by Emily Winson-Bushby
CN: Christmas, Cambridge, eating disorders, illness, estrangement
Christmas 2016 left me broken. I returned to Cambridge this time last year a brittle, shrinking shell of a girl. If during my first term at university I had begun to sink deeper, then over the Christmas vacation unyielding currents had pulled me so low that I had seen the eroded corals, and decayed wreckage of that lifeless and rayless seabed that we call rock bottom.
I find Christmas hard. I anticipate it with dread, associate it with disaster, from the first commercialised festive wares that, in late October, begin the creeping invasion of all public places- my apprehension only builds. But that’s not surprising; the festive season is quite possibly the worst time of year for people in recovery from eating disorders.
“As we return to University for the Lent term, many will presume that the answer to the inevitable question ‘So how was your Christmas?’ is a given”
I go to a young persons’ support group at home, and this year we had a group titled ‘Coping with Christmas’. I think besides the one person who said that they unreservedly liked Christmas- the sparky personality who had the week before literally showered herself in glitter (she is THE BEST)-, everyone expressed various reasons for trepidation, unease, brave resignation.
I struggle with Christmas for two reasons. Firstly, the only gym closures of the year fall on the three consecutive days beginning the 25th. Secondly, the over-emphasis on food at Christmas-time can be quite terrifying- a killer combination for any recovering anorexic. The ways in which Christmas can be difficult for people, however, are much more diverse and numerous than these.
I recently talked about this with a friend, for whom Christmas is difficult for complicated family reasons. Another friend spent a Christmas unlike any other they had ever experienced, as a result of life-changing illness earlier in the year. A close friend of mine was alone for much of the Christmas period, for the first time, because they no longer feel that they can live at home.
“Christmas, a hard time for many, is a time when contrasts are thrown into stark relief, when the cruel absences in our own lives become painfully obvious”
Christmas, a hard time for many, is a time when contrasts are thrown into stark relief, when the cruel absences in our own lives become painfully obvious, as others celebrate their own successes. Under pressure to feel some sort of festive contentment by virtue of the season, those battling mental illness feel alienated and alone; burdens which would be so more tractable at any other time of the year become nightmarishly heavy.
So, as we return to University for the Lent term, many will presume that the answer to the inevitable question ‘So how was your Christmas?’ is a given: everyone likes Christmas: that’s just a cultural rule that we’ve always lived by. Except that it’s not. As mock exams roll around, when I say, or anyone says, ‘I worked as much as I could, but I wish that I’d been able to do more’, don’t assume that that means we got carried away with the festivities; caught up in too much revelry and seasonal indulgence to get round to studying. Maybe for some that will be the case, but for many others, the story will be very different.
More broadly, life treats us all badly, some of us more than others. We should recognise that living is a hard task, and that the playing field is never even, no matter how much it may superficially seem to be so. Up until the point where life decides to knock you reeling, the relation between effort and attainment seems simple: work, amplified by intrinsic aptitude, equals achievement, equals virtue.
“We can appreciate people for their deeper character traits: dedication despite unfair odds, compassion, and humility”
It is only when we encounter circumstances that transform all actions with grim and unreasonable difficulty, that we can begin to see quite how little responsibility we can claim for academic accolades and extracurricular accomplishments. It is our circumstances: psychosocial, physiological, neurological and economic- and it is chance, that empower us to achieve, in all spheres. It is too often forgotten that many of us are not so empowered. We can take credit for little in the way of external attainments.
However, we can appreciate people for their deeper character traits: dedication despite unfair odds, compassion, and humility; for their intrinsic motivations: to do good; and for their effort. You cannot identify these characteristics in superficial qualities, in grades, in supervision performances, in first impressions. The only way to find such attributes in people is to take the time to get to know them, to seek to understand what it means for them to live their lives.
So, you can begin with step 1. Don’t assume we had a good Christmas.
Header image by Kosala Bandara