Every Christmas I wonder if cases of suicide go up during the festive season. Because every year it reminds me of how inadequate I am/my life is in comparison with others’. The crux of the matter is exactly this: the comparison.
Shopping for Christmassy meals for one at Marks & Spencers’ on Christmas Eve, alongside couples pushing trolleys brimming with festive food and Christmas crackers, instantly turns me into a self-pitying Bridget Jones. It makes me wish M&S sold at their tills, alongside their mints and chewing gums, one-way tickets straight into Dignitas in Switzerland so I can be put out of my misery once and for all.
Was that a look of pity I saw on the cashier’s eyes, as she scanned my single dessert, my single breakfast bread roll and my single nut roast without any accompanying side dishes? Maybe it was out of compassion she didn’t wish me merry Christmas, but I was relieved she didn’t, as my Christmas was about to be anything but merry.
At home I scroll down Facebook, and predictably feel nauseated at everyone else’s sugar-coated photos: Christmas trees laden with decorations (it was my childhood dream to have a large Christmas tree, as I never had one), families posing together, kids being cute, husband being cute, cat being cute, couples saying “darling I love you, thank you for a wonderful year” followed by a few hundred “likes”. Can people not love each other in private any more?!
Of course not all you see on social media is true. People only post what they want others to see and believe. Couples on the brink of divorce may well have been making an effort “for the sake of the kids”, as says this Huffington Post article on the reasons why people stay in unhappy marriages.
This reminds me of my favourite scene in Love Actually, where Emma Thompson realises on Christmas Day that the expensive necklace under the tree she thought her husband (Alan Rickman) had bought for her was in reality for another woman. She cries in private with Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now playing in the background, yet she regains composure and keeps a happy façade in front of the children. Conclusion: not all blissful-looking families are what they seem.
The enforced joviality of Christmas can push any existing tensions to breaking point. If there already was any friction in the relationship with your partner, parents, in-laws, or friends, the social pressure of behaving as if you are having fun can be the last straw that makes that taut string snap.
Out of curiosity I googled to check if the Samaritans received more calls during the festive season and found out last year 244,000 people called in the UK and the Republic of Ireland during the Christmas period, many of whom were men, who felt their families would be better off without them. In other words, men who felt lonely and excluded even when they had wives and children.
Boy, did that make me feel better about spending a solo Christmas! I may be alone, but I am not lonely. Loneliness within a relationship is utterly soul-destroying.
This year’s was the second Christmas I spent on my own since my separation. The friends I had intended to hang out with turned out to be all away, and I wasn’t organised enough to have a plan B so I got stuck with myself.
Being a bit of a sociophobe – I didn’t even attend the company’s Christmas party – I am perfectly comfortable not having company. But Christmas is simply not meant to be spent alone. As Michelle Hanson says in this Guardian article, “there is such a thing as society, and it doesn’t seem to like people being alone at Christmas.”
Facebook in particular can be a poisoned chalice: when the entire world seems to be posting photos of themselves being jolly with their loved ones, including your own family abroad, it is hard not to feel like a total failure in life. What is wrong with me that I do not have friends, a partner, nor kids for that matter?
I also have a massive Christmas hangup from childhood. I grew up in a Catholic country in South America, where Christmas was celebrated in a big way, whereas my family, being Asian immigrants, did not even bother with a tree, nor presents. If we were lucky, mum would cook us a big meal, and that was it. As a little girl, I used to spy through the door’s peephole as guests arrived next door laden with presents, and hear the excited voices of small children with a pang of envy. Once school re-started, I had to suffer my classmates bragging about the many presents they had got for Christmas, when I’d received one, or none.
I always resented my parents for denying me the experience of Christmas. I used to think it was every child’s basic right to have a ridiculously fun day, to believe in Santa Claus and presents being delivered through chimneys. I always looked forward to the day I’d leave home behind to start my own life, live it the way I thought was right. I’d have my own family, and we’d have many presents under a beautiful shimmering Christmas tree.
This never happened of course. And now, I realise, it may never do.
Tibetan Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön says in her book When Things Fall Apart that in order to stop suffering you must give up hope. Again and again I have sat with that thought, trying to understand how that can be possible. In theory I can see what she’s saying: unattainable dreams only make you feel more miserable. But without dreams, what joy is there to live for?
Sitting alone in a silent living room, with candles lit in every corner and no other decorations, my flat looks more like a venue for a wake than for Christmas. That was the most festive I managed to get. I’ve given up on my dream Christmas. I am no happier as a result but I at least stopped feeling envy, that is, as long as I log off Facebook for a good few days.
It also occurred to me that a perfect Christmas Day may be an illusion itself. Over time Christmas grew larger and larger in my head like a mirage that looks alluring exactly because I can never own it, but I’d probably not appreciate if I had it every year.
Two years after my new departure as a single woman I am finally starting to feel like I could contemplate a new relationship. At the same time, I am steeling myself for the possibility it may never happen, like that Christmas tree of my dreams. I might die alone and forgotten in some old people’s home, without anyone to even hold my hand. Isn’t this giving up hope?
The idea terrifies me though, and to counteract it, I decided I can always choose to jump off a cliff and get it all over with, if it gets too much. It may sound morbid, but for me it is the only way I can face life these days: knowing I can put an end to the darkness by plunging into it.
Give up hope or give up life – does it really have to be this radical? There must be a solution, somewhere in between, which allows me to live with not having the things I wanted to have, and still attain some level of satisfaction.
It doesn’t help that this week I happened to see a couple of Christmas photo greetings from men I once loved, each with their wife and two beautiful kids, looking like they couldn’t be happier if they were in heaven surrounded by singing angels. It made me question what I have done wrong that they achieved what they now have, and I lost everything, including the chance to be happy with them.
This is what Christmas does to me: I was perfectly content until it arrived.
We are such idiots. We half believe the twee penguin tale of this year’s John Lewis’ Christmas commercial, and think the magic of the season should make everyone fall in love with everyone else, all rifts healed. This is the fairy tale we all buy into, the one we so desperately want to believe. I doubt the world looks that rosy past the Bank Holiday, once alcohol and sugar have been flushed out.
I don’t know which is worse: not having Christmas, not having a family or not having hope. But I decided 2015 will be the year I live as if it was my last. If I only had a year to live, what would I do, where would I go, what would I say and to whom? We are all slowly dying, we are mortals, in case you forgot. Living intensely is the only way I can think of to obliterate pain and death.
Everyday will then be Christmas.