Christmas is always hard for me. Even before dad, it seemed like Bad Things happened disproportionately often between late November and early January.
The thing that makes it hardest is that I really, really love Christmas, and I always have - but these days it makes me feel nervous, uneasy. There's always that nagging feeling that something terrible is about to happen. That, coupled with the little things that suddenly bring to mind all kinds of unwelcome memories of years gone by, mean it often doesn't feel like the most wonderful time of the year.
This year has been particularly tough. I'm not really why, but this year I've thought about dad, thought about those weeks leading up to Christmas, a lot more than any year since it happened. And that hasn't exactly helped.
On top of that, the cold and the long, long hours of darkness, which make it harder to find time for fresh air and clearing your head - if you can find the motivation to do anything at all - mean this season can be really, really hard.
There's the constant expectation to be happy, all the time. That, even more than usual, there's something wrong with you if you're not. "Oh, come on, cheer up - it's Christmas!" making you feel even more like you're failing, feel even more guilty that you aren't entering into the spirit that you ought to be.
Being constantly bombarded by "happy families" everywhere you look. All of the TV and adverts and cards and sermons and "Joy to the World" carolling. Like peering through the windows of everyone else's celebrations, yet never being invited over the threshold. Making you feel inadequate if that joy isn't where you are.
And yes, there is truth in it, of course there is. It's a time when there is a lot to celebrate, and of course it's right to talk about it. The problem comes when people make assumptions that if you're not joyful, it's out of choice. Like you've made a conscious decision, which you could reverse if you just made a bit of effort. The frustration of knowing that people just don't get it. That if you could choose, of course you would be on top of the world right now. Feeling like you can't be honest about how you're doing, for fear of being judged for being a Grinch.
The knowledge that everyone else is already busy spending time with their own loved ones, enjoying their own celebrations. Those you'd normally go to just aren't there. You could still ask, of course you could - but you're certain you know what the answer would be, and hearing that "no" would hurt far more, so you don't. At least this way you don't know for definite, you tell yourself.
And all of it serves to remind you how completely, utterly alone you feel. Like you're fighting this massive battle, losing power, but everyone else has pressed pause. Even forgotten, perhaps. And so you're stuck there. On your own.
Then there's the invitations that come your way. Things you've said yes to - that you were genuinely really excited about at the time, but that now just feel too overwhelming to consider. The dilemma that follows: you could not go, feel like you're missing out and hate yourself for not being strong enough to go through with it; or you could force yourself to go, running the risk of finding it all too much and not being able to escape, or worse: bringing everyone else down with you.
But say you do go. Sometimes it's OK. Sometimes better than OK. Sometimes it even helps, for a while. Sometimes you can get so caught up in conversation, lost in the fun, that everything else disappears. But it all has to end - and when it does, often the sheer amount of energy you've used to sustain this couple of hours of "being OK" bring you crashing back down to earth with an almighty thud.
The endless to-do, to-buy list. Every extra thing that gets added just making you want to curl up and hide until it's all over for another year and you can finally relax.
Sometimes there are far too many distractions in life, and other times there aren't nearly enough. At Christmas, somehow, you often manage to get both at once. Too much noise, and yet too much space to ruminate. And you just want to get away, disappear somewhere you can be yourself, feeling like this, without the guilt or the judgement or the knowledge of what you're missing out on.
But because it's Christmas, everywhere's packed to the rafters. No room at the inn. No escape. Nowhere to go to fall apart in peace, so you have to keep pushing yourself on, keep putting on a brave face and pretending everything's fine. Even though it's not fine, it's the last thing you want, and you know it'll only make things worse in the long run.
You don't want to be handled with kid gloves; you just wish people would cut you a little bit of slack. Not make you feel bad for killing their vibes, or whatever.
Depression is a bitch - especially at this time of year.
But there are some things that people can do that can help a little, or at least not make things worse. You might have your own, but here are some of my suggestions.
Don't make them feel bad for bailing on plans at the last minute. Be kind. Don't offer to be there for them if you don't mean it, or know you won't be available. If you do, and you are, then say so. Be kind. Empathise, don't analyse. Be kind. Tell them you're thinking of them. Be kind. And whatever you do, don't tell them to "cheer up, it's Christmas".
Because you never quite know what's going on behind the scenes.