Don’t feel like dancing?

I don’t get the holiday blues.

I used to feel guilty about that, since I have known many people who do. Then one friend, who suffers from rather severe holiday depression, said that she wanted to hear about other people having a good time. “Just because I can’t enjoy it, doesn’t mean I want no one else to.”

My late husband, Ray, struggled with depression most of his life, but he couldn’t stand people who talked gloom and doom all the time. He was often a very happy person, which seems to contradict the previous sentence. He usually explained depression this way, “It’s not that I’m sad or glum all the time. It’s that, no matter how happy I am right now, no matter how well things are going, there’s this constant certainty deep inside that all of it will be taken away any second, now.” Depression is not a bad mood. Depression is not being down in the dumps. Depression is not a dread that things won’t go well. It is a certainty that bad things will happen. Because “bad things always do happen to me,” or “I don’t deserve good things,” or “I always mess things up,” and so on.

In my early teens a relative on Dad’s side of the family decided to tell me in great detail how many members of Mom’s side of the family had had nervous breakdowns. Back then, “nervous breakdown” was the term medical people would use to describe to laymen various acute mental disorders serious enough to impair a person’s day-to-day functioning, usually including the symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. It was usually assumed to be a temporary event triggered by stress. But this relative (who had almost a 19th Century attitude toward mental illness) was trying to convince me that that side of the family had a congenital mental defect. This whole thing happened as my parents’ marriage was breaking down, and I realized later it was a rather clumsy attempt to get me to tell the divorce judge I wanted to be placed in Dad’s custody.

One of the instances she cited was a great-uncle who served in the Marines in WWII (in the Pacific campaign) and who subsequently had a serious breakdown a few years after the war. Now I recognize that it was a classic instance of untreated post traumatic stress disorder, not necessarily indicative of any genetic pre-disposition.

Throughout my teens and well into my twenties, I would periodically have depressive states that I couldn’t shake for days for no apparent reason. Because of some other weird medical happenings when I was 17, and because one of my siblings was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was evaluated. The verdict was that my issues were ordinary teen-age volatility, perhaps exacerbated by a higher-than-normal testosterone level (no one was more surprised than I at that last bit!).

Years later, when I finally came out of the closet completely, those periodic instances became much less severe. Since learning that men have hormone cycles, too (most just don’t want to admit it), I figured that those incidents had been a combination of ordinary hormones combined with all that anxiety, worry, and stress from trying to keep a big part of myself secret.

Plus, of course, I’m always deliriously (and annoyingly) bouncy and cheerful from Thanksgiving Day through New Year’s. As regular as clockwork, you could say.

After my late husband, Ray, was diagnosed with an incurable illness, as his body deteriorated before my eyes through rounds of chemotherapy and other treatments, those periodic moody periods became bad, again. And since his death, every year for a couple months—from approximately his birthday until the anniversary of his death—I’m moody and slightly more prone to feeling down.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I understand that depression, mood disorders, or simply bad moods are neither simple nor trivial.

But I also understand that they don’t have to be the end of anyone’s story. It is often said that we can’t control how we feel. I think that’s an over simplification. We can’t completely control how we feel, but we can decide how we react to our feelings. We can find ways to channel them, to moderate them, to reinforce the ones we want to keep, and diminish the ones we don’t want.

I’m not saying it is easy. But I am saying we always have a choice. And even when the choices are between unpleasant options, there is always at least one that doesn’t involve lashing out.

So, if you don’t feel like dancing, that’s fine. Don’t dance. But also, don’t bitch at those who do.

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