On Christmas Day in the evening, I was driving R and our new puppy home from a friend’s house. R said, “I really want to stop at the store and get a new car.”
“No, we have sooooo many new toys at home! Let’s just go home and play with all of our new toys.”
He started to whine and to cry. At first, I was thinking, What on earth is wrong with this kid? Then my mind went to some narrative about how he is spoiled and maybe if he had siblings this wouldn’t be such a problem. All of this happened in about two seconds in my mind but then I arrived at the truth.
He’s just coming down, I thought. I was feeling it too. It was that sad-for-no-good-reason kind of feeling. I talked through it with him in the back seat.
“I know what’s going on,” I said, “You had so many great feelings today. You got presents from Santa, you got to open presents with dad and then mom. We’ve been playing with our new puppy. It’s been such a great day. And now you are coming down from all of those wonderful feelings and it feels bad. I’m feeling it too! But I know you can get through it.”
Maybe speaking it aloud was more helpful to me than my four year old, but his whining demands for a new car didn’t seem as abrasive. And when we got home he was excited to be reunited with his toys and thoughts of more new toys evaporated.
For me, the feeling of sadness lasted a little longer. I think this must be common for moms. I felt like I had run the gauntlet of holidays and come out on the other side, having survived but slightly scathed.
I had some judgmental thoughts about how many Christmas presents I bought for R. Leading up to Christmas, I was having some difficulty getting into the spirit of things and, in retrospect, I compensated. My judgmental voice, that has seen so many of my friends and family members go overboard at Christmas with their first child, said, You should have known better! This is so classic! And that didn’t feel very good.
But then my compassionate voice said, Wow! Seems like you are right on track! First kid. He’s four. He loves all toys and is in the sweet spot for Christmas magic. Maybe you’re supposed to go overboard in this moment. And you can always pull back next year.
Today a patient, that was not scheduled, arrived at the office. She reported that she wanted to be seen because for the past four to five days she had been feeling depressed. She reported a mild to moderate depression and two days into it she doubled her dose of antidepressant on her own, fearing more depression was to come. The abruptly increased dose of antidepressant had helped to lift her out of the funk yesterday and today but she was also feeling very anxious (likely a side effect of her abrupt dose increase).
My main job is managing psychiatric medications so it’s interesting how much time I spend explaining to patients that medicines are not always the answer. I heard someone remark how Northern Europeans really had only one way of dealing with emotional distress—alcohol. This created a culture of alcoholism because it was the one button one could hit for relief from emotional problems. This has morphed into a culture that looks to drugs (prescribed and recreational) and alcohol to regulate mood. The drugs and alcohol are not necessarily the problem, though for some they are fatally addictive and life altering. The problem is our inability or unwillingness to tolerate distress.
I asked my patient more questions: How were the holidays? Is there anything stressful going on in your life? Have you been out of your routine lately?
Yes, holidays were good but they brought some stress and she was suffering from an upper respiratory infection for the past two weeks that had lowered her energy level. Because of these things she had not been attending her weekly therapy group and had not been getting out of the house as much. From my outsider perspective it was very clear. The problem was not medication but life. Illness happens. Holidays change schedules. They are fun but they are stressful. We eat more junk food. We exercise less. The nostalgia of Christmas as a kid brings up positive and negative feelings as we move through different phases of life.
“Maybe four to five days of depression, given everything that’s been going on, is completely normal,” I suggested. She laughed and agreed. We adjusted her meds slightly but my emphasis was to refocus her expectations, “This is life. We can’t regulate away all of the hard feelings. You’re supposed to have some up days and some down days.”
Last year, I joked with my colleagues that I was going to embroider a sampler for my office wall that said, It’s January! You’re supposed to feel like shit! Maybe that’s an exaggeration but there is wisdom in the idea that nothing has gone wrong—IT’S JUST JANUARY.
The lull will come. Whether it happens in January or February or the middle of the summer. Instead of pathologizing it, I’m going to try to let it pass through me. I’m not going to make it mean that I need to change my life. Maybe I do, but running from this lull is not going to give the lasting motivation necessary to make real change. Lasting motivation comes from self-compassion and self-love. I’m going to watch with curiosity as I roll though in this incredibly, rich life.