A few years ago, I found myself in the odd position of playing Santa Claus for a bunch of children at a restaurant where I was working. I am big, playful, and tall; my boss was desperate; so, just like that, I became Santa. I loved it and had a great time.
Maybe it’s because I live with mental illness or maybe I’m just a soft touch, but it occurred to me that the average Santa just doesn’t hang out in certain places. Sure, anyone with money can hire Santa to head to their party. Hospitals and children’s homes are popular volunteer spots. But what about the local homeless shelter? What about adult facilities?
The next year, I went out and bought a Santa suit, beard, suspenders, boots, and gloves, then I hit the streets. Sure, I charged some people – the dry cleaning bill for the suit is almost $100 – but I volunteered wherever the other Santas didn’t want to go.
“Santa Claus” Lives with Mental Illness
People who know me aren’t surprised to learn that I dress like Santa and let people climb all over me. They think I do it because I love seeing people happy, because I like attention, and because, deep down, I’m a giant child.
And it did begin that way. I wanted to see people happy and, in turn, be happy, myself. Frankly, a thousand dollar suit is cheaper than therapy, so why not? I quickly realized, however, that the benefits to playing Santa Claus are greater than I ever thought. When adults sit on my lap and tell me what they want for Christmas, they allow themselves to momentarily pretend that Santa is real.
The other day, when Santa was visiting a local drop-in center for people with mental illness, addiction, and trauma issues, a man came over and sat on my lap. I figure he was mid to late 30s. He was a black man dressed in pretty cool jeans, a T-Shirt, and a gold necklace. Truthfully, I was shocked that he was willing to sit on my lap at all, given that he walked with the swagger of a man much too cool to “believe” in Santa Claus.
I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, just like I always do, and he told me that Santa won’t be able to bring him what he wants this year. Prepared for the standard wisecracks adults make, I expected him to tell me about the hot supermodel or sports car he had his eye on.
Instead he told me he just wants to see his kids. Not shying away from his request, I asked him about his children and why he wouldn’t be seeing them on Christmas.
He said that his ex-wife wouldn’t allow him to see them because he drank too much and she no longer trusted him. He acknowledged her mistrust was the result of his actions. Knowing that folks come to a drop-in center to get help, I asked him if he was attending support groups and working on not drinking.
“Yes!” he practically yelled and told me that he was coming here every day because people don’t judge him and because he likes the support groups. I asked him how long it had been since he drank and, as his common for people in recovery, he proudly said, “121 days.”
I looked at him and I said, “Sir, if you keep coming to groups, keep working hard, and stay away from drugs and alcohol, you won’t need Santa Claus to see your kids next year, because you’ll accomplish it all by yourself.”
He hugged me so fast, and so unexpectedly, that I almost fell over. He was a strong man and he mumbled his thanks into my Santa hat. I hugged him back and he jumped up and walked away with the same swagger and confidence he had when he sat down.
I just sat there, briefly forgetting I was dressed like a mythical elf from the North Pole who owns a team of flying reindeer. Because I remember the day that all I wanted in the world was for someone to tell me I didn’t need magic, because I could do it all by myself.
I believe that people can overcome their difficult circumstances not because I want to believe it, but because I’ve seen it. I, personally, have done it. What we all need to remember is that having someone believe in you, even a middle-aged bipolar dude who dresses up like Santa, is more valuable than anything on anyone’s Christmas list.
And Santa, my friends, believes in everyone.
Please Note: Gabe is writing a memoir about a regular guy living with bipolar and would love your help. Pre-orders available and much more. Check it out by clicking here.