(Editor’s note: Kelly Gillooly, director behavioral health outreach at KentuckyOne Health, contributed to this piece.)
As we reach the end of October, we also begin the Hebrew month of Cheshvan – often called Mar Cheshvan, which literally means the bitter month of Cheshvan.
One might think that this bitterness may be a reference to the weather. However, rabbinic tradition teaches that Cheshvan itself is bitter. It is a sad month because there are no holidays that fall within it.
How ironic that, for most people, it is not a lack of holidays that makes us feel down, but rather, holidays themselves. Preparing for Thanksgiving and Chanukah, many of us begin to feel “winter blues.” As the weather begins to turn, many people struggling with financial troubles, illness or grief may begin to feel “holiday stress.”
We often have a Norman Rockwellian vision of what holidays should be. Visions of the ideal Thanksgiving or Chanukah, with family gathered and filled with joy and gratitude, may make us feel inadequate.
Our real lives rarely match up to the vision of perfection, the abundance of joy and relationship satisfaction that is pictured in movies, commercials and social media. Such a disconnect can aggravate our moods, especially if we already feel down because of the lack of sunlight and a predisposition for Seasonal Affective Disorder.
But don’t dwell on what the holidays are supposed to be like and how you’re supposed to feel. Identify someone you can turn to. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. Everyone needs support from time to time.
For those experiencing a holiday for the first time without loved ones who have recently passed, it’s OK to give yourself permission to grieve – to feel joy, sadness and anger. These feelings are normal. Instead of using substances to avoid them, try remembering as a means of healing. Keeping a journal or setting aside a time to remember loved ones can help, so can general self-care behavior such as exercise, prayer and meditation, proper nutrition and hydration and, of course, sleep.
If some relatives trigger stress, then it is best to find ways to avoid them. If seeing particular aunts, uncles or cousins only results in quarreling, then try calling them instead. Just know that you can’t control them. You can only control your own reactions.
Don’t overbook yourself or stay longer than you would like. Ultimately, if we try to repress our feelings, they are likely to come out unexpectedly in ways we will regret. It is better to try to plan ahead, ensuring that we can also schedule something fun for ourselves – a massage perhaps, or a long walk with a friend.
Trying to please everyone, except for one’s self, will ultimately please no one. The biblical commandment to “love one’s neighbor as one’s self” implies that we should work to be loving toward one’s self. The Talmud reminds us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Perhaps, reaching out to others might be helpful, or volunteering.
Our Lady of Peace offers no-charge assessments 24/7 in our assessment and referral center and all KentuckyOne health emergency departments. We also have a Lexington assessment and referral center open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Our Lady of Peace provides a full continuum of care for those suffering from depression, including inpatient hospitalization, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs.
We also offer a free support group in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Louisville, on Tuesdays, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., at 4414 Churchman Ave. All are welcome.
Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful. Indeed, research shows that writing in a gratitude journal, if only to give thanks for the gift of life every day, can be a form of healing. The holiday season is a time filled with miracles.
Chanukah celebrates the story of how a little oil, barely enough to last one night, managed to last for eight – thereby filling the darkness with light. This coming holiday season, may each of us find comfort in the light that surrounds us, and may we come to see that this light is brighter than we ever dreamed.
(Rabbi Nadia Siritsky is vice president of mission at KentuckyOne Health.)