Just the mere mention of Christmas fills me with a sense of dread. It’s not that I don’t like the concept of Christmas. I’m not religious, but I do love the significance of family and togetherness and the traditional values of kindness and hope that Christmas holds.
The cosy evenings in the safety of my own home, cwtched up on the sofa with my dog, a Bailey’s hot chocolate and a box of Ferrero Rocher…. heaven!
Being surrounded by loving family… safe and secure with those who know you best, and dare I say it, are obligated to love you no matter what, no matter how many meltdowns you have as the sensory overload of Christmas Day becomes too much to bear… a rare sense of ease in the presence of company.
So why do I loathe Christmas?
The entirety of Christmas is a demand. There are hundreds I could talk about but I will give you just one example.
As a child I loved getting presents.
As an adult I LOVE giving presents.
Well, when it goes to plan!
All year long I am making mental notes of what brings you joy, what puts a smile on your face. When it comes around to Christmas I have so many ideas of what I want to gift to you. So many. And there comes the first stumbling block. There is a demand to make a decision. I’ll confess, I don’t do well with decisions.
Allow me to deviate off topic and give you an example of my decision making crises (crises as they cannot possibly be described as skills.)
Last week I stood in IKEA, in the ‘market place’ in front of all the brown cardboard boxes, just stood there, for over 2 hours. I knew which shelf I wanted. I had meticulously recorded the aisle and shelf number and every other small unnecessary detail in the app on my phone. I was stood in front of said shelf. All I had to do was pick it up and put it on the trolley. But when faced with the physical act of executing that decision I froze. I couldn’t do it. The demand of the physical act that was associated with the permanence of the decision was paralysing.
My mind was working overdrive at every possible question and design decision I had ever made about my room, and every decision I could ever make… would this shelf be adequate for my needs, would the aesthetic really fit with my design scheme, would it be adaptable and work in a different location in my house if I have a baby in the future and need to move it to put a cot where the shelf is going to go?
2 hours, not so much deliberating as debilitated. I was grateful the aisle I was in was quiet and I didn’t face interruptions. I was trying hard to relax, to avoid the catastrophic and very public meltdown that have embarrassed me over the years and still haunt me to this day. Over two hours to put the same shelf that I had initially selected on the trolley. And back on to the racks again, and again, over and over again, until giving in and calling my mum to ask if I was getting the right one, before finally triumphantly wheeling my decision to the tills.
And if you are assuming this was me trying to make the decision you would be wrong. I had spent several weeks fastidiously researching all my shelving options. This followed an intense session of carefully measuring and recording dimensions of both the room and the items that were intended for the shelf. And was concluded by 3d modelling the space and doing photo mock-ups so I knew this was the right shelf. On arriving at IKEA, despite knowing what I wanted and where to find it I spent half an hour in the showroom inspecting all the shelves to make sure I had come to the right conclusion.
Decisions for a neurodivergent brain are hard. And exhausting.
So we come back to your present… all year I have been thinking about the perfect gift for you. Making painstaking analysis of how I can put the biggest smile on your face that I possibly can. You see, I care about you but I’m not very good at showing you that, not in the neurotypical way, so this is my chance to show you how much you mean to me. It’s a big deal to me. And so, now in my mind, the demand to give you the perfect present is amplified.
Until, eventually after much deliberation and anxiety, all the way back in September, I decided on your present.
My neurodivergent brain is creative and exciting and full of big ideas. I think differently, outside the box. I love that about myself. I never seem to think of conventional ideas for gifts.
On this occasion, I have decided to paint you a picture. There was this boat that you saw when we were out with our dogs. You loved it so much, exclaimed, “Oh, I wish I could frame that and put it on my wall!” Three months later we were browsing art galleries, there was a particular style you loved. I can paint that style (I’m actually an incredible artist when I can get started and can focus long enough to see a piece through.) I use my photo perfect visual memory to recall the boat, and I can see the painting in my mind’s eye. In my thoughts I have been through the process of creating it, mapped out the composition, sketched it out, visualised the colour palette, planned the materials I will use, even the finishing strokes of paint and where and how I will apply them to the canvas to make the painting come into reality.
I have taken covert photos of the space on your living room wall where I foresee the painting going. I have scaled up those pictures to calculate the correct sized canvas. I have gone online and ordered the canvas… (there’s a stumbling block here, I freeze for a few days while I consider the decision I’ve made about the canvas…am I sure it’s the right size, do i want synthetic or linen canvas, stretched frame or board…?) Breathe. Relax, let go of the anxiety. Done It’s ordered. It’s arrived. I get out all the paints. I line them up in rainbow order the way I like them. My brushes are all lined up in size order, perfectly aligned on the table. I’m ready, I can’t wait to get started.
But I can’t do it.
Nope. Can NOT do it.
I WANT to.
Over the years I’ve learned to be kind to myself. So I’ll do it tomorrow. It’s been exhausting getting to this point. So many decisions already. It’s only October, there’s loads of time.
Until there’s not.
Every day I look at the paints and the canvas as I walk down stairs. Every time a feeling of dread and anxiety fill me. I can’t explain why. I WANT to do this. I enjoy painting. I can’t wait to paint this and give it to you. But…
Nope. Still can’t do it
Now it’s December. How is it December? But there’s still time. Except now, every day the demand to produce the perfect painting for you escalates. I’m racing against time. It’s paralyzing. Now I can’t have breakfast until I start the painting. I can’t shower until I start the painting. Everything is on hold.
I’m miserable. I’m hiding under the blankets wishing the world would go away.
I hate you for ever seeing that stupid boat.
I hate myself for ever seeing that smile on your stupid face.
I hate myself for thinking I hate you.
I hate everything.
Nope. I still can’t do it.
And so 23rd December rolls around and I’m buying some generic gift from Amazon, selected by whatever I can get that will still be delivered by Christmas Eve. Worst still, hurriedly buying chocolates and socks from the service station on my way to see you. (Sorry mum, sorry dad!)
When it arrives… I have to wrap it. I have the paper, all coordinated with ribbons and dried sprigs of foliage that I have compulsively collected according to my Pinterest board of decorative wrapping ideas. I thought of everything. I have scissors, sellotape. None of that forgetting the details, my neurodivergent brain is super organised in that way.
But I can’t. I just can’t wrap the present. The demand is too much.
It’s Christmas morning and I’m sitting around the tree with you and my loved ones, the nieces and nephews are excitedly ripping open presents. Everyone seems so relaxed, drinking sherry and scoffing mince pies. And inside I’m falling to pieces. I’m full of anxiety and stress. I know that instead of your painting, wrapped beautifully and ready to show you how much I love you, sitting under that tree; there’s a stupid silly pack of socks unwrapped on my bedroom floor.
After excusing myself for 5 minutes, having a cry with the socks on the bedroom floor, hastily wrapping the now tear soaked socks in a mess of wrapping paper, sellotape and disappointment, I reluctantly present you with your inferior last minute gift. And as you look at yet another thoughtless, generic present you look at me with love and say “Thank you darling, they’re lovely” and I hate that you mean it.
I will never tell you about the months I spent thinking about that smile on your face, the way I could show you how much I love you by giving you time and effort and thought and creativity. It feels like another year to express to you how I feel in a way that I actually can has passed. I got away with it. But I feel empty and useless and a failure.
Yes Christmas is a sensory overload for us neurodivergents. As adults we have learned our coping strategies of unfamiliar flashing lights, and noise and crowds of people over the years.
But there are so many more demands to Christmas that you may not even notice. Each one with it’s own complex and lengthy backstory of anxiety and stress and meltdowns and overwhelm.
Christmas is exhausting.
Which in itself exceeds the hardest demand of them all.
The demand that Christmas is a time to feel joy and peace! Something that has always felt ironic to me, and probably to many neurotypical people too!
If you struggle with Christmas and the holidays, know this…
You are not alone!
It’s totally okay to find small little pockets of happiness and contentment in the little moments, even if the season as a whole is completely and utterly devastatingly hard and miserable.