This is dedicated to A.D.K, for bringing Christmas back into my life. Even though you left, it stayed behind. Thank you 🙂
TW: Mental Health, mention of suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that I love about the Christmas season. I’m not Christian, and the holiday holds no religious significance for me. But always as a child, I would absolutely lose it over Christmas, in the best possible way. All December long, I’d bring home wreaths that I’d make by using the fallen branches of a weeping willow near my school. My mom thought it was cute the first time, but by the tenth wreath, she was more than a little miffed. And with every iteration, they increased in size, and in concept too: Some had tinsel, felt, art pieces lying around the classroom. I was obsessed with wreaths. My mother was… I think confused at my wreath obsession, but only a few months ago, there had been a collecting “fall maple leaves of different colours”obsession, so this was something that fit right in. Advent calendars, setting up a Christmas tree with family, selecting the colour scheme for decorations (either red and gold, or blue and silver, and never any other pairing), and every day leading up to Christmas, I would get a small toy or card in my Christmas stocking. It was never anything huge – maybe a tiny piece of chocolate, a Hershey’s kiss, a kinder surprise, something like that.
So building the anticipation over the month was very important in my house, until by Christmas Eve, I was a bundle of excitable energy, squealing with happiness – literally. I would actually squeal from sheer excitement. I think my parents tried really hard to make this time special for me. Immigrants in a new country where our own holidays went unrecognised, where the splendour and grand festivities of Holi and Diwali were completely hidden away, unrecognised, it was important I think for all of us to be able to celebrate something where we felt like we were part of a wider community. Maybe that’s what assimilation is, to an extent, but I don’t care: for all my resistance in other ways, Christmas still remains in my heart. It’s a season of goodwill, supposedly, in this consumerist, capitalist society. Whether or not the “Christmas spirit” is now just a catchy tokenistic phrase to get people to buy things, for me, it’s a time to explicitly think about doing good for others, expressing gratitude, setting intentions for a better year, reflecting on learning and growth, and having compassion for people from all walks of life. Christmas is my time to reflect, before setting resolutions for the new year.
I remember when I was in my early teens – somewhere between 13-16 – when my piano teacher had asked me to play something for our Christmas concert. We settled on a moodier song – I’d always been a fan of minor keys, and though I loved Christmas music in general, we went with a piece by Heller. I wish I could remember the name. It was in E minor, I think at level 6 in the Royal Conservatory of Music, and likely an étude. Anyway, it wasn’t typical Christmas fare, but I remember my teacher’s rationale for choosing it. “Not everyone is happy during Christmas, and they might want something for them. It can be really hard to be happy when you don’t feel that way, and when everyone around you is happy.” It made some kind of sense to me, but I wouldn’t realize how much until years later, I struggled through my own depression for several years.
I mean, I’m still struggling with it in some ways. Depression and anxiety have been a regular part of my life for many years now, and it’s something my parents cannot relate to. But something that these conditions stole from me for some time was Christmas. I just couldn’t stand to think about happiness. It didn’t feel like I deserved to be happy when I felt so incredibly isolated, alone, and not good enough. I still usually don’t think of myself as deserving of happiness. And I think for the past three years, I’d always set up Christmas, birthdays, these things as “rewards” for having achieved some kind of life milestone. When I graduated from a prestigious university, and didn’t immediately enter med school, when I broke my foot during grad school at a much smaller university, and struggled with feeling alone in a starkly non multicultural city and campus, when I couldn’t feel competent because I was no longer “achieving” the way I’d imagined myself to, I felt I didn’t really deserve Christmas – or much else. I mean, food, regular eating, sleeping, were all things I avoided. I couldn’t take care of myself because inexplicably, I felt, if I didn’t achieve things, I wasn’t really worth taking care of. Needless to say, this resulted in some dark days – days that blurred into one another, and endless earl grey tea swimming season. And if I felt anything at all, it was only how much I hated myself with a kind of viciousness I haven’t wished even on people I’ve genuinely immensely disliked. The kind of self-loathing that comes with depression is hard to describe unless you’ve lived it. Part of why I focus on small joys, balance, is because even now, larger joys are inaccessible to me. So Christmas, one of my favourite seasons of the year, became one of my darkest.
I want to say that no one really knew just how close I came to committing suicide around Christmas time between 2012 and 2014. 2013 was easily the darkest year I’ve ever experienced – I remember barely a few days of that year due to how depression is known to rob people of the capacity to really form memories. When I was younger, I had one of the sharpest memories out of most people I could remember – but due to intense bullying in high school, most of those memories were painful, formed out of intensely vivid neural pathways. I think somewhere along the way, I made a subconscious decision to just… not remember things, good or bad. It was a strange, depressive inversion of the usual spiritual guidance I was given as a young child: “Accept all things with equanimity” But this wasn’t equanimity. yes, my depression leveled happiness and sadness – but all it left me with was grey. I wasn’t appreciating the good and the bad, I was… moving through life like a ghost. There were days I felt unreal. This was some strange hiding away inside myself, unable to exist and still existing.
There’s a word for what I was going through, through no fault of my own, in Hindu scriptures. In the Hinduism I was raised with, there are three, sort of “moral” levels of action, thought, and behaviour: the highest level of moral good is satva– action, thought, and behaviour grounded in honesty, truth, and the will to do good, nothing less. Offering gratitude, donations without expectation (without even expectation of “collecting good karma” or “pleasing God”) would all be considered Satvic actions. The second level is rajas – action, thought, and behaviour that come from a place of desire, passion, lust, wanting things, movement. Praying for a good test result would be a rajasic action. Donating and immediately thinking of it as spiritual credit would be a rajasic donation, not a satvic one. But the final tier of morality, the lowest level, is tamas, which is – “I know I know – wishing ill intent on people,” I’d say impatiently. “yes, that’s tamasic,” Dad told me, “but so is something else: ignorance, indifference, and inaction.”
And this is where I was at: floating in some strange tamas realm. It sounds harsh – Hinduism ranks wishing cruelty on people along with, it seems, depression. But there is a very simple spiritual and logical reason for this, and it’s a reason that feels unbearable to people living with depression: it’s the idea that wishing cruelty on anyone(‘s Self) is as awful as wishing cruelty to your Self. The problem is, people with depression *cannot* imagine wishing themselves well – or at least, I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it without feeling sick, like I didn’t deserve that kind of love. I had nothing in me to give compassion to myself. I, of course, sought to fill this emptiness from others – and it helped, a little. Community support is important to anyone dealing with depression and anxiety. Being told that I was still worthy of love and respect is important even if I couldn’t really believe it at the time.
“Do something good for others,” My dad would say whenever I told him about my depression. “You can’t wallow like this, you have nothing to be depressed about! Your depression is self-centered!” He’d say, not understanding what depression was like. I think his logic was something like revert this state of tamas with something sattvic. Of course, it’s not that easy at all. Asking people with depression to have capital-C Compassion for others is a hard thing to do,especially when you’re experiencing so many life-setbacks like university debt, financial debt to your parents, feeling unable to be worthwhile. Even when I offered support, it was from a place of wanting support back, and feeling resentful when that didn’t happen. (It was rajasic. or tamasic.)
The stark truth is that depression, for me, was and remains self-centered. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s also definitely not a great thing. But it’s not something I have to feel guilty about. It’s something that happens because depression forces me to live inside my head and start cutting pieces of brain matter from the inside out. It’s self-centered, and it’s the worst because my depression is a little pickaxe, tailored for me and me alone! Nothing is more self-centered than this aspect of me, because my depression is all about how I- me – my life – things I’m doing – is worthless and trash. I don’t know why I have depression – other than obviously the many social determinants that could lead to it. Certainly being marginalised in many ways exponentially increases the chances of feeling this way, and there are many reasons why South Asians, and South Asian women in particular are at a higher risk for depression (see here) . As a community, we tend to underutilize health services relative to white people, and it’s no surprise that we South Asian women have a higher suicide rate compared to the general American population. I can guess as to what some of the factors that led to my depression were, but at this point, it’s just something I live with. “Why do you have depression?” is, at best, an exasperating and useless question that leads nowhere fruitful, and at worst, is an emotionally exhausting question to answer effectively. There is no answer that feels good enough (hint: you never feel good enough, period. Not Feeling Good Enough is kind of the central theme to depression.) And depression definitely doesn’t let me often see myself as part of a bigger world where I can contribute in meaningful ways.
When I started working now at a great job that I truly love and which pays well enough to live on, a lot of my financial anxieties resolved themselves. Having independence, living in a big city, and contributing to building sexual health capacity within communities of racially marginalized people has been an incredibly empowering, gratifying experience. Suddenly, I found myself contributing in meaningful ways, and while my depression had abated a bit due to these structural changes in my life, I found that it had still not completely gone away.
Last year, around the time I started this job I met a wonderful man at the wrong time in both of our lives. No, I take that back, it was the right time. He brought Christmas back to my life, and that was a lovely, beautiful thing that I will never forget. On our second date, neither of us remotely Christian, he took me to the Distillery District in Toronto – an entire neighbourhood that has a festive, Christmas spirit to it. But it was our conversations that night that sealed it – I hadn’t remembered feeling happy about Christmas, about giving, sharing in so long. It felt like coming home. And our one special kiss on that date still resonates in my smile today. Later, I looked him to fill some of my emptiness, and that was wrong. He left inappropriately, without so much as a goodbye, and that was wrong too. (After “I love you”, leaving like that was hurtful.)
I regretted meeting him after things ended. No, that’s not true. I tried hard to regret him. But in finding Christmas, and in growing to not just be in love with him, but to simply love him, I found that I just… couldn’t regret meeting him. In the aftermath of our relationship, regretting my time with him was infinitely more painful and detrimental to my sense of self (Self?) than simply letting myself love him – that bit of him that I knew had resonated with me on so many lovely nights – and later I grew to realize that that Self was also reflected in me, and in every living creature.
I believe this more firmly now, these days. It’s being able to love without expecting anything in return, it’s being able to love someone else and being able to love yourself in the same way. It’s giving – and never emptying, because whatever source I’m drawing on for this kind of love simply does not empty; it circulates among us all, it grows if we let it. When depression hits, when anxiety hits, it is usually just as bad as my worst days, but I feel full these days, most of the time. And I am able to hold myself better. I hold myself the way I should have held him when I knew him, the way I would have, had I been able to love this way when I knew him, and the way I will hold other people in future. If depression is self-centered, then this love, this ability, is Self-centered – and reflects a Self that exists in all of us. If depression always strives to reduce happiness and joy and sadness to the “equal” rubble of a useless and wasted life, then this love appreciates joy, and happiness, and yes, pain too with an equanimity I didn’t know I was capable of accessing. There is a way to love that always has enough room for humility without shame, hurt without blame, mistakes without accusations, and redemption rooted in acceptance and hope for better. There is a a way to love that gives as many chances for growth as needed, and never conflates that with giving infinite chances to hurt or invade people’s boundaries. Feeling this kind of love, generosity, and gratitude has been one of the most empowering experiences of this past year. And that is what I want my adult version of Christmas, and my vision for my future, to be: to give freely, to love indefinitely, to forgive truly, to apologize honestly, to connect in the most genuine possible manner.