“I grew up in an overly religious home as the oldest of seven. It was an unspoken understanding between us Christmas was my mom’s holiday. She set the tone, the traditions, the rules, and purchased all the gifts. She got so much joy out of gift-giving every Christmas and had separate wrapping paper for the Santa presents. Even as we got older and traditions changed, she always went above and beyond to make sure our involvement and belief were rock solid. One year, I confronted my mom about the existence of Santa and she simply replied, ‘Santa symbolizes hope and peace for me and I think it’s okay to believe in that.’
Christmas was always this magical season where there were never enough carols to sing or movies to watch and all seven of us waited with heightened anticipation every year for Christmas morning. The tree always went up the weekend before Christmas out of respect for the Advent season and our German/Polish religious roots. My mom would spend hours in the kitchen making meals from scratch, glazing her own ham and roasting it for hours in the oven. We would gather on the stairs, half asleep, and wait for the video camera to be set up before barreling down the stairs to distribute and open gifts one at a time. She bought us each underwear and socks as a gag gift, a new pair of Christmas pajamas, and an ornament special to each kid for each year. My favorite will forever be the sleigh bell from the Polar Express. My childhood did not have many bright spots, and though the years would be hard, my mom always made sure Christmas made up for the dark times. She is and will forever be the heart of the season for my family.
n 2017, I experienced my first dark Christmas season when my parents announced they were getting a divorce. I was a month out from getting married, it was my last Christmas at home, and I was about to relocate to North Carolina. It wasn’t a surprise announcement. We had all seen the distance grow between them, heard the fights and the silence that always followed. I knew my mom was helping us all leave a toxic situation and I stood behind her decision completely, but part of me wondered if it would ever happen. She had been contemplating it for years and things tended to fizzle out before they ever came to a head.
I sat in that moment and the resulting emotions were blindsiding. I hid in the laundry room and cried silently for hours. No one tells you leaving an unhealthy situation leaves you feeling more broken than before. It doesn’t mean there is automatic hope and relief. The clouds don’t part and the rains don’t stop. It left me facing this new reality alone and it felt like every single one of us had been holding our breath for years. That day, our lungs finally gave out. Christmas morning that year was raw and quiet and fake for the first time in my life. We stopped recording Christmases after that.
The divorce was finalized in July 2018. I found out at my best friend’s bridal shower and what I thought was a manifestation of relief quickly spiraled into a night of binge drinking and emotional breakdowns. I realized all the hurt, anger, and trauma I had bottled up for 22 years had never actually been addressed and the divorce did nothing to heal me. I called my husband at 2 a.m. and quietly sobbed, ‘I’m done fighting on my own. I need help.’ I had not been happy in what had felt like years. We wanted to start a family, but I knew I had to prioritize myself for the first time in my life.
Yet, I didn’t. I went back home, fell into old routines, and mistook comfort and familiarity for emotional growth. Then, in October 2018, we found out we were expecting. I was immediately shaken. So much self-doubt, guilt, and shame flooded my mind state and I didn’t know how to be a good mom when I was barely passing as a functioning adult. My husband’s military contract was up and we had no plans for the future. I wanted nothing more than to be back with my family and have my mom show me everything was going to be all right.
We chose to move back home to Colorado in December and it was a 3-day drive across the country with everything we owned. We had no home, no jobs, and no idea of how we were going to make it. We decided to stay with my in-laws until we could get back on our feet.
When Christmas rolled around, it came time to tell our families and I was so afraid. I felt if we announced it on Christmas, it would ruin the holiday or bring judgment down on us for bringing life into the world when our own lives were falling apart. I begged my husband to tell everyone discreetly. I felt if I could downplay the pregnancy, I could downplay the growing coldness of a void I couldn’t name. Christmas was no longer a safe space for me and instead, it became filled with arguments and expectations. I felt lost.
The following year, we were at yet another crossroads. We were broke, drowning in debt, living off of canned food, and unable to make rent. Our marriage was deteriorating. I felt helpless and broken because once again, the holidays were approaching and there was no sense of happiness or celebration. We had a brand new baby who we couldn’t provide for, let alone buy Christmas presents or afford a tree. I felt like I was failing as a mom and a wife and my shame was debilitating.
We moved in with my in-laws again in a desperate attempt to salvage our life together and I felt the bitter hollowness creep up on me. The days leading up to Christmas were not cheerful or full of hope. It was bleak and frigid and dark. We spent the holiday running between time frames to grandparent’s houses so they could experience our daughter’s first Christmas and had no time to enjoy those moments ourselves. I remember turning to my husband at one point, on the verge of tears, and saying, ‘I’ve been bled dry from expectations.’ I felt like anyone I said no to was disappointed and anyone I tried to make time for was unsatisfied. When I mentioned to my mom how I was feeling, she took both of my hands and said, ‘Honey, I think you are depressed.’
This was my turning point. For so long I thought my feelings for Christmas were nameless and indistinguishable. I cried long and hard that night while my husband held me. My shame turned to anger at myself for allowing things to get this bad, for robbing others of their happiness by not having my own, and for not being able to see what was really going on. The next day, my husband made me a promise: ‘We will have our own Christmas tree next year.’ I felt hope for the first time in 3 years.
This year has been completely different from what we thought it would be. We spent 5 months out of work and have had to adjust to working during a pandemic. My physical health deteriorated and put a strain on all of us. My mental health waned for months as the pandemic continued with no end in sight. But I kept coming back to that promise and what it meant to me. We ended up using every penny we made to pay off our debt. We got our own place in October and spent the week after Thanksgiving decorating it for Christmas. Our tree went up on the first of December.
My daughter runs from her room every morning to help me plug in the lights and giggles ‘pretty’ when they turn on. She rearranges the ornaments in her own patterns and takes the sleigh bell and runs off with it. We often hear it ringing down the hall. I still have bad days where I feel that emptiness seeping back in, but it has a name now and I don’t let my depression damper the meaning behind our little tree lighting up our corner of the world.
Mental health is not a straight ascent up. It dips into crevices that seem impossible to climb out of and hits mountain tops that are jagged and only leave you happy for a passing moment. It is constant hard work and it’s hard to feel happy at all sometimes. But for the first time in years, there is peace in my home and I think it’s okay to believe in that.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Abbey Lawrence of Denver, CO. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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