A vigil for those dealing with mental illness at Christmas

Suffering with illness over Christmas has to be one of the most miserable experiences. For too long have mental and physical sufferings been separated, due to the invisible nature of mental illness. I am not ashamed that my past Christmas illnesses have been mental.

A time of virus has impacts on us all. Fear of covid’s physical implications is preventing many large gatherings and bringing further restrictions onto people’s festive expression. However, due to my past experiences with panic attacks, obsessions and depression over Christmas, I am more fearing that my mind is able to stay as well as possible. I am also worrying about those in the throws of mental illness, or who feel on the edge and am desperate to help them in some way.

‘The edge’ can bring connotations of an attempt of suicide, though feeling on the edge is a worldwide mental experience. It can feel as though life is completely overwhelming and unliveable. It can make you feel unable to know what to do, where to go and who to call. Being on the edge is being entirely vulnerable to what your brain feels next. Sometimes, how ‘low’ you go doesn’t feel within your control.

This ‘edge’ may be after a death of someone, breakup or other intense life event. But for those with mental illness, it can feel extremely hard to put a reason on the breakdown. ‘Everything being too much’ doesn’t feel like an entirely rational reason. Feeling ‘on-edge’ simply becomes your internal environment. Nothing feels able to get you out of it or justify why you feel how you do.

Three years ago I found myself feeling suicidal over Christmas. It is scary to write, probably not nice to read either, but nothing stops it from being true. I wasn’t able to verbalise the extent of it to anyone, but I was suffering with these incessant thoughts of overwhelm, extreme mental pain and wanting it all to end. The thoughts terrified me and I was completely unable to see their severity. I was afraid of what my family would see me as from that point onwards. Fear of being ‘unstable’ or ‘ruining’ people’s Christmas’ are reasons I remember keeping it from them.

Moving onto the past two years, Christmas has been largely joyful and exciting, life-giving, although my experiences of painful Christmases do make me nervous. It can bring up so many emotions of desperation, anxiety, panic and confusion. I have tried to use these emotional experiences to sit with others in the darkness. I am not yet in a place to be able to support people in mental distress in person, but I have felt a huge healing and connection in sitting in the darkness with them.

I give myself 10 minutes at night to remember people that are suicidal, desperate and alone, facing the most overwhelming and constant anguish. I try to enter into that terrifying place with them, sitting like a friend and hoping my presence makes someone feel something, like hope or a bit of peace, if only for a few minutes.

It can be easy to share your own dark story, if you are used to it. I find myself not so perturbed anymore by admitting to the darker experiences within my life, but what is harder is to practice some kind of silent connection with others. I try to see it as my vigil- a vigil I wish I practiced and prioritised more. I want my experience to help others, both through its content, but also through the presence and knowledge of that deep agony that can connect us as humans who suffer and have suffered.

Merry Christmas xx

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