me down. It’s next to impossible to find someone new in November and December. It’s hard even when I have a full staff of caregivers, because everyone wants to take time off, but I still need help getting out of bed and going to the bathroom even though it’s Christmas. I miss my caregiver C and the stability I had in San Diego, knowing she truly cared and that I’d never be stuck without help in an emergency. Sometimes I look ahead at the rest of my life, and think that I’m going to spend all of it struggling to find caregivers who will be honest, reliable, and stay for years. I’ve missed out on so many things I wanted to do over the years because I was short on caregivers at the time or no one was available. I’ve had my health negatively impacted too. In my darkest moments, I have panic attacks that someday I’ll die trapped in my own bed because I have no help. I would say that at least 50% of the time I’ve spent depressed has been because of shortages or problems with caregivers. That’s no way to live. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.
I feel lonely a lot. I have friends, and they’re great, but many of them are busy with their own lives, and I’m alone more than I want to be. I miss the days when I lived five minutes away from my best friends in L.A., or even a couple hours away in San Diego. I miss another friend who has been slowly drifting away emotionally, and doesn’t seem to see my attempts to reconnect and get back what we used to have. I miss my favorite restaurants and concert venues and musicians in San Diego. There are some good ones here, to be sure, but it doesn’t replace what I lost. And this may sound strange, but I miss what might have been. My life in San Diego had just started to get much better after my divorce; I was getting out more and meeting new people. I had thought about leaving in a couple of years, but I was going to really experience the place first and see if I wanted to stay. Now I’ll never know. I feel like I’m starting over, over and over again, instead of being able to feel grounded and really build a life.
In many ways, I’m fortunate. I have a roof over my head, and get by enough to take care of myself and my dogs. I have a loving family and friends. Many are not so blessed this holiday season. I haven’t had a good year, but it could’ve been worse. I’ve had some amazing opportunities. I got to take two major trips, to New York City and to Denver. Both were amazing and healing experiences. I got to see friends and family, attend lots of theater, spend time outdoors, and more. I’m still finishing all the blog posts about Denver! Speaking of which, I decided this year that I am turning this blog into a business. My goal is to make my living writing about travel and other aspects of living with a disability. I know it will take time to build up, but I have always succeeded by following my bliss, and I’ve always loved to write. Blogging seems like the perfect combination of my talents and passions.
Although life has been complicated, I do have a lot to look forward to in the new year. I don’t want to make the holidays sound miserable. I’m sure I’ll have a great time with my family on Christmas tomorrow. I don’t want to bring other people’s moods down with what I’m saying. I think that’s why a lot of people keep silent about their struggles on social media. They don’t want to risk hurting feelings, or make their friends depressed. I don’t either. But I think there is a balance. I share my triumphs and my defeats, and every year I try to grow in my authenticity. That’s what being a writer is about.
I hope you all have the best possible holiday, whatever that means for you. I hope it’s happy, and stress-free, but most of all, I hope that you share your feelings — your joys, sorrows, and memories — with those you care about. I hope you receive unconditional love — the true spirit of the season — in return.
With much love,