Our First Christmas with a PTSD Diagnosis

For the past two years — since my son was born — Christmas has been really hard. We haven’t traveled and haven’t had family come to visit, so we had none of the more common stressors… yet, I spent one of the sweetest, most joyful holidays of the year angry, overwhelmed, and miserable.

This year, we know it’s because I have PTSD.

So this year, we’re doing things differently.

The Tree

Last year, and the year before, we put up our Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. And we left itĀ  until almost Easter. I was downright embarrassed about this, but for a while my husband joked (and was half-serious) about getting Easter ornaments and just leaving it up. In the end we didn’t, for the same reason that we didn’t take the Christmas tree down. It wasn’t a high priority amid all of the stress of a household made of a baby and two parents with three mental illnesses (PTSD, anxiety, and depression) between them.

This year, I told my husband that I really didn’t think we should do a tree. “I don’t want to spend all day every day telling X to leave the tree alone. I don’t need that kind of stress.” My husband, knowing I was setting the boundary because of my PTSD, was very supportive of that. But as time went on, it made me feel more and more sad that we didn’t have a tree. So, one afternoon, I loaded X in the car and we headed to the craft store. I got a yard and a half of green felt, plus some sparkly pipe cleaner and a few little jingle bells, and that night I got to work making a felt tree and about two dozen cute little ornaments for my toddler. It’s been a huge hit, and while I don’t love having the ornaments strewn throughout our downstairs, I’d much rather it happened to the felt ones than the semi-fragile, sentimental ornaments that are safely stashed in our Christmas box.

And since I made the tree myself, and it’s something that our whole family can enjoy together, I actually really love our little felt tree. I even kept the felt scraps from making the ornaments, so I can put them in one of those clear plastic bulb ornaments, and we’ll have a memento of our cute felt tree, even when our kid(s?) are older.

The Social Events

Before we added a permanent +1 to our dynamic duo, my husband and I alternated which side of the family we visited for Christmas. But I’m not sure it was really satisfying for either of us. He comes from an enormous “clan”; his mom is the oldest of eight and most, if not all, of the siblings live in the same city. A lot of their children live nearby enough to visit regularly, so the family has to rent out a huge hall to hold everyone who attends their usual Christmas gatherings. While it is delightful to be in a room filled to the brim with people who love you, it’s a little impersonal, and it can be overwhelming — especially when you have PTSD.

My side of the family is the polar opposite of his. We lived across the country from our extended family, but even in our immediate family we didn’t really do activities with all of us. It was always fragmented. Mom would bake banana bread. Us kids would decorate the tree. Dad would pick a Christmas movie. And that was pretty much it. I think we all spent so much time hiding from Dad’s unpredictable, angry outbursts (most likely undiagnosed PTSD of his own) that it was hard for us to feel like a cohesive unit, even at Christmastime.

So this year, my husband and I have tried to blend our experiences into something that has elements of familiarity to both of us and would still be fun with a toddler. We participated in a carol sing with some people from church; another family invited us over for Christmas Eve dinner. We weren’t the only family invited to either gathering, and there were plenty of people there we didn’t know well enough to be entirely comfortable. As my husband put it, “it was just the right amount of awkward to feel like Christmas.” And it was genuinely fun, too, even if we didn’t quite feel like we knew what we were doing.

Mostly, though, we’ve kept to ourselves and spread out Christmas in small bursts. I got to watch my personal favorite Christmas movie (How the Grinch Stole Christmas — yes, the old one!) with my husband, and our little boy snuggled between us. X loved it, and I loved sharing it with him. We saved watching White Christmas until after X went to bed one night, though, and came away from it feeling like our relationship had been nourished, and maybe we could make watching old movies together a thing.

We’ll also participate in some of our local Christmas events, like looking at the lights at the zoo orĀ checking out a Christmas-themed model train display, but that won’t be until after Christmas (before the new year, though!) That way, Christmas isn’t all about getting gifts. It’s about doing fun things as a family (and with friends) too.

The Gifts (or Lack Thereof)

Speaking of gifts, we’re really not doing much of that this year. It’s not that we can’t afford it. I mean, we did take advantage of the Cyber Monday sales and got me a fancy new laptop. But X has a lot of toys already, and has received some really fun gifts from his grandmother and aunts. My husband and I didn’t really feel the need to get him new ones. So we didn’t!

Growing up at my house, Christmas was generally about the anticipating of our gifts, and in the morning, when opening presents was over, Christmas was pretty much over, too. This year, part of the “Christmas season” has been enjoying our new gifts together, and I think on Christmas Day, we’ll write thank you notes and send them off to our sweet extended family. I don’t know if we’ll do that again in the future, but it’s been lovely to take the pressure off of Christmas morning and the focus off of presents and just make it one more way we can spend time as a family.

The Food

I’m usually the one who handles dinner on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes my husband will make something simple, or pick up takeout on the way home, but in general I make dinner when he gets home from work, while he plays with X. I don’t mind cooking, and the break from my little one is pretty essential for managing the PTSD.

My husband likes cooking, though. It’s just that his particular combination of mental illnesses and interests turns any simple weeknight dinner into an Event. He has creativity and ingenuity, and it blossoms in full force when he cooks. That can be extremely frustrating for someone who wanted something simple, right now, so we can feed the cranky toddler and move on with our lives.

So my husband cooks on holidays, when it’s supposed to be an event, supposed to be something with more polish and pizzazz. This year he’s making steak, and I’m making miniature pies with refrigerated croissant dough and a muffin tin. I am so excited.

The Future

Mostly, I think our Christmas traditions will adapt over the years, depending on what our family looks and feels like on that particular year. When X gets a little older, gingerbread houses would be fun. We’d like to get special winter-themed jammies next year. And who knows, at some point, after enough therapy and self-care and navigating my illness, I’ll be healthy enough that we can do all sorts of fun things that just wouldn’t work for us currently. For now, though, we’re making the most of it, and looking forward to every Christmas we spend together being subsequently sweeter.

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