TAKING CHARGE OF THE HOLIDAYS Dec. 7, 2004
by Ruth Zali Deming, with a little help from her friends
Thanks to Carol Carlen, MS, of Ardmore, PA for her review of this article. Carol is a tireless advocate on behalf of mental health and runs the superb NAMI Peer Support Group in Bryn Mawr, PA. The group is “running at full capacity now,” says Carol. The group, as do all successful support groups, helps to change the lives of people with mental illness.
Long ago, I thought of my manic depression as being on a long train ride. You hop aboard at the station and you stay on until the end of the ride. The ride is fixed. You can’t get off. Someone is at the controls but you don’t know who and you don’t know why. Your job is to ride the train the best way you know how.
I no longer believe in the manic depression train. I got off at Stop 58. I got off the Manic Depression Train. But my heart is still on it.
Let’s say there’s 24 cars on the train. You move from car to car. You’re in charge of where you want to go on the train. You can’t change the nature of the train ride – a fast or slow ride to oblivion – but you can certainly choose where you’re going to go while the train passes under the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, up to the Canadian Rockies, over blue Lake Tahoe, and on into Sacramento and Sutter’s Gold Country.
While you’re on the train you have as many choices and opportunities as your imagination and daring allow. Nothing can stop you from giving yourself permission to try anything to make the ride as pleasant or as miserable as you choose. God gave all of us the ability for insight. We are blinded all of us because we are trapped inside our own bodies and can’t see ourselves for who we are, so we must learn from others who we are. If we come from families who are giving us poor messages about who we are, then we must find other people, other families, on the train to give us better messages about who we are. I call this finding surrogate families or surrogate parents. I’ve done this my whole life.
We may do this consciously or unconsciously. It is the light of life alive inside all of us.
Let’s reflect about the coming holidays. Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.”
The genius Tolstoy knew this from personal experience. He was a great eccentric and gypsy and followed his own road. Read his biography by Henri Troyat some day when you’re on the train. But, let’s face it, there are degrees of happy families. All life is a matter of degree.
How do we get through the holidays? Why are holidays difficult? In the mail I received a wonderful newsletter called Suicide Survivors Newsletter put out by SOS, Inc, 2064 Heather Road in Folcroft, PA 19032. Phone: 215-545-2242.
Quoting from their letter, “Tips for the Holidays” reprinted from Riverdale Resources, these tips apply for any loss, not only suicide. My personal comments are followed the asterisk. By the way, the SOS group is only one of the wonderful groups and individuals who are out there doing wonderful things for the community.
We at New Directions try our best to help out others and our people do a magnificent job. There are literally millions of people like us across the earth, service-oriented people who live to serve other people You have only stumbled upon our website, a drop in the pool of humanity.
Here’s the Tips from SOS for the Holidays
1 – Decide what you can handle comfortably. Let family and friends know. Can I handle the responsibility of the family dinner, or shall I ask someone else to do it? Do I want to talk about my [deceased] loved one or not. Shall I stay here for the holidays or go to a completely different environment.
There’s a poem we read in high school, “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” where Coleridge’s hero is forced to tell a tale over and over again to set himself free and also to enlighten those to whom he tells his tale. All of us have a tale to tell and must tell it when it is ready to come out. And to the proper people.
Sometimes if you are not ready to talk about something and someone asks you about it, simply say, “Thank you for asking. I don’t wish to discuss it at this time.” Never put yourself at risk to delve into an event that makes you sad. In this way, we will preserve our tranquil mood without having to delve into the event that may make us wide open with grief.
2 – Make some changes if they feel comfortable to you. Open presents Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning.
Remember, you are setting down and establishing new memories, new traditions. You may wish to preserve some of the old – “This was how it was before David died, or when Susan was in my life – and this is how it will be from now on.” Many people decide to do things of a symbolic nature, such as changing the way they look or the way their house looks or putting up a memorial or altar of some sort in their home. For example, when my brother David committed suicide many years ago, I made a memorial to him and hung it on my dining room wall. I used to wear his green hunting jacket when I would jog. I have his picture beside me – a beautiful dark-haired 28-year-old man with a little smile on his lips and a camera in his lap.
A member of our group whose mother recently died slept in her mother’s bed for awhile after her mother’s death. A friend of mine wrote a great story about cleaning out her parents’ home after they both died. (Sublimation: Creating a thing of beauty out of tragedy.)
3 – Consider doing something special for someone else. Donate a gift in the memory of your loved one. Donate money you would have spent on your loved one as a gift to charity.
Writes Kristi Dalske from Oreland, PA in the newsletter: Shortly after Chris died in 2001, “I kept a pad of paper and pens out on the table and we all wrote our memories of Chris. I had visitors and friends also write their memories. I put them all in a memory scrapbook and on Christmas we each took turns reading them. Even now if someone remembers something about Chris I write it down and put it in the scrapbook.”
Always write things down. In this way, you are making concrete what is only an abstraction in your mind. It is something you can look at it and feel and hold and see.
When my father was dying of a brain tumor many years ago, I would visit him every day and at his request read to him. Before he got sick and took to his bed, I would take him and my children on scenic rides in the area, Bryn Athyn Cathedryl, Bryn Athyn Post Office, spectacular gardens, Pennypack Watershed, Temple Sinai Synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Coincidentally, when we were children, my father used to take us and his aging mother on scenic drives.
After Dad died, I called up the Orangemans Nursing Home in Hatboro, PA and for many years thereafter would take the older people on scenic rides at the changing of seasons. In this way I preserved my father’s memory by doing something good for other people.
4 – Allow yourself to express your feelings. Holidays often magnify feelings of loss. It is natural to feel sadness. Share concerns, apprehensions, feelings with a friend. The need for support is often greater during the holidays.
Says my Polish friend Simon, “You yearn for the days of yesteryear when you were a child and Christmas and the holidays were everything to you. All your relatives were alive and you remember the good times like the sharing of holiday dinners the turkeys, the hams, and the grown-ups would drink vodka and eggnog and Krupnik (a whiskey made from the skins of purple grapes).
I have a habit of sharing my feelings with everyone I meet. At my age, 58, I don’t care what people think of me. Someone in my group said to me, “Wow, you get rid of your problems so quickly.” I told him that’s because I talk about them immediately. I hold nothing inside. Many people with mental illness hold things inside and don’t process them. Whatever “feelings” are – probably strands of peptides (I am just making that up, chemicals, in any event) – they must move. They can’t be blocked. Arteries can’t be blocked. Neither can feelings.
I stopped hiding and suppressing my feelings. I tell people immediately what’s bothering me. A guy in my group said, “Ruth, you empty your bucket.” I asked him what that meant. He told me. And I said, “Yes, that’s what I do. I empty my bucket.”
I share my feelings with people and don’t bottle them up inside. That’s the bane of the person with a mental illness. They bottle up their feelings.
5 – It is important for you to find what will make the holidays more manageable, not what others expect you to do. Give yourself permission to say NO. You are allowed to do that. Not many people will tell you that, but it is true. You must take care of yourself first and saying No is healthy in your recovery.
Truer words cannot be said. Take counsel from other people, certainly, but in the final analysis, do what is right for you in your own heart.
Another idea from the SOS Newsletter that I particularly liked and encourage other people to adopt was a note from Janice Swavely in Lower Bucks County:
“As a way to channel my grief in a positive direction, I contacted PennDot about their Adopt-A-Highway Program. For the next two years, Comly Avenue in Langhorne Manor and Highland Avenue in Parkland will be kept litter free. The sporty blue and white sign will tell all travelers that the “Family and Friends of Mark Weaver” care about their community. And at the same time, the sign conveys a constant message and reminder of how much Mark is loved and is missed.
6 – Do not be afraid to have fun. Laughter and joy are not disrespectful. Give yourself and your family members permission to celebrate and take pleasure in the holidays.
In the movie Zorba the Greek, Anthony Quinn loved a woman very much. She died. The final scene of the movie shows Zorba dancing with the joy of life on the beach. Unforgettable!
I come from a very large Jewish family. Half of us are nuts, are on drugs – licit or illicit – are alcoholics, control freaks, artists, musicians, successful business people, teachers, library directors, dentists, novelists, you name it. But let me tell you. We’re a big crazy family and we respect one another and boy do we have fun when we get together! A big contingent of our family is from Ecuador. They bring joy and dancing and music and abandon to the family and boy do we have fun on holidays no matter what! Last Thanksgiving, you should have seen us dancing to salsa music on the smooth kitchen floor of Nikki’s new house in New Jersey. The best dancers were Nikki the Gifted Schoolteacher and Melissa the Catholic Dentist, and of course yours truly, the big show-off, Little Ruthie, doing fake Baryshnikov leaps in the air and rolling around on the floor