December is for Tales of Tortured Souls

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December is a month of the year that brings delight and dispair–two ends of the emotional spectrum. I’ve read that depression and suicide increase during the holiday months.

That made sense to me. Because of the rise in expectations of great happiness at seeing family and friends over the holidays, disappointment when expectations are not met intensifies the disappointment. Plus, one’s modest celebration may pale by comparison with others’ more elaborate festivities. That can contribute to feelings of falling short.

Two contributors to this site, namely Hobo John and Felicia Wilson, have shared, just this month, personal reflections on their own experiences with inner turmoil. So, it must be on people’s minds. At least, it’s on the minds of my fellow writers.

That makes sense to me, too, that writers (and other artists) are more prone to mental health struggles. Hemingway comes to mind.  I, too, struggle to maintain balanced emotions. And it’s more difficult during winter. But the holidays have nothing to do with it.

My mother died of cancer in October. My father died of a stroke in January. So, October to early January I’m in a state of melancholy from the sights, sounds and other reminders of my losses.

My oldest sister died from . . . well, the official cause was heart failure. But, isn’t that always the case when someone dies? The heart fails.

She, my sister Linda, was highly intelligent, full of humor, and a multi-talented Do-It-Yourselfer who raised three children alone after a traumatic divorce. She was also tortured by bi-polar illness and a touch of schizoid disorder. I believe her illness was triggered by a horrific marriage, with the damage being excessive due to her own great expectations about marriage, similar to the lows I mentioned above about holiday anticipation that fails to satisfy.

When I say tortured, I do mean that her unhealthy mind drove her actions toward the bizarre. She got romantically involved with her married psychiatrist/boss. She once walked the streets in nothing but a bed sheet. On another occasion she charged to her Sears account a houseful of indoor/outdoor carpeting in bright teal. Perhaps the most bizarre was her purchasing of raw meat, lots of it, individually wrapped in butcher paper, and then placing of the packages in various locations in her yard where the meat rotted before we knew to help.

These are just a few lowlights of her life with her mental ill health. These details are, perhaps, more shocking than my colleagues have shared. But, then, I’m sharing the experiences of a deceased family member. By doing so, I think I’m only working up to sharing my own tales of mental upset.

Thank God, I’m only mildly impaired by comparison with my sister. But her life experiences and mine share some uncanny parallels. For example, disasterous marriages to cruel, selfish men; single motherhood to three children; skill in domestic endeavors; artfulness; a motivation toward hospitality.

Patty Duke’s biographical account in her book “A Brilliant Madness” resonates with me, as she reminds me of my sister, being the same age, and an accomplished yet formerly tortured woman with a winning personality. (Read Patty Duke’s comments on Robin Williams.)Patty_Duke_1975

Linda has been gone for 30 years. She was only 38 when her mental health dragged her physical health to death’s door. For some of my family members Linda seems to be only a little footnote in the many volumes that hold our history. To me, as I navigate this path frought with emotional landmines, she is taking on greater significance. She needed more attention and care than any of us knew. I wish I had known then what I know now.

On a lighter note, apparently, the holiday season has been mislabeled as the time of year with the most depression and suicide. Here’s an exerpt from NYU Langone Medical Center’s write-up on this topic:

The reason behind the claim that depression rates and suicides rise during the holidays is that holiday cheer amplifies loneliness and hopelessness in people who have lost loved ones, or who have high expectations of renewed happiness during the holiday season, only to be disappointed. Others think the increase in anxiety and gloominess is caused by the unavoidable stress, exhaustion, and frustration that come with preparing for the holidays. One study found that two out of three newspaper stories about suicide or depression from mid-November 1999 to mid-January 2000 made a connection between suicides and the holidays, further encouraging the notion.

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that is closely related to the winter season, and therefore, seems to increase in frequency around the holidays. However, it is important to note that the condition is triggered by the short, dark, cold days of winter and not the actual holidays.

and from the Presidential declaration of May as Mental Health Awareness month:

Despite great strides in our understanding of mental illness and vast improvements in the dialogue surrounding it, too many still suffer in silence. Tens of millions of Americans face mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder. During National Mental Health Awareness Month, we reaffirm our commitment to building our understanding of mental illness, increasing access to treatment, and ensuring those who are struggling to know they are not alone.

We too often think about mental health differently from other forms of health. Yet like any disease, mental illnesses can be treated — and without help, they can grow worse. That is why we must build an open dialogue that encourages support and respect for those struggling with mental illness.

As we get comfortable with “an open dialogue” I will be able to share more, coming out of the vast and varied closet of mental illness. I need encouragement and support. Oh, and Zoloft and Lamictal. Also, sometimes I need arms stronger than my own, to embrace and normalize me.

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