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The Christmas tree I'll never forget

For many people, Christmas is a glorious time. Neighbourhoods are aglow with bright lights, homes are filled with decorations, and family and friends meet and rejoice, exchanging gifts and feeling their bond grow. Holiday movies and songs are wrapped in nostalgia, triggering happy childhood memories of visiting Santa Claus and dreaming of the toys he would leave under the tree.

For those of us suffering from mental illness, however, this season often brings nothing but intense guilt and pain: the gifts we can’t afford to buy, the children we feel we are ruining by being unavailable to them, the spouses we are letting down, or the flashbacks we experience of arguments, tears, and anguish.

Years ago, when I was hospitalised over Christmas, I saw this pain in everyone around me. People hardly spoke, most of them lonely and consumed with shame about all they had lost or did not have. It was especially distressing for those without a family.

Our ward had a scrawny Christmas tree that we decorated. I saw it as mockery. I wanted to burn it or throw it out the window. That tree reminded me of how worthless and different I was. Had I done something good with my life, I would have been home with my wife and two boys, not in this place feeling invisible. Yes, that Christmas tree was a taunting testament to my failures, to my empty existence outside of society.

Then a nurse asked me to sing John Lennon’s Imagine with him during a simple Christmas lunch with patients and staff. He played the guitar and we sang together. I am not a singer, but I sang with all my heart. Many nurses and patients started to cry, and I realised that this was what Christmas was all about—living in the moment, free of expectations and judgments. I have never forgotten it.

Life is up and down. When I’m going through a rough patch, I dread holiday gatherings and the obligatory chitchat around the table, having no energy to address comments like “How are you doing? You seem much better.” No, I’d rather be by myself. But now that I am in a good period, I’ve been looking forward to the holidays again.

Luckily I have been blessed with a strong wife and a caring extended family. For those who battle depression and are alone, Christmas just provides another chance to beat themselves up and feed their self-hatred. If you know someone in this situation, invite them into your home, but don’t ask questions. Simply offer love and good food! They will be most grateful.

A quote by the speaker and author Daniel H. Pink comes to mind: “Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”

Photo: Stephen Woods

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