Today I interviewed a woman about the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. The annual bird count is like a massive flash mob for bird lovers. They go to their designed 15-mile diameter circle and at a set time they count birds for 24-hours.
The nearest bird count to me is about 25 miles south of Lake Okeechobee – that big round thing in the middle of your map of Florida that has enough alligators to shoe every Floridian with two pairs of loafers and a belt. The bird count site is 20 miles from the nearest gas station. You really gotta love birds to stomp around this God-forsaken, alligator-infested 15-mile diameter circle all day counting birds.
I asked the woman to tell me about the most special bird she had ever seen at one of these annual bird counts. She paused and then said the Everglades Snail Kite. This raptor is on the endangered species list and if we gobble up any more of their habitat with condos they will become extinct. She said she cried when she heard the bird “vocalize.”
You’re probably wondering what the hell does this have to do with depression?
One word: Passion. You have to have something in your life that means so much to you that you would stomp around a God-forsaken, alligator infested 15-mile diameter circle just to hear or catch a glimpse of it. Something or someone that is so dear to you that you cannot imagine living without it. It could be your dog, making cupcakes, fishing or hearing an endangered species “vocalize.” It is your passion. It is your anchor to life.
Another one over, and just one more holiday remaining in the emotional trifecta known as Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah and New Years. We’re almost there! Just a few more days and the tree comes down, the sales begin and my moods no longer zip around like a hockey puck.
Of the three, New Years is the easiest for me. Thanksgiving kicks off the season with a guilt-inspiring glutton fest. As for Christmas, there seems to be no escaping those despicably sweet diamond commercials or those damn Jingle-Bells-barking dogs. New Years is the home stretch. I am almost there. I have survived. I have persevered. I have used all the tools given to me by my therapist and the meds prescribed by my doctor. I refuse to ring in the New Year looking like those triathletes who crawl across the finish-line at the Ironman in Hawaii.
My mental health needs a nice, relaxing New Years. I need simplicity, serenity and gratitude – not pointy hats, noisemakers, champagne and wet, drunk kisses. How will I do this? Ix-nay on the booze. Amongst the reverie it’s easy to forget that alcohol IS a depressant. I know it’s hard to believe when you’re dancing on the bar at 11:59 p.m. but trust me, alcohol IS a depressant. Think of it as guilt and regret in a liquid form. Your first thoughts in the new year should not be where you left your car, purse or underwear.
A few days after Christmas 2002, I drove my mother to hospice. She wanted to make the decision of when to leave the home she had loved and raised her her family in for more than 30 years. Our home was not large or extravagant but every stick of furniture carried a story – heirlooms from her family’s farm or pieces she had refinished herself. She spent months working on a needlepoint cover for the piano bench and every spring she planted geraniums by the front door and tomatoes, rhubarb and flowers in the back yard.
But on the day I drove her to hospice she taught me the most valuable lesson of all. I stopped halfway down the driveway and asked if she wanted to take one last look. Dry-eyed and without emotion she said, “It’s just a roof with a bunch of stuff under it.” I was stunned. All of her possessions – the antiques, grandma’s china and her well-seasoned, cast iron roasting pot – were now just “stuff” to her.
A couple of years later, when I fell into the deepest, darkest depression I had ever known, I learned that lesson again. “Stuff is just stuff.” All the pretty things I owned and all the pretty things I thought I needed to make me happy lost their value. The priceless things in life were not things. Health and happiness were all I wanted.
I live in Florida. I know only one person who was actually born here – my daughter. Florida is a state of transplanted northerners (and we are constantly reminded of this by the snowbirds from the New York who incessantly tell us about how things are done in New York. Enough already!)
Many of any us are holiday orphans. Our families are far away in a winter wonderland. Snow flakes. Snowmen. Snow angels. Snowball fights. As close to as we get to snow in the sunshine state is a snow cone. Christmas in Florida is about as natural as the ridiculously plump lips of women in Boca Raton. It just ain’t right. Then there are the elderly. Widows and widowers. Nursing homes. ACLFs. We have plenty.
True, we don’t have to endure months of seasonal-affective disorder. Still, being alone in Florida during the holidays is depressing. Actually, being alone anywhere during the holidays is depressing. Christmas Eve and Christmas morning are the worst. I know. I used to volunteer to work Christmas Eve just so I wasn’t alone.
Being alone is hard enough during the rest of the but during the holidays our loneliness is shoved into our faces. Could the FCC please impose some kind of quota on those freakin’ diamond commercials? Please? Ditto on the Lexus ads with happy couples giving each other a shiny new car with hint of Lexus jingle on their cell phone? Seriously. Enough already.
So, you want to get a holiday gift for your friend with depression. Let’s start with what NOT to buy.
Animal therapy is great. My dog dragged my butt out of the house when I was in the deepest throes of my last major depression. However, the time to become a pet owner is NOT when you are in the bottom of your black hole. This is not the time to become a pack leader. Pets, especially dogs, need affection, discipline and exercise. They need this from the moment they walk into their new home. Most of us in our healthiest state of mind aren’t up for that challenge.
Remember, puppies can read and they are discerning little rascals. Any leather product that says “Made in Italy” is as good as rawhide. I’ve never had a kitten but I hear they’re like having a little shredding machine. Ixnay on the et-pay.
Mental illnesses, especially the ones I have, are threefold illnesses: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.
To get through it without relapse, dropping into a black hole or flying with the reindeer means six weeks of unrelenting vigilance. My emotions are all over the place. If I am not careful, nostalgia and loss will smother me. My mother made many of my Christmas ornaments. Each ornament required intricate stitching. She took a caning class and learned how to braid and weave pieces of straw into reindeer and angels. My tree skirt is so ornate that I am afraid to have it dry-cleaned.
She did all of this three times, to make each of her children would have enough ornaments. And before she died she separated them all into three boxes so we wouldn’t fight over them – and we would have. I realize as I unwrap each ornament that I never truly grasped the depth of her love for us kids – even as she lay in hospice
The screened-in porch off the back of the house became a walk in cooler during the winter months and during the holidays it was filled with everything from plain-old white sugar cookies – which she rolled and cut herself – and Chex mix to some kind of paper-thin, fried snowflakes sprinkled with powdered sugar.
My mother was not a particularly happy woman. In hindsight, I believe she suffered from dysthymia. There was no physical affection between her and my father – an alcoholic. The summer before her death she told me she would have divorced my father but “in the 1960’s women (especially Catholic women) just didn’t do that and I could not have supported you three kids.” She stay married and supported and loved her kids through decades of low-grade, persistent unhappiness.