As Christmas marketing ramps up, dread of isolation can too

Christmas is hard. It’s bloody hard.

It’s taken years for me to admit this publicly.

Even writing it down feels as if I’m plunging a knife into Santa’s heart, violating an unspoken festive code to be merry and bright.

Christmas is a tough time for many people, and as the marketing gears up, the dread can too.

Christmas is a tough time for many people, and as the marketing gears up, the dread can too.Credit:Glenn Hunt

At a time when advertising bombards us with scenes of joyous family gatherings, and we’re expected to be in a perpetual state of celebration, it feels almost shameful to confess that the whole thing fills me with dread.

But each November as the tinsel appears and the countdown begins, that dull ache in the pit of my stomach gets worse.

I try to tell myself it’s “just another day” but my mental health always takes a hit.

The anxiety I’ve battled since childhood becomes harder to manage as I struggle to reconcile the Hallmark card version of the “perfect” Christmas, with my own sense of isolation.

There is perhaps some irony in the knowledge that I am not alone in feeling alone.

An estimated 60 per cent of Australians struggle with loneliness, and the festive period is when these feelings peak.

And yet, while there is no shortage of think pieces on how to survive the post-Christmas blues – when we’re expected to feel flat because all the fun’s over – the lead up is often more problematic.

For me, it’s a time that brings into sharp focus life’s biggest questions: What does it mean to belong? Where is home? Who will be by my side in my old age?

I first came to Australia 17 years ago as a wide-eyed, 20-something backpacker pursuing a romance that began in Edinburgh, my hometown.

It was not my intention to stay here permanently but, as John Lennon astutely observed, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

By the time my eight-year relationship ended I’d laid down roots in Melbourne and it felt more wrenching to return to Scotland than it did to stay in Australia.

Today, I’m grateful for the wonderful friends and rewarding work opportunities that make life here fulfilling and rich with possibility.

But I still struggle with that heartsick migrant experience of feeling torn between two places – an endless yearning for home when you’re already home.

Christmas heightens this sense of fractured belonging. When you’re single and your family lives on the other side of the world, a fortnight of enforced festivity where everyone seems to return to their tribe, can be a particularly lonely time.

As people make plans for the holidays it feels like a high stakes game of musical chairs where the music stops and I’m the last one standing.

And yet it feels silly that as a devout atheist I should be so wedded to an occasion I have no obligation to celebrate.

But although I have learned to embraced the benefits of self-reliance – even eschewing the annual frivolities of New Year’s Eve for a nourishing night of solitude – opting out of Christmas remains a far tougher proposition.

Perhaps it’s because it’s no longer “just one day” but several weeks of inescapable hype, or that choosing to do your own thing is harder when so much of the city shuts down.

Thankfully, I’ve never never had to spend Christmas alone and I’m lucky to have been welcomed into the homes of my friends with warmth and kindness.

But I’m always acutely aware that I’m a tourist taking a trip through another family’s Christmas without ever really being a true member of the fold.

I also know that having somewhere to go doesn’t necessarily make the day a stress-free celebration.

For some people with fraught family relationships, being confined in an enclosed space with their relatives for the whole day can feel like being strapped to an operating table and slowly water-boarded.

Research from Relationships Australia shows the festive period is a peak time for people to experience anxiety and depression, particularly those who are recently separated, grieving or socially isolated.

Like many big life events, the expectation that we should be blissfully happy is partly what makes this time of year hard for so many people.

But we don’t have to be Ebenezer Scrooge to acknowledge that, while there is the perfect Christmas tune (Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You – don’t @ me, it’s a stone cold fact), there is no such thing as a perfect Christmas.

This year I’m trying to accept that the festive season is tough and admitting this does not make me a party pooper; it makes me human, with normal human vulnerabilities and frailties.

So, for anyone out there who feels guilty or weird for feeling disconnected while everyone around you dons reindeer antlers and merrily sips seasonal cocktails, be kind to yourself and remember that this too shall pass.

You may feel like you’re alone but, from one Christmas survivor to another, know that you are not.

Jill Stark is the author of Happy Never After: Why The Happiness Fairytale Is Driving Us Mad (And How I Flipped The Script).

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