Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Christmas Without Tears

White rose of remembranceFor many years, I've dreaded the approach of the holiday season. As Thanksgiving neared, I would invariably find myself feeling on edge, sad and sluggish, often finding it difficult to even get out of bed in the morning. Getting out of the house and to work on time was a challenge, and often, my morning workouts would be put on the back burner, simply because I lacked energy and motivation. As much as I wanted to exercise, I just couldn't bring myself to go to the gym.

I had heard about a condition known as "seasonal affective disorder" (or SAD), which tends to affect individuals around the same time each year. Though I refused to put a label on what I was experiencing, I knew its origin, as well as how long it would last.

Many people who know me know that I lost my mother when I was 15 years old. My family had just celebrated what seemed to be a normal and enjoyable Christmas. Less than two weeks later, mom was gone, leaving a void that would engulf me and change the course of every subsequent holiday. Since then, I've lost my brother and father, and with each year, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve were something I just wanted to fast-forward through.

Each year, just around the end of October or beginning of November, an unwelcome yet familiar stress would creep in. The closer Thanksgiving came, the sadder and more stressed I'd become. Trying to figure out where I was going to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas, how to give the gifts I wanted to give (knowing there would be loved ones who would have to receive post-Christmas gifts), how to get dinner cooked and delivered to my now 98-year-old grandmother, and trying to stay healthy, were the surface stresses. Beneath it all, though, was the decades-long battle with "seasonal" depression, trying to appear "normal", keeping my game face on and pretending to look forward to the holidays. School, work and church were all places I wanted to shrink away from, for there, family plans that others had for the holidays were the primary topic of discussion. Lord forgive me, for all I could think about was what was missing. For me, the true meaning of Thanksgiving and Christmas was shrouded in painful memories of what I had lost. To be honest, until this year, I could only recall one truly "happy" Christmas, that being the one I spent with my sister and her family in New York the year my brother passed away. Hanging out with my sister one night during that visit, both of us wearing near-identical "footed" pajamas and matching head scarves, eating brownies, talking and laughing, is one of my fondest memories. Of course, I had my moments even then, the loss of my big brother still so fresh. Nevertheless, spending that Christmas with my sister and her family was a tremendous blessing, and a much-needed step toward the healing process.

Psalm 6:6 seemed to sum up my life with regard to the holidays: "I am weary with my groaning; all the night I make my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears." As hard as I tried, I just could not seem to beat the feelings of isolation and depression that I had for so long associated with Christmas and New Year's. I cried EVERY Christmas and EVERY New Year's Eve.

Symbol of joy, happiness and warmth
God promises in His Word that "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy." (Psalm 126:5) It's difficult for me to describe what happened this year to make it different than years past. The only explanation I can come up with is that the Lord has heard my prayers, counted my tears and helped me to see - and live - what Christmas is really about. As a Christian, I know and understand the true meaning of Christmas: The birth of Jesus, the One who came to take away the sins of the world (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). And yet, I allowed my emotions to define Christmas, to rob from me the joy that could have been mine year after year. And for the first time since I was 16 (beginning the Christmas after mom died), I shed not a tear on Christmas day.

This year, by the grace of God, I was finally able to put Christmas into perspective, celebrating it for what it is, and to honor the Lord. As a result, this was a truly wonderful and joyous Christmas. Did I still have typical holiday stresses that many others have (i.e., logistics, financial holiday planning)? Of course. Did I still recognize the losses experienced over the years? Absolutely. However, the difference this year is that I was determined to let the past go, to for once give it all to God, refusing to be engulfed by what does not belong to me: Depression.

This Christmas was simple yet profoundly peaceful. I enjoyed traditional non-traditional Christmas Eve dinner with my aunt and uncle, home-cooked dinner-for-lunch with my beloved grandmother, hearing my sister's voice mail (unfortunately, we're still playing phone tag) and Christmas celebrations with my church family.

The reason I wrote this particular blog post, "A Christmas Without Tears", was not to garner sympathy; the last thing I ever want is for people feeling sorry for me. I believe that God has allowed me to experience the things I've gone through in order to help someone else get through similar experiences or life events. This blog post had been in my spirit for the past few days, and I am not ashamed of my testimony.

Depression and sadness during the Christmas season is very real, and unfortunately, holds untold numbers of people in its grip. The recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, will undoubtedly leave people in emotional distress, as will other tragedies and losses that have occurred this year and in past years. Praying for those who have lost loved ones - especially children - I can't help but to think of the unbearable pain that is experienced this time of year, and the potentially long emotional journey that will be traveled. Prayers have gone up for me during the holiday seasons year after year, with the Lord delivering me from the grips of depression. So, too, do my prayers go forth for those who grieve the loss of loved ones, not just within my circle of family and friends, not just in Connecticut, not just in our military, but around the world.

To all who grieve and struggle through the holidays, seek the Lord, that "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:7, KJV) Reach out to someone you love and trust, let them know you're "going through" and ask them for help. And for those of you who know someone personally who struggles emotionally during the Christmas season, please keep them in prayer, encourage them, spend time with them and try to understand that it is for a season. Though we never forget those whom we love, with each year, the pain eases a little more, and at some blessed point, there will, for those who grieve, be a Christmas without tears.