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.

I have passed down all of her Christmas traditions to my daughter – my only child. I think of Mom with every ornament I unwrap. She and my father are dead now. I miss her so very, very much over the holidays. It’s just my daughter and me now. No aunts, uncles, cousins or siblings to sit down with for Christmas dinner.

I cannot go on with this right now. I must stop these thoughts. It is 6:30 a.m. on what is looking to be a gorgeous Sunday here in South Florida. If I allow these thoughts to continue they will take root in my depression and blossom. I have this little trick I do to stop this rumination. I think of our old record-player (you kids won’t remember these). It is playing a song I do not like so I reach over, grab the arm and set the stylus down on the next song, which I like very much. I don’t have to listen to thoughts that upset me. I have the power and control to stop them but it is up to me to reach over, lift the arm of the record player off the bad song and place it on a good song.

I end up doing this a lot during the holidays because every freakin’ where I go I am reminded that it is CHRISTMAS. THE HAP-HAP-HAPPIEST TIME OF THE YEAR. You can’t even go to the bathroom in the mall without taking Santa Baby with you. The light-poles in the parking lot are decorated. That car driving toward you has a wreath on its grill. The dogs wear festive green and red collars to remind us that it is the HAP-HAP-HAPPIEST TIME OF THE YEAR.

I don’t want the holidays to be a time of sorrow. I want the holidays to be magical. So I remember the Christmases when my daughter was was in elementary school  and learning how to read. We would stroll into Pottery Barn and she would re-arrange the silver N-O-E-L letters on the shelf to say L-E-O-N. I was the lookout, checking to make sure the sales clerk was distracted with other customers. Then we strolled out of the store, did some Christmas shopping, and returned to Pottery Barn to see if our spelling hi-jinx had been corrected. If it had, we did it again.

Or I remember the night my sister and I made well-endowed anatomically correct gingerbread people. These are the Christmas memories that make me smile. I must work to find them in my memory – which is odd because the sad holiday memories are always so vivid and readily available. Sometimes I think people with depression are just hard-wired to go to the sad memories first. Once a sad memory takes root I must pull it up, roots and all. It can seem like work but it is always worth it. Always.

My daughter is about to turn 20. She loves everything about the holidays. I love when she talks about her own memories. They are all happy. She comes home from college in 10 days. We will probably go to Pottery Barn, rearrange the N-O-E-L letters, go out for sushi, and come back and do it again.

My mom, who dedicated her teaching career to teaching kids how to read, would have smiled.