But then something happened. I didn't know exactly when, but I was definitely a grown-up at the time when I started dreading the holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas became the worst times of the year for me. The things I loved about these holidays and anticipated as a boy, I hated as a man and a father.
How to Recognize Depression
At first, I didn't think anything was wrong. I just thought that I outgrew the hype and hooplah of the holidays. But I was wrong.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Each year, the holiday season, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, triggered my anxiety, depression and loneliness.
The worst part for me was not recognizing the negative impact all of this was having on my family. I was a "Sad-At-Holidays-Dad" for the first five (5) years of my daughter's life. Think about that. My daughter lived with a real-life Scrooge for her first five Christmas seasons.
You may be thinking, "Wait...You said you were diagnosed with depression."
Depression can show up with:
- Decreased interest in activities that usually are enjoyable, such as: food, sex, work, friends, hobbies and entertainment
- Lack of focus or concentration
- Trouble sleeping (or sleeping too much)
- Moodiness, Agitation and anxiety
- Appetite change (or lack)
Years before the birth of my daughter, I got help for my mood swings, headaches, body aches, lack of focus and concentration, by visiting the base clinic (with my wife). That's when my primary care doctor diagnosed me with clinical depression. But, a diagnosis does not fix the problem, it just gives you an idea of what's going on with more focus on what could be the problem. I left the clinic thinking, "Okay, so I'm depressed. Now what?"
My point here is, even though the diagnosis of depression didn't fix anything, it was very helpful because it gave me something to look out for. I learned more about depression and became more aware of various triggers and my responses to them. The more I learned about depression and me, the more I wanted to be free of it. But I could not get free on my own.
Get Professional Help for Depression
I'm fiercely independent. I am a "lone wolf", so to speak. I am also a "fixer." Whether I can actually fix something, doesn't diminish the driving thought in my mind, "It's broken. Fix it."
My doc said, "depression" and I heard, "I'm broken. Fix it." I didn't have anyone I wanted to share this with. Any friends I had, I wasn't trying to run 'em off with my problems. That's what I thought. But what I couldn't see was that my friends were already aware that something was up because of the way they were experiencing me.
Years later, I ended up going to counseling. (That phrase sounds so negative - "going to counseling" - like it's detention, or something.) When I found the right professional counselor for me, I changed. No, I didn't change overnight, but I did start thinking differently about how I had been responding to circumstances and situations in my life. "Hit the pause button" is a practice I learned via counseling that continues to help me to this day.
"Hit the pause button." (tangent)
My counselor didn't say this. It's what I do as a result of what I learned from her. If you have ever seen an episode of "The Dead Zone" television series, when dude has his visions - everything stops around him, but he still moves around changing his perspective of what is going on in the vision - that's kinda what it's like for me when I hit the pause button. I take a moment to examine what is happening, before I respond.
With professional help, I traced the start of my depression back to the passing of my step-father while I was still at the US Air Force Academy. Internally, I fell apart completely and the holidays became a bitter reminder that he's not here anymore. I didn't properly grieve losing him.
Making Music - My Anti-Depression Vehichle
When I say that I make moody mental music, I am pointing to the way I transport (move away) from negative triggers that lead to depression. It's not just what I make (music), it's also HOW I make music that helps me manage my mental health.
See, I "get into" music while I am making it. It doesn't matter whether I am sitting at a keyboard, piano or drums, I get into music - and I picture it like getting into a car to drive from point A to point B. This helps me "be in the moment" - moment by moment.
Over time, I learned that making music by really getting into it, moving and being moved, is the best medicine for me. I move alot when I make music, and it is this movement that helps to move me away from depression (like a vehicle).
I don't think as much as I feel while I am making music. But I usually come back to the music I made and think through what I was feeling. That may not make any sense to you, but it points to the way I use music to heal.
Making music allows me to express what I feel, even when I am unable to identify what I am feeling. Later, I can come back to the expression and process the feelings. What I have found is that this way allows me to move away from depression more and more, as I capture feelings and thoughts in music expressions, then move on to something else. By getting it out, I am free to move on until I decide to process.
I understand that making music may not work as a vehicle for you. You do have something constructive you enjoy doing that can serve as your vehicle away from depression. Find it and use it to heal.
You Can Beat Depression, Too!
My story isn't much different from many SAHDs out there. There are military Stay-At-Home-Dads who are struggling with the holidays right now because of reasons similar to mine. Some military SAHDs are "Solo-At-Holidays-Dads", with the active duty military spouse deployed - maybe for the first time. By itself, a deployment is enough to trigger anxiety, depression and loneliness. When a deployment happens or lasts through the holidays, the problems can be much greater.
Things started to change for me when I went to the clinic and actually talked about what I felt. Again, everything didn't change overnight. My struggle lasted years after I received the diagnosis. However, I recognize the triggers now. By recognizing what triggers depression, anxiety and loneliness in me, I take preemptive measures to lessen the effects. Like I said, the worst thing for me was not even recognizing that I was depressed and not recognizing the negative impact it was having on my family.
This holiday season, I'm looking forward to spending time with my family again. Food, Football and Fellowship are back on my list of things I anticipate, expecting great enjoyment. Even the journey home (road trip!) has become one of my favorite parts of the holiday season.
As I think about the other SAHDs out there, I pray for them - asking God to grant them the Peace that He has given me. I pray for the families of military SAHDs, especially those who are dealing with deployment during this time. It is my hope that SAHDs and their families will be able to smile and enjoy this time of the year.
Grace and Peace!
Here are some links with good information about "Holiday Blues" - anxiety, depression and loneliness during the holidays:
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Taurus James is a 20-year civilian male military spouse, stay-at-home-dad and composer of Moody Mental Music to HEAL and HOPE. He is also the 2016 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year from Wright Patterson Air Force Base.