In this moving reflection on the Christmas season Irish expatriate Anna Marie O'Rourke reveals how she was rescued from a period of depression while living abroad through her involvement with Gaelic games.
Christmas comes but once a year but it’s a time of year that you can’t get away from.
You can’t turn a street corner without seeing lights, shops filled with decorations, Christmas tree markets and Santa Claus. It can be described as a magical time of the year, the season of goodwill. A time for sharing, receiving, holidays. Airports and train stations full with people all making their way “home”.
We talk about the dinners, Christmas cake, who is cooking what, where to get the best value for money, but for many of us across Europe, we will be spending it on our own due to work or financial restrictions.
I haven’t spent Christmas back in Ireland since I left in 1993. I have never forgotten my first Christmas away from my parents’ home. I was a young 17-year-old working in Dublin in a nursing home. As everyone was running around the shops buying last minute presents or having Christmas parties, I spent mine literally crying my eyes out.
I felt so lonely and isolated, I thought that I was the only person in the world who felt like this. I had only arrived in Dublin a few months beforehand and I hadn’t yet settled in nor had I any friends to visit. It was heart wrenching for me and I doubted my choice of career. Time seemed to have stood still as everyone around me spoke of their plans for going to see their parents, reunions with brothers and sisters who hadn’t seen each other in a long time.
I walked along Grafton street crying my eyes out just watching the world hustle and bustle around me. I remember thinking how can this be the season of goodwill as not one person stopped to ask me if I was ok. It was also at this moment I realised that Christmas is also a time of the year that can be very difficult.
The following year I found myself living and working in London, I was a care assistant on a low salary so couldn’t afford the expensive flights back home. Ryanair hadn’t yet hit the market so I worked in a nursing home over the Christmas period. By then I had made friends with a lot of other Irish so those of us who couldn’t afford to get home spent Christmas Day together.
It was a strange kind of day as we had moments of laughter and tears and long phone calls back home. It was also the first year that I began looking around at my elderly patients who at that time were sad more often than not. I began chatting with them and spent many hours listening to their stories of Christmases past. For those patients without family, Christmas didn’t mean as much to them anymore.
As the years passed, I graduated from Guys and St Thomas Hospital as a nurse. During my nursing training, I didn’t have to work Christmas but I didn’t have the money to go home and I often worked Christmas Day as a healthcare assistant to cover the costs of living in London.
I often resented that as a care giver, we give so much yet receive so little. Sometimes we can be surrounded by people but still feel so isolated,
I did however spend some amazing Christmases in London, I particularly enjoyed the time when I worked in the London Irish Centre in Camden town as a social advice worker. I felt that I could give so much as I saw first-hand the difficulties that many Irish people faced; loneliness, isolation, domestic abuse, alcoholism and substance misuse. Christmas for them was just a reminder of broken family ties or their ongoing mental health issues that were often exasperated at this time of the year. Most of us are lucky to have a strong family bond but for many Christmas was just another reminder of past demons.
At times, I cried whilst listening to their harrowing upbringings, the abuse, and how they never enjoyed family gatherings. I felt lucky that despite not getting home for Christmas I had some beautiful memories with my family.
I was a believer that I could change it all, that one must fight against the loneliness and that we are in control of our own destinies. I was an adventurer and thought that nothing could topple my confidence. Hearing many of their stories gave me the strength to fight for them, for myself and my future.
Looking back, it was so naïve of me as my life took a different direction. I was at the time, a young graduate nurse with a well paid job, a loving partner and a great social mix of friends. Life was simply great.
Little did I know back then that life was to become so much more complicated. As I previously mentioned I was an adventurer, I loved spending long weekends and Christmas holidays visiting European cities, thinking wouldn’t it be great to live here, that dream came true back in 2003 when, at eight months pregnant, my French partner and I packed up what possessions we had and said adieu to life in London.
I was so excited not only because I was about to become a mother for the first time but also because we were moving to France. I couldn’t wait to live in a country where they had amazing food, wine, beaches, sun and so much history. I had spent the previous six years visiting the country. I thought I was ready….
Reflecting on this period of my life remains difficult. “Why?” I hear myself say. Well because I didn’t come prepared. I can only describe it as being a living torture. I had taken French language courses before arriving but nothing prepared me for the shock of finding myself living in a small farmhouse far from any towns or English speaking people. This may be idyllic for many people however It wasn’t for me.
Not only was I deprived of sleep from looking after my little girl, I didn’t speak French and had no social contact with anyone. I didn’t even realise that I was depressed and in between changing nappies and breastfeeding, spent most of my days crying. It took a strain on my relationship and Christmas can only be described as a day that I’d rather forget. We didn’t have work and therefore no income.
We also had to queue for food parcels and nappies for our little girl. We didn’t even have the money to buy a tree or decorations. It should have been a great first Christmas for my little girl and even though my sister came from Ireland to visit and instead of enjoying the moment, I cried through it.
Luckily this darker period of my life didn’t last long and we moved from the country side to Rennes, the capital city of Brittany. Life got a lot better when i discovered that there was a Gaelic football team in the city.
This was and remains very important to me. I created the first ladies team with Sinead O Riordan and Jen Usher , two Irish Erasmus students. I learned how to speak French but unfortunately my partner and I separated. I was determined however to make my daughter’s second Christmas memorable.
I didn’t have a lot of money but I was so lucky that my family and friends rallied around me and my little one didn’t notice that her dad wasn’t there on Christmas day. I decorated my apartment with lights and a tree and it is so true when people say that it’s children who make Christmas so special.
I didn’t see anyone over the Christmas period except for my daughter but I didn’t mind. I had her and the delight of seeing her face light up when she opened the presents was the best gift I had.
Over the years my French improved, I found work, I spent Christmases with friends who were also far from their home.
I have been blessed to spend the holiday period with friends from all around the world, eating their traditional Christmas dinners, tasting their wine or beer. I had to learn to balance sharing Christmas without my little girl.
It was often hard but I made up for it by celebrating Christmas just before or after the 25th. I have often chosen to work not only for the financial benefits but also because I try to remain positive and look after people less fortunate who often have life debilitating illnesses.
I often hear people talk about how awful it is to be alone at this time of the year. It is true, and I know first-hand the roller coaster of emotions that one can experience but I try to look at it differently.
As a palliative care nurse specialist, I have worked and witnessed death during the holiday period. I can only describe it as heartbreaking. How does one find the words to explain to young children that their mum or their dad won’t make it to Christmas Day?
What should be memories filled with laughter and joy are transformed into tears and heartbreak. I once remember asking a seven-year-old boy what he wanted for Christmas and his response filled me with sorrow.
He told me that he wanted Santa to make his mum well again and that if she got better that was the best Christmas present ever. I couldn’t answer him because what do you say. I just took the little boy in my arms and gave him a long hug.
I told him his mum will always be by his side. His mum passed away on Christmas Eve and I remember coming home to an empty house and I cried for his loss and my own loss of broken family ties, but it was also a defining moment for me.
I realised and continue to realise that life is not like a Disney movie, that we all experience joy and pain but what keeps us going is hope and people. I’ve learned to accept that I cannot always change things, or make them better, that I don’t have the power to end world poverty and wars but that as an individual I can only try to be a better person.
I have, as I have done for the past 10 years, contributed to the food banks each Christmas because I have never forgotten my first Christmas in France. I wake up on Christmas morning, put makeup on my face, I wear my Santa hat and Christmas jewellery and bring my Christmas music to work.
I smile because I am happy knowing that despite my own isolation I’m making Christmas special for others. I am far from home but I’m happy.
As I write this I’m sitting in my front room. I’ve the Christmas tree in the corner of the room, its lights flickering. My daughter is going to spend Christmas with her dad and her grandmother. I will be on my own again this Christmas but I’m not sad. Secretly I’m happy as I can avoid Christmas shopping and the stress involved with cooking a dinner etc. I am looking forward to spending the day in my pyjamas watching old Christmas movies, eating whatever I fancy and Skyping my daughter and my sisters. I am very lucky to have a roof over my head, warm clothes on my back and a choice about how I will spend the day.
If you are alone this Christmas remember that despite feelings of isolation, there are unfortunately people worse off. It’s not easy, you may find yourself alone in a foreign country out of work and may be feeling low in mood.
It does pass and things always get better. You are not alone if you feel like crying. Crying is a good thing. It evacuates your emotions. As the saying goes, it’s better out then in. Don’t be afraid to talk to people about how you feel, In fact it’s very important.
If you are experiencing feelings of loneliness and despair, try to focus on previous good memories, that’s what I do. I’ll be thinking of the French championship finals which will be held on the 3rd of June here in Rennes in 2017.
I’ll be thinking about the time when I worked in the Irish centre and had four Christmas dinners in one week. I will also think of the many people who don’t have a home and those sleeping outside in the cold. I hope for them that despite their current situation life will get better for them.
Don’t be scared or ashamed to talk about how you feel. Don’t bottle it up. If at any moment, it becomes unbearable then ask for help. It doesn’t make you a weak person, in fact it takes a lot of guts and strength to ask for help.
If you haven’t yet found a GAA club, perhaps this may be the moment to think about creating a club. Nothing is impossible and I am very grateful for the support that my European Gaelic games family circle give me. Sport is also a good way to meet people and find friends and I can honestly say that my world would be a lot less fun without Gaelic Games
Wherever you are over this festive period look after yourself and others.
Anna-Marie O’Rourke is the Health and Wellbeing Officer for Gaelic Games Europe.
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