Living in a group home was a time of waiting I wish I could have avoided.

I was waiting for a breakthrough in my mental health. I had been discharged after spending a month in a psychiatric ward. Wanting a change, this was not quite what I expected. Being home in my comfortable surroundings was what I looked forward to. Sharing a house with four other adults who had chronic disabilities was an adventure I faced with trepidation.

We grocery shopped, cooked for each other, took turns with chores, and volunteered in the community. Our schedules were given to us with little consultation, but the weekends were ours to plan.

Each Saturday I planned my visit with my family that would take a 3-hour bus ride, returning Sunday night. I did this for about seven months.

My time in the group home was bittersweet. During the time leading up to Christmas I spent quiet evenings in the kitchen making crafts. Painting, knitting, and decorating became a time of reflection. Advent is a time of waiting. Waiting for the most perfect gift. A king. A little baby. How adorable. How humble.

Being away from home, I focused on the little things I could change in my life. Being happy that Mary said “Yes.” That Jesus became flesh. I spent afternoons working out in the gym, swimming, reading in the library, and visiting the elderly at the seniors home where I volunteered.

I participated in everything they suggested: walks, baking cookies, singing carols. The challenge was and still is not to become too busy with shopping, parties, and prepping. Otherwise, I lose sight of the true light and meaning of Christmas. My mental health can suffer if I become too busy doing, instead of being.

I look back now with gratitude at that time of growth and place to heal my mind, about 14 years ago. My health and well-being has transformed since those times of deep depression and anxiety. It’s not that I don’t still have struggles. My illness is lifelong and has ups and downs, but there is a light that shines even in my darkest days. And that is the gift of Jesus’ love in my life. Little baby Jesus brings joy even to a hurting soul. I wait in excited anticipation for the peace he brings wrapped in swaddling clothes.

The Saviour of the world didn’t arrive in comfort either. In the darkest time of year, in the chaos of a messy stable, Jesus came to us in simple way. He was dependent on Mary and Joseph for everything.

If I were to put myself in the nativity story, instead of rushing around, I would hold Jesus in my arms. Mary would be resting beside me and Joseph telling a bedtime story, like my dad did for me. I would sing Jesus a happy song on my ukulele, praising his majesty. I would want to bring him some of my homemade speculaas cookies that taste like gingerbread. If I sat by his creche, my mind would calm and I would find sanity in adoration of him.

Christmas is a time of joy but sometimes it requires a choice to experience it. It fills me with peace that I am not alone. I am happiest when I place him at the centre of my life. The first Christmas after my diagnosis of bipolar disorder was full of love. My family came together and built a gingerbread house full of candy. We sang carols for our friends and neighbours. Instead of isolating and tucking away from it all, I was to be a gift.

I am blessed to be a part of such a nurturing family that helped me perk up at the joy of Christmas. May this advent be a time of slowing down, and noticing Jesus’ sweet presence in our lives.