The Holiday Season can Worsen Mental Health Issues

If the winter holidays are a challenging time for you, take heart. You’re not alone.

Sushi the chunky tabby cat acknowledges my attention with several heartfelt meows from within his carrier. His human and I have been chatting away while waiting for the bus when we suddenly realize it should have materialized by now. The transport strikes that have been paralyzing France for the last two weeks are showing no sign of abating. We find out from another passenger that this line is one of the many that remain suspended until further notice. I bid Sushi and his companion farewell as I set out on foot from Saint-Lazare railway station to the Sentier neighborhood, my heart heavy.

Bar for six weeks in the spring and one at the end of October, I have been away from my two guardian angels in furs during 2019 and I miss them terribly. During the five years I lost to major depressive disorder, the cats were my one and only source of support and solace. When I came back to Europe at the end of 2018 to help my parents navigate the complex reality of stage 4 cancer, I had no idea it would upend my life.

Within a few days, I realized I needed to be physically present rather than just a voice at the end of a phone or intermittent pixels and data packets. I initially decided to move to Portugal until the end of 2019 so my parents would have somewhere to escape to whenever they had time off between protocols.

I figured out I’d fly the cats from Seattle to Lisbon as soon as I had found a home and saved up for their fares alas Portugal turned out to be unworkable. And despite increasing my freelance workload, the financials still don’t add up in any way that would make hardship history. What’s more, salaries in Portugal are very low compared to Northern Europe so I’m moving back to North Holland instead, where I lived in the early aughts.

Moving to an EU country that requires back and forth flights is impractical; on the one hand, last minute airfares aren’t always available. On the other, my parents aren’t able to fly anywhere anymore; the only respite they managed this year is one week in the South of France, traveling by train. Three days after they came back to Paris, my stepmom started having a heart attack when I was by her bedside during chemo; she had surgery the next day.

She’s never not exhausted and is now mostly housebound as walking is difficult; she no longer feels safe outside the home. Even when Dad, her son, or I are by her side, she remains unsteady on her feet and afraid of falling; chemo has left her with crippling bone pain. And that’s only one of the innumerable side effects that have been eroding her quality of life since she was diagnosed and promptly started treatment in September 2018.

My American life is over. Being too cash-strapped to afford the care I needed despite having insurance and having to hold my own hand for five years nearly killed me. But staring death in the face every single day and bearing witness to incredible mental strength showed me I very much want to live, too.

And yet, suicidal ideation seems to be a permanent fixture of my mental landscape, a side-effect of constant and extreme tiredness.

As I walk down Rue Auber toward the Palais Garnier and on Rue du Quatre Septembre, I can feel I’m burning up and pay scant attention to traffic lights as I cross several intersections. I’m going to see Zach, a longtime family friend, also my stepmom’s hairstylist, and now mine too. I probably should have stayed in bed this morning because fever is never a good sign but I’ve already rescheduled my appointment twice. And because Zach is also a freelancer, I suspect the strikes have torpedoed his earnings for December; worse, he has four kids.

Also, I last saw him in August and I’ve long gone past looking unkempt, something he is kind enough not to comment on even though we French are blunt to a fault. In spite of all this and the kind of talent that has him work on photo shoots and film festivals, he doesn’t even charge me for a haircut, only for color. Which is a surprisingly low price for long hair.

By the time I leave the salon, I’m quite shaken by such random kindness and struggling to put my thoughts in order, still processing several days at my mom’s. What’s more, we have an oncology consult on Dec 23 and although it’s the holiday season, we never got around to planning anything. My stepbrother and his girlfriend are away and I wasn’t expecting — or expected — to be around either. No one thought to include me in their holiday plans bar for kind souls I have never met.

Everywhere I look, there are people carrying packages big and small; I spot an office worker wearing antlers and having a smoke outside. I’ve teleported into a dimension full of curious symbols I cannot parse; this holiday season only inspires sticky sadness in me. I crank up the volume on my headphones and keep putting one foot in front of the other until I reach the station, jaywalking again because I don’t care.

All the same, I ask my friends to text me joy and I send them pictures of Paris and assorted French oddities, of which there’s no shortage.

I need to get back on the train to my parents but I don’t trust myself not to collapse so I try and think of something I’d like to eat and come up without any idea. When all else fails, a soy cappuccino with an extra shot generally perks me up so I go sit in my favorite British café in Passage du Havre to regroup.

And because I’m having a rare good hair day, I decide take a selfie, something I seldom do. Although I’m wearing makeup, there’s absolutely no hiding the bags beneath the bags beneath the bags under my eyes. At this point, it’s a luggage carousel and the selfies aren’t salvageable; I look exactly as I feel, my eyes giving away the sadness within as they always do.

As I sit cradling my hot drink, anxiety pounces and within seconds my heart and my thoughts are racing; this panic attack is so violent I slide off my stool. Usually, this unexpected bit of slapstick comedy would have made me cackle with mirth but today I don’t care. I sit back down, grip the side of the wooden table and force myself to stare at some random dangling festive thing just outside the café. Getting up and leaving is the worst thing I could do so I try to stay as still as possible; there is no one I can reach out to, no one I can call, nothing I can do to feel better.

I start thumbing out a few words. And then I remember that sharing my distress without context with someone who won’t read my message right away is a terrible idea. So I stare at my phone home screen instead, a turquoise blue elephant covered with painted flowers that lives somewhere in Amsterdam. I have never met it yet its picture is a reliable source of joy but not right now; it’s just a bright blue shape that resembles an animal. Its usual meaning is as inaccessible as it is irrelevant; I’m once again alone in a crowd, entirely disconnected from all those around me.

Despite my many efforts to conjure it up, the spirit of the season keeps passing me by; the harder I try, the more it eludes me. I cannot shake off the feeling of being left behind, undeserving of the rest, respite, and human warmth that is the hallmark of the winter holidays.

Or not as the case may be. I know my parents feel similarly and although they haven’t asked and won’t, they’re saddened I have nowhere to go. But they don’t pry; instead, they decorated a Christmas tree and put a wreath on the front door when I was away, and it’s hard to look at them without tearing up.

The moment that seems to last forever eventually passes so I make my way to the station and board a train, even finding a window seat. This, too, would usually thrill me, as would the pattern of raindrops crashing onto the window but today I’m so numb I’ve retreated into my head.

I’m not sanguine my cappuccino will remain in my stomach and my field of vision appears to be shrinking, which is problematic. Thankfully I’m sitting down, the train doors are open, and there’s fresh air coming into the carriage so I take slow, deep breaths and focus on the rain drops.

Somehow, something makes me look up and I see it, right above the roofline of buildings, amid the crisscrossing of power lines. I blink a few times, unable to tell whether my brain is playing tricks on me or if it is something other passengers have noticed too. The lady sitting opposite me has her nose in a book, the man sitting next to me has his eyes glued to his smartphone, the kids across the aisle are playing.

I stare out of the window for a minute or two then take a picture as the colors start fading away rapidly and I still don’t trust what my eyes are seeing.

Perhaps it’s a matter of perception or perhaps there really was a rainbow.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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