Alicia Raimundo has been a mental health superhero for seven years. She recently received an award from CAMH and the Queen of England for her work. As someone who has suffered with depression on and off for many years, I’m happy Alicia got in touch with us to offer her advice on how to manage this challenging time of year.

SDTC: Can you share about a chapter in your life where things felt out of control? What did it look like, and how does it compare to your life today?

AR: The times I felt out of control in my life tend to follow after something big has happened. I first felt it after my parents were attempting to separate, and I most recently felt it after graduating from university, when I found myself without a direction or a job.

I often feel out of control when work becomes too much, or especially around this time of the year as I wrap up work projects and prepare for the holidays. I often find myself preoccupied with worry about how things will work out, to the point where taking good care of myself (be it keeping up the house, taking care of my health or meeting work deadlines) begin to slip and make the future I am worried about more likely. It’s an awful cycle to escape from, but counselling and support have helped me better recognize when these cycles are starting and how to intervene.

While the bad times have never completely gone away for me, the difference now is having skills and tools to better support myself when I am stressed. 

When you have felt isolated in the past, what has helped?

When I am feeling isolated, it helps to know I have people that will provide me the space to talk about what I am going through. Even if the situation I am worried about is not easily solved, just knowing people care enough to listen to me work through it and decide what to do is really helpful.

Programs that offer peer support and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped me to recognize I wasn’t as alone as I thought in my struggles and that there was a way I could change the thoughts I was thinking. CBT helped me recognize that the mental water I was swimming in was really negative (about myself and about the world around me), and it helped me see that there are less negative and even positive reasons why things are happening.

One easy-to-access support that exists in Ontario 24/7 – which is especially important during the holidays – is the Mental Health Helpline, where you can speak with someone over the phone or online. It is also important to talk to your healthcare provider, and they can give you a referral to free services like Bounce Back, which is a CBT program that uses a workbook and telephone coaching.

The holiday season can be very emotionally challenging for a variety of reasons. What’s your advice for keeping things as comfortable and easy as possible?

It took a long time to realize that the images of the perfect holiday seasons were negatively affecting me. I felt pressure to get everyone the perfect gift, host the perfect party, and to look perfect and happy while doing it all.

The comfort and ease came when I realized that, like many things, the holidays will never be perfect; something will always happen and someone will always behave in a way I would rather them not. Accepting the imperfection and working within my means for the holidays really helped. I also use apps (like the Mental Health Helpline App) that allow me to easily connect with my support team if I am feeling panicked during a get-together. I learned to say no to parties and activities that were with people I spent more time fighting with than enjoying their presence. Lastly, I focus on rest for the holidays. I give myself space to do things that truly refresh me; if this means not always making everything from scratch or having the perfect gift on time, I’ve learned to be okay with that. Eventually, people around me grew to understand and even support the way I approach the holidays. 

What’s a discovery you made this past year that has enhanced your life?

This year, I discovered that Uber Eats delivers McDonalds (kidding). This year, I made the discovery that many of my friends are open to working with me on how we spent time together. I know it probably sounds obvious, but previously I would get invites to go to dinner parties or dancing or other things that just felt like a lot of energy I did not have. I would always force myself to go (which would leave me with less energy than I needed to tackle other events in the week), or I’d stay home and feel really awful about not going out. I started negotiating with my friends about having more low-key nights and found that a lot of people were pretty open to the suggestion. It helped me still see my friends but in ways that felt enjoyable to both of us and allowed me to have enough energy for work, volunteering and taking care of my family. 

What does self-care look like for you during this time of year? What do you ensure is part of your routine?

Self-care around this time of year is a lot of saying no, especially when people try to finish projects before the holidays, someone forgets to make the turkey, or someone wants a lot of emotional energy from you that you know they aren’t going to give you back when you need it. I have gotten good at considering each request that comes my way and saying no when I feel like I need too.

Boundaries are really important, and while people might make you feel guilty, your health and balance are more important. When saying no is not possible, I try to schedule time to do nothing or do as little as possible, especially when I know I have a deadline or event that will be stressful to me. I put it in the schedule the same way I would a meeting or important event and do not move it. It really helps me get rest and take the breaks I need. 

What’s your advice to those who are really struggling? Those who feel like they can’t get better, that nothing will change?

For people who are struggling right now, know that what you are feeling is real. I think so often we tell ourselves our struggles and pain don’t matter because someone has it worse. There is always one person in the world who has it worse, but they are not the only person who is allowed to feel shitty. From there, I would tell you that you are not alone; so many people have walked the path you are on now. It’s long, hard, and doesn’t feel amazing most of the time, but it’s worth it because a much better life awaits you on the other side.

Also, know that help exists. As I mentioned about, one way to access support is the Mental Health Helpline. Also, talk to your healthcare provider. 

Follow Alicia on Twitter at @asraimun