[Note – this is an edited update of an earlier post from a couple of years ago]
The festive season is just around the corner – or fully in swing, if the TV adverts are to be believed – and once again, it’s worth remembering this isn’t an easy time for everyone. So, while I am no mental health expert (see below for links if you need expert help), as I have had some fairly shitty, lonely Christmases in the 5 years since my mum died, I’m passing on some of what I’ve learned about how to cope, as well as some ideas as to how you can help, if you know someone you think may be lonely or struggling this Christmas.
Celebrate – or don’t
I think the most important thing – as so often with most areas of life – is to find a solution that works for you, and not be unduly influenced by what other people say. When I lost my mum, and was facing my first Christmas feeling very much alone, I read loads of articles about how important it was to celebrate even if I was on my own: buy nice food, wear decent clothes, make it feel like a proper celebration. Which was a bloody terrible idea – I spent a fortune on food I didn’t even want, and was completely miserable the whole time comparing what seemed like my sham, hollow ‘celebrations’ with what I would be doing if I was at my mum’s house, with my best friend and her kids in tow being rowdy and joyful and opening presents.
The following year, I thought, screw the whole thing. I sat around watching Netflix and the Avengers and ate a ready-meal lunch and too many Quality Street, and felt much better as a result. Since then I have found a mix of things that work for me: inviting a friend whose family live overseas to stay for a (very) low-key get together; having a full on festive ‘orphan Christmas’ with people who can’t get home for the holidays. I’m still no great fan of the day – that ship has sailed, I fear – but I have found ways to make it anything from bearable to fun, depending on my mental state that season.
Figure out what you think the best plan for you is, and do that. Don’t be rigid about it, though, as what you think you want a week before Christmas might not be what you want on the day – if you buy a load of fancy food but wake up on Christmas morning and just want to go back to bed and eat cheese toasties, that’s fine.
Get away from it all
Again: this works for some, not others. I have one friend who every year travels to a hot, non-Christian country, so spends the holiday doing yoga on the beach. Another goes to Vegas or New York to lean into the whole festive thing while avoiding the hassle of negotiating a family that doesn’t get along. Another goes to a country hotel where they make a huge fuss of Christmas, but at least she’s not alone and she’s not the one having to do all the cooking and washing up. It’s not always an option – if you’re broke, racking up a load of debt to start the New Year isn’t advisable – but it’s worth thinking about if you can’t face being home alone.
Do your prep
When I first posted this article, I got a lot of lovely feedback – and one particularly useful suggestion was, even if you are planning on staying in and hibernating on the day, it’s useful to find out in advance what will be open near you, in case your plans change: local corner shops, cafes and supermarkets, church services or religious events if you are that way inclined, etc. If you wake up feeling a need to speak to someone, it can be good to have a plan in advance rather than aimlessly wandering / driving around your neighbourhood looking for signs of life…
Be grateful for offers – even if you don’t take them up
I am lucky in that, though I am single, an only child and now technically an orphan (I know, very Dickens), I am blessed with lots of good friends. Many of these have taken pity on me and invited me to their Christmases, but I just couldn’t face it. Sometimes being surrounded by other people – happy couples, big families – can be a great distraction, sometimes it can painfully reinforce what you think is missing from your own life. So don’t feel bad if you’re not up to accepting the invites of others, but do remember: they’re asking because they care. That alone is something to be grateful for.
Find others in the same boat
The last few years, I have invited a friend over whose mum moved away so no longer has the option of a ‘family’ Christmas. Despite the fact that we are really good friends, it still felt like a big thing to do, an imposition even – what if she felt like she had to agree, or she’d be condemning me to a Christmas crying over an M&S meal for one? What if she thought I was taking pity on her? It can be very easy, when you’re not in a good place, to overthink stuff like this – but it’s almost always worth taking the chance. In the end, we’ve got into a routine of mainly doing our own thing during her visit (a writer like me, she is always happy to head off to a cafe with a notebook to give us both some space) but we both get to have someone to share Christmas dinner with and watch a dumb movie, and my Christmases have felt much less lonely. Is there someone in your life in a similar situation? You might be surprised by how much they would welcome the chance to hang out over the holidays.
While I don’t think it’s productive to say to someone who is lonely or depressed ‘hey, cheer up, there are others worse off than you are’, it can be a welcome distraction to focus on helping other people at this time of year. There are plenty of charities which need extra assistance in the run up to the festive season: food banks and homeless shelters, in particular, will face extra demand. (You can find out how to volunteer at Crisis here). If you want to do it on a more ad hoc basis, just look around your neighbourhood: is there an old person whose shopping you could do? Can you babysit for a friend so they can do their Christmas shopping? Feed someone’s pet while they are away? Sometimes, getting out of your own head is the best thing you can do.
Reach out to others
Most people are genuinely kind – but they are also often so wrapped up in their own lives, especially at such a busy and stressful time of the year, they forget to check in on yours. It can be hard asking for help, especially if you are feeling fragile, when you can be as easily broken by kindness as you can by indifference or cruelty (at my lowest ebb, the thing that most often reduced me to tears was people being nice to me – it felt overwhelming to be able to let my guard down, even temporarily).
Don’t feel you have to go into more detail than you are comfortable with: it can be easier to say ‘hey, I’m at a loose end over the holidays – would you be free to go for a coffee or see a movie?’ than to say ‘I’m so lonely I want to weep and I’m scared I might not speak to another human being over Christmas, please help me!’ If you need professional help, there’s no shame in asking: services like the Samaritans won’t ever judge you for calling.
(Since I initially wrote this piece, I discovered – and took part in – comedian Sarah Millican’s Twitter campaign #joinin, which she has being doing each Christmas. Basically people who are lonely at Christmas can tweet using the hashtag and other people will chat to them, or even just send comments of support. It’s a lovely, friendly and supportive thing and can be really useful if you feel like you are the only person without a Hallmark Christmas, so worth checking out if you’re on Twitter.)
Keep an eye on the cash
People in couples or with families tend to forget just how fricking expensive it is to be on your own, and money can be stressful at the best of times. So don’t try to buy yourself out of a slump, or feel you have to spend a fortune keeping up with your friends. In my experience the best present you can give someone is saying, ‘hey, shall we not do gifts this year?’ since it’s pretty much guaranteed that even if the people you know have the money for gifts, they are struggling to find the time to buy them. Give the gift of not giving, people. It’ll set you free!
If that feels too Scrooge-like, set a reasonable price limit (enough that you can buy something useful, though, not tat: if you are skint there’s nothing more depressing than getting useless gifts that go straight in the bin, as you can’t help yourself from thinking, “I could have done with the money”). Decide instead of presents you’ll put the money towards a night out (or in: the money you spent on that bath set could cover a bottle of cheap fizz, a takeaway and a movie rental).
Don’t feel obliged to send everyone you know a Christmas card (the price of stamps! the hassle of writing them! the pile of unsent cards you find on your desk every year – OK, that last one might just be me.) I now only send a handful of cards, mainly to family or people who aren’t on social media, and it has saved me a ton of stress and hassle every year.
Christmas can be stressful enough. Don’t store up a financial hangover that’ll make the New Year terrible, too.
Don’t torture yourself with social media
It’s easy to look at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and think everyone else is happier and having more fun than you are. Remember the saying: don’t compare your full-length movie with someone else’s highlights reel. You have no idea what is going on behind those ‘look at my perfect family’ posts, and almost no one’s life is like it looks on social media. There are plenty of people facing serious struggles that you know nothing about, and that you’ll never find out about on Facebook. But, conversely…
Wallow if you need to
OK, probably not wise to do this the whole holiday, but putting on a soppy film and having a good old cry about how pathetic your life feels can actually be pretty cathartic.
It sounds ridiculously simplistic, but it’s easy to let basic self-care fall apart when you’re low, especially if you’re freed from the constraints of having to get dressed to go to work or see other people. But even if you’re just getting changed from one pair of PJs to another, you will feel better after a shower and with clean hair. Make sure you eat enough, and drink plenty of water. You are, however, free to eat an entire Terry’s Chocolate Orange in one sitting, breakfast on Pringles or have a Boxing Day lunch that consists of only mince pies. It’s Christmas, after all.
If none of this applies to you, but you want to watch out for other people – how can you help?
Recognise it may not only be the usual suspects
Christmas can be tough on people for many reasons, so it may not just be those in obvious need who could do with a bit of support. Your going-solo friend might be lonely, true, but your single mum pal might also be crying herself to sleep worrying about how she’s paying for the kids’ presents, or your friend with the invisible chronic illness might find the whole season unbearably fatiguing. Remember also that extroversion doesn’t equal coping: sometimes the bubbliest people are so upbeat because they are trying so hard to keep up a facade. You’ll be busy with your own stuff, sure, but trying to keep tuned into the people around you can help you spot who really needs your help.
When life is overwhelming, sometimes it’s the day-to-day little things that threaten to undo you. So can you help even in seemingly minor ways? Can you offer a less-mobile friend a lift to the supermarket to do their shopping on the day you do yours? Check in on an elderly neighbour? Babysit? Sometimes, it can take as little to be helpful as saying to a skint friend, ‘hey, you know what? Let’s not do Christmas presents this year, save our money for going out later’ or, ‘instead of getting you a gift you won’t use, is there something practical you want?’
Small things matter big time
When you’re lonely, it can be so hard to reach out to people that you pull away from any contact at all, making the situation worse. Conversely, it can take ridiculously little to make someone feel cared about or noticed – you don’t have to go enormously out of your way to make a friend feel better.
Send them a random text or an email to see how they are. Write a little extra in their Christmas card. Even just posting a picture to their Facebook page can make someone feel better – ‘look, here’s a cartoon about Star Wars and I remembered you like Star Wars’ [subtext: because I like you and care about you and remember what sort of things you like – see, you are not invisible and worthless and you do matter to people, even if they are often too busy to remind you of that!].
And, in the spirit of Scrooged, if any of this stuff works for you: do it all year round.
If you are seriously struggling, you should seek professional help – your GP is a good place to start. These others may also be helpful.
The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org/
Crisis – http://www.crisis.org.uk/
Age UK – http://www.ageuk.org.uk/
Gingerbread – charity for single parents – http://www.gingerbread.org.uk/
LGBT Foundation: https://lgbt.foundation/how-we-can-help-you
(This article about being gay and going home for Christmas also might be helpful)
Refuge is a site that runs a domestic violence helpline, if you need it; or you can help support victims of domestic violence by buying a Christmas parcel here.
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