Dear Patti,

I see everybody smiling and laughing at Christmastime. I want to be happy as well, especially when I see families close with each other during their traditions, such as going caroling. Instead, I always end up depressed. Each year I hope I’ll feel different, but I never do.

When I started to think very dark and sad thoughts this week, I decided to seek out a professional therapist (whom I’ll see for the first time in two days).

I have terrible childhood memories of Christmas. My father was a teacher and, during his winter break he left us to be with the mother of one of his students. Although he visited me later, he never came home and things were never the same between us. My mother was devastated, got drunk and stayed in her room all Christmas while I opened my presents alone.

The worst memory was when my grandma died. She was the only one who ever took me to see Santa, drove me around to see Christmas lights, and made me gingerbread and eggnog.

As I’m writing, I’m experiencing many feelings — mostly fear, anger and sadness.

My childhood is over and I’d like to keep it in the past. When I was little, I vowed I’d grow up and make my life different. For the most part, I’ve been doing a good job at achieving this, but it’s always difficult over the Christmas holidays.

  — Jessica

Dear Jessica,

You’ve made a wonderful first step toward healing by acknowledging your need and reaching out for professional help. It’s imperative you follow through with psychotherapy and find a therapist you trust and feel connected to. The goal is for the two of you to create a safe, private space in which you carefully examine and process these painful memories,start repairing the hurt you experienced as a child and, in doing so, address your seasonal depression.

Holidays often heighten sensitivity of feelings, both positive and negative. While it’s a season for joy, inspiration, appreciation for what one has and spending time with loved ones, it can also generate painful feelings insofar as coping with memories of past holidays that were less than they were meant to be. You’re not alone. Others have felt sad or blue, oftentimes unsure of the reason until they realize something as simple as pulling out a favorite cookie recipe or looking at a family photograph triggered a memory of painful trauma which occurred at this same time of the year.

These anniversary feelings — such as those you’ve related about your childhood — were unsafe to experience when you were a child and yet, with their recurrence, they now represent an opportunity to heal. Allow yourself to feel and explore all your angry, sad and fearful emotions freely and unfiltered with your therapist until eventually they dissipate.

When there are unfinished feelings concerning a traumatic experience, one reacts to similarities first and differences second. For example, if you see a mother and a daughter buying gifts, you might react to what is similar to an original traumatic event that happened to you, flooding you with painful memories and feelings of a terrible gift-giving experience. In the first moments, the realization your life is different today may not occur to you; specifically, you now may have loved ones to love, exchange gifts and share time with, unlike your situation in childhood. Therefore, if there are basic similarities between an original trauma and what you currently see, your initial response might be an angry and sad reaction to an experience now, even though the situation in the present may be very different from what actually occurred in the past.

I don’t believe in arbitrarily opening up one’s old memories unless these repressed feelings are somehow interfering with the quality of one’s current life. Since there are underlying, painful times you have been unable to heal, this can be your opportunity to heal these old traumatic experiences once and for all. Despite the circumstances of your childhood home, it sounds like you’ve already accomplished your wish of living a different life, even if it’s not always perfect. Transform this season into the celebration you’ve always wanted and deserved.


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.