I'm a 55-year-old, recovering alcoholic, HIV-positive single gay male. Over the last 20 years I've lost many close friends due to AIDS and I have not been able to regain the kind of social life I once had. I have no family; they rejected me due to my homosexual orientation. My romantic involvement with men has always been very limited and now, with my HIV status and my age, it is non-existent.
In addition I'm not a religious man; I have never found any comfort from or motivation to seek out religion due to punitive religious views on homosexuality. My point is that during the holiday season this all seems to hit me harder and I become seriously depressed. I have thought of going away on a vacation but I've become uneasy about travel since the World Trade Center disaster. When I state to co-workers that I am depressed during the holidays, they tell me to just get over it and be happy, get a drink or pop a pill, because this is the most wonderful time of the year. I would like some suggestions on how I can make the holiday season easier to cope with.
A Response to This Case Study
Please realize first off that you are not alone in your reaction to the holiday season. Many people feel the "holiday blues" the way you do and many have good reasons to be depressed. The holidays often bring up issues and concerns that tend to encourage people to evaluate their life. It can be a time to reflect on one's past and attempt to make positive changes for the future. You do not suggest that you are depressed year-round and your decision to acknowledge your holiday depression and to explore coping methods is a very sound one. Coupling that with steps to create a structured change in your present life is very proactive. First lets discuss the holidays and their effect on your emotional state, and then give you some possible directions you can take in reaction to your depression.
The holiday season, regardless of whether you are religious or not, is an event that envelopes our everyday lives. It would be very difficult for anyone living in our nation to escape its strong affect. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's are national holidays, along with other well-known religious and cultural holidays such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa that occur during this time, and it would be pointless to attempt to ignore them. These holidays are supposed to be a time of family and friends rejoicing and giving thanks. They usually involve the kinds of people that you indicate are lacking in your current life. It would be natural and normal for you to be depressed if you have made no alternative plans during this time. These holidays only underscore your isolation and loneliness due to death, disease and rejection. You have every right to find these holidays depressing as they stand now!
Making a Positive Change
It is fine to speak about your problems and to seek advice. However always keep in mind that your advice-givers bring their own educational background and perspective on their personal experience, then weigh their response carefully. The only suggestion given to you by your co-workers was entirely inappropriate and could only fuel a hopeless outlook. Nothing is perfect and the world isn't balanced, however, their holiday statement infers that you should be happy, so just act happy and then you will be happy. It addition, it focuses on external coping techniques rather than building on inner strengths. It is a behavioral process that does work for some people -- but not for most. The concept of acting "happy" just because "'tis the season to be jolly" is rather a trite, sad suggestion to mask one's true feelings and in most cases would only make the person feel worse. Your employment staff sound rather callous by giving you this advice and to actually encourage you to self-medicate with alcohol or drug use is just plain thoughtless. Although they may have meant no harm, I would think wisely before requesting their advice in the future on such emotional issues.
Indifferent as people can be, they also have the capacity to be very good and you need to be surrounded by a supportive, non-judgmental group. Good friends take time; seeking out possible group situations that can contribute to your mental health should be strongly considered. Your HIV status, your alcoholism and your isolation, coupled with rejection caused in part due to your homosexual orientation, is reason enough to seek out emotional support. Just the structure of getting together with people who have similar issues as yourself could help make a difference in your everyday life. Please consider making it mandatory to invest your time in seeking out supportive groups, if possible led by a clinically trained mental health professional. By continuing to address your problems in a therapist-run group, you hopefully will get feedback which would be more insightful and thus ultimately more productive.
Making a Holiday Into "Your Day"
One coping method is to break up the holidays and give them different meanings for you. Christmas can be your day; a total day devoted to your enjoyment, not a celebration by a religious group. It can be whatever time you would like it to be. For you, Christmas could be a day to hike in the upstate mountains with a motivated group or just with one other friend. Christmas could be a day of ice-skating in Central Park or a photography day at Coney Island. Christmas could be exploring a cave by the sea or driving down the Jersey shore. Start today by making a list and keep adding to it as the thoughts come to you.
The point of all this is to attempt to create a day, which you normally would not have, to make it different, to make it challenging and to try to be creative in your decision. Consider inviting people who would enjoy this special day as company or go it alone. However you approach it, this day should give you pleasure and fun and possibly become a ritual in your life. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's are all days that you can claim as your own. Look at this day as your real life adventure filled with excitement and hopefully you will pursue it with a passion!
Another suggestion is to volunteer. This can be the time for you to give back to the world in your own way as your own creative solution. The additional benefits are uniting with others who also, for whatever reasons, have decided to choose this as their holiday activity. Is there anything within your gay or HIV community where your help may be needed? Could you volunteer at a coffee service or assisting a possible N/A or AA function? Once again be creative in what you chose to do, this is your time so please be selective in how you wish to volunteer. The pay-off to volunteering at a homeless shelter or community center during this time can not only add to the enrichment of others but also provide you with a structure and a sense that you are being useful to others in need.
It is very disheartening to read how mistreated you have been by your family, particularly in the context of your current viewpoint on religion. I can't help but question if your family's cruel rejection was based in some part on their religious beliefs. Many religious groups are not geared to be open or accepting of others and this has always struck me as very sad. Some religious sects, or so it seems superficially, do not follow a principle of educated insight or compassionate understanding on many topics, not just homosexuality. Everyone has a right to believe in what they believe to be the truth; the problem comes when people feel they have the right to place their religious belief systems into laws and then everyone must abide by them.
When it comes to different religious viewpoints people are sometimes not as sensitive to one another's feelings and concerns, as they should be. Based on your past experience the topic of religion may bring up issues of your own rejection. However in spite of this I would ask you to go back in time and attempt to uncover if religion ever had any positive benefit for you in your life. If at some point religion had been a powerful tool for inner peace, then I would ask you to re-consider it. Please keep in mind that not all religions are the same in their viewpoint on homosexuality. Attempt to be open to religious groups where a tolerance for all is encouraged so you can make a more fully informed decision. Religion in your life may provide you with a greater inner strength and peace of mind, in addition to a supportive religious community.
Fear of air travel after the World Trade Center attack is a normal natural thought process. People in our nation have to acknowledge that for many people thoughts of travel are now accompanied with a logical fear of attack. However please attempt not to let your fears rule you and if you must consider possible "safer" alternatives to air travel then please consider them. Auto renting, train travel, or cruise ships maybe less stressful and possibly more enjoyable in the long run. Coordinating a group vacation may also lessen your anxiety when traveling. By becoming the leader of your chosen group you may feel more in control and this power may help to lessen your travel fears. Or give up your power to the group and allow majority to rule and seek out solutions within your chosen group by voting. For example if you wish to go skiing in upstate New York or Vermont consider renting a car, go with a bus group or decide on the train. The bottom line is your fear on traveling should not rule your personal enjoyment.
In conclusion, holidays in general for many people seem to bring out a sense of isolation and loneliness. It is also a natural process to view your past year and to make long and short goals in an attempt to better your present situation; this doesn't have to be depressing, if you are determined to go in a positive direction. Your loneliness can be lessened but you must create the strategies that would place you in situations where you can develop a more rewarding social life and possible romantic involvement. Staying home due to possible rejection based on experience due to your HIV status, your age and your homosexuality, I can assure you, is a no-win situation. You must make an attempt to improve your socialization skills and broaden your outlook on available outlets. In time you will hopefully look forward to these holidays due to the pleasurable outlets you have created to associate them with. Good luck!
Psychologically Speaking columnist J. Buzz von Ornsteiner, Ph.D. is a New York State-licensed psychologist. He currently works at a New York State correctional facility as a psychotherapist, educator and behavioral consultant.