Sprawled in an informal group, they were at first embarrassed to talk about something almost un-American and unmentionable: feelings of loneliness, sadness or depression during the triple-decker holiday season from Thankgiving through New Year's.
A divorced woman faces her first Christmas without her son, who's in the custody of his father and "new mother" on the West Coast. A black woman feels isolated spending holidays with here parents who lead a quiet life in rural Virginia talking mostly of food. She decides to remain alone and lonely in DC-but feels guilty.
An older woman cries. "My holiday depression hit at Thanksgiving, and," she sobs, "it seems as if it will never end." She views herself as vibrant and seeking activities but lives in an experimental group house filled with cheerless, nonparticipative, often sickly people.
These and others at a free Washington Community Therapy Guild workshop on depression during the holidays air a common though oft-unspoken theme: Why am I feeling so miserable when everyone else is so happy? What's wrong with me? With my relationships or lack of relationships?
No Scrooges or "bah humbug" grouches who would ruin the joys of others, these relatively normal people feel doubly anxious for feeling alone in their depression while visualizing everyone else as merrily stuffing turkeys, trimming trees, lighting candles, exchanging presents, planning New Year's Eve revelry and making resolutions for an even better 1979. Sharing feelings and experiences, they found they're far from alone.
The holiday season is a difficult time for many people. Tensions are compounded amid the expectations of joy that often doesn't match reality, the media hype of buying costly presents and presenting mostly merriment, the link between giving and receiving and a person's self-image and the fantasized remembrances of childhood and families. It's a time, according to therpists, when many of us long to become carefree children whose anticipations come alive: warmth, excitement, and presents galore without having to pay the bills. It's a time that brings up strong feelings of families, unresolved problems, losses and alienation. Countelss people experience a double gilt-edged knife: guilt at not being with one's family or at being with them and not feeling good about it.
But there are a number of places to seek refuge from the holiday blues and make contact with others in this area of transients. Now's a good time to beign a resolution to increase physical activity or exercise to chase away the blues or to select coming classes of interest.
Especially for those new to the area or without family or established friends or otherwise cut off, volunteering provides a good way to spend time profitably and feel good about yourself through doing something nice for others. The holidays, when most operations are short-handed and when those who are closed in are especially lonely, are an especially good time for this.
And there are 24-hour walk-in clinics and hotlines around the town where a "warm ear" waits to listen to the high number of holiday callers and provide resources and referrals for problems of all varieties.
As the holdiay blues come out of the closet, workshops on the problem have surfaced. The Alexandria Community Mental Health Center was criticized last year by a local newspaper for using public funds for such a "questionable" endeavor, but the public rallied to the center's defense, and the workshop was repeated this year. The center's single-parent groups also discuss holiday concerns. While the Women's Place in Rockville does not do a specific workshop, the problem comes up in other sessions and in individual counseling for many recently separated or divorced women facing the holidays alone.
Rather than wait for their phone to ring off the hook this season, the Washington Community Therapy Guild also decided to "go public" and run free open workshops on depression during the holidays, the last one this Saturday morning.
"The workaday world stops during the holidays. The emphasis turns to relationships and families. If that part of a person's life is not good, the holidays can be very depressing," explains Joe Riener, who ran some of the guild's workshops with Livvey Mellan. They are among 12 counselors who trained for three years with some of the area's top therapists in traditional and newer therapeutic approaches and now provide reasonably priced sliding-scale therapy (based on a person's ability to pay) at their pleasant Adams-Morgan location.
"We help people both understand and feel their feelings and let go of old pains," says Mellan, a feminist therapist who likes to get people "unstuck mentally by getting them moving physically" through sports, classes or her work in bioenergetics, in which people get in touch with the relationship between their bodies and their emotions, and express their sadness and anger.
"It's liberating," she says, "to stomp your feet and say those nasty things you've been thinking like 'I hate having to give presents to people I don't like,' 'I despise feeling grateful,' 'I don't like being confronted with tons of fattening holiday food when I should be dieting,' 'I really don't enjoy being with my relatives' or 'I wish the holiday season would end.'" The once-embarrassed group was laughing after a short session of stomping and ventilating feelings.
For those who cannot attend a workshop and feel lonely or depressed around the holidays or other times and want some positive help for getting "unstuck," the wide variety of area hotlines provide friendly ears and total anonymity. They are frankly as good as the individual couselor who answers the call, but all are trained in listening and communication skills, role playing, evaluation of specific situations and appropriate referrals.
"Some 52 percent of the public know about hotlines but wrongly think they are mainly for teenagers and such problems as VD and suicide," reports Bobbie Kuehn, head of Northern Virginia's hotline - considered one of the area's best - and former chairperson for seven years of the Washington Area Hotline Association, regarding a recent hotline survey.
Diane Cabot, coordinator of Prince George's County Hotline, illustrates that hotlines are "like dial-a-friend. Sometimes callers just want to talk to someone. Hotlines are an information, referral, crisis, listening service. We handle problems ranging from family conflict and finances to mental health, loneliness, runaways, sex (basic information, abortion, VD), handicapped, basic living - housing, welfare, food needs, medical questions and emergencies, legal queries and social and religious activiites in the area. You name it. We handle it. PG County also has the area's only hotline for the deaf."
Doris Loghlin, deputy chief of the district's Emergency Mental Health Services, which overseas the Suicide Prevention Service (a hotline) and related Psychiatric Walk-in Service, both 24-hour operations, reports that the No. 1 problem stems from disruptive relationships and breakups with significant people - mate, family, friends, "Depression," she observes, "has a great deal to do with the quality of relationships people have with other people."
While the phone calls and visits to Loughlin's two operations tend to decrease during the holiday period, area therapists and hotlines generally report and increase in number and length of calls and suicide threats during and after the holidays and in the longer gloomier days of winter generally.
PG County's Hotline, for example, reports 32 suicide calls in November compared to just three in August, and gave all area hotlines employees and volunteers training in handling such suicide calls. "What is dramatic is not the holiday calls as much as the number of calls - 600 - and visits - 300 - we get monthly with almost no publicity, particularly as family violence escalates," notes Mace Summers of Montgomery County's Community Crisis Center, a walk-in crisis intervention and referral service.
As feelings of loss, loneliness and rejection arise, the holiday period sees an increase in depression, psychotic episodes and suicide attempts, reports Dr. Michael Hertzberg, formerly with the Mount Vernon Center for Community Mental Health and now in private psychiatric practice. "When you feel lonely or alienated around the holidays, you also don't feel good about yourself. People compare what they're supposed to be feeling with what they actually feel and come up short," he says, adding that he "escaped" from the area during last year's holiday season for the same reason.
But tension and depression don't necessarily increase during holiday seasons, Georgetown psychiatrist Dr. Norman Tamarkin maintains: It's just that "People more openly admit the ressures they feel: buying what they cannot afford, family obligations, alienation, lack of closeness with their family or others, and recollections of either happy or unpleasant childhood memories which affect their lives today," he says. "Some unwisely give in to self-pity by staying in and not dealing with others. Others who are satiated with pseudo-concern for good will and love feel awkward having to be nice to everyone - including people they don't like - and acting as if they are having a good time if they aren't. People who not in the holiday spirit should be able to stay home or do what they want without feeling guilty."
"The holidays," adds Hertzberg, "bring up the neurotic conflcts over giving/receiving, money, greed, who are really your good friends, who might not give you a present in return, and how lovable you are. Winter provides fewer options for physical activity and, along with the New Year, forces move time for reflection, introspection and taking stock. People who are sad or depressed around the holiday season each year should look at the other 11 months of the year and try to make broader changes in their lives because the holidays are not the cause."