‘Tis the Season

By any rational criteria, I have a wonderful life.

I’m married to a beautiful woman that I’ve only grown closer to over the last 10+ years. We have been fortunate enough to do a lot of travel and experience some wonderful places. We’ve hiked the Inca Trail to stand in Machu Picchu, and explored the Galápagos Islands. We have a lovely home in a great location with no mortgage, and we plan to start traveling more soon with the rental income from an investment home we just picked up.

Although not wealthy in any shape or form, we have everything we need and barring some major catastrophe, we are financially secure for the future. Neither of us have to work, unless it is something we really want to do for enjoyment or to broaden our lives. We are blessed with four terrific children who have provided us with nine adorable grandchildren.

And yet, later this afternoon I have an appointment with my doctor to discuss whether I should go on medication to combat depression.

How did it come to this? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. In fact, I’ve been working sporadically on a book trying to go into the whole sordid story. Needless to say, it is difficult to write about – although there is some therapeutic value in organizing your thoughts and feelings through the written word.

Part of it for me is this time of the year, the joyful holiday season. It is estimated that as much as 20% of the population suffer some form of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) during the winter to varying degrees. This is part of it, but not the whole picture.

It doesn’t help that I had a dysfunctional family growing up. I mean epically dysfunctional, real Greek tragedy kind of shit. So the holiday seasons were not a particularly festive time around the house as a child – in fact, the contrast between all the bright smiling faces and what was going on in our home just made things worse.

Things turned around for me only when I met my first wife, Carolyn, during a – guess when? – Thanksgiving party. We got a lot closer at another Thanksgiving when I helped her recover from what is popularly called a “nervous breakdown”, and we got married a year or two later on December 26th.

You would think that would have saved the holidays for me, but Fate is not so kind: 25 years later we would have our last Thanksgiving meal together in a hospital where she was getting her blood cleaned and replaced every day. She died less than a week later on the third day of December (23 days shy of our 25th wedding anniversary), and the funeral was the following week in December of 2008, what is known in our family as The Year Without Christmas.

For me, the holiday season can bring back some of the angst from childhood and the grief from Carolyn’s death, but that is still not the whole picture. The main issue for me is Survivor’s Guilt.

This too is a common problem with people who have survived some sort of tragic event that took the lives of others. For me, it is the lingering feeling that I don’t deserve everything I have now, that my happiness is the result of someone else’s misfortune.

It is not that I did not treat my wife well, or left things in disarray; on the contrary, I did my best to support her after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, and I know that I made the last years of her life easier. It is just guilt that I not only survived, but things are going great.

Rather perverse, right?

For me, the depression shows itself in weight gain, from drinking too much and then eating snacks. Mind you, our regular meals are healthy and balanced, and we still walk 3-6 miles every day. But if I let myself drink, after dinner I will make a snack or four. As a consequence, after going from 319 pounds in 2008 to just over 200 in 2017, I’ve now gained back 50 pounds.

This leads to a cycle of despair. I know how hard it was losing all that weight, and feel like even more of a worthless slug with every extra pound. Conversely, when I do buckle down and start to lose weight, those four or five pounds seem like such a small step that I can easily get discouraged and give up.

I’ve talked about this with Rita, who naturally has been supportive and wonderful, because she also lost her first husband to cancer. But the differences between our experiences defines where the guilt comes in for me.

Rita lost her husband after a long period of nursing and support as well. But when he died, she found herself taking care of a small child and trying to payoff the debt remaining on their dental practice. Life was a struggle for her that she had to overcome, so as her situation improved, she knew that she had earned it.

My situation was the opposite. After years of care-taking, suddenly I had no one to care for but myself. Our children were both adults and living out of the house. Worse, because of insurance and pensions I found myself suddenly without debt and with money in the bank. I was doing a job I no longer enjoyed, and that frankly I no longer needed to report to each day.

While Rita struggled for years before meeting her second husband, I found myself (much to my surprise, I assure you) in a relationship with the second great love of my life just six months later.

So yes, inside I know I’m just a fat whiny bastard who should shut up and enjoy his life. I know there’s no reason to punish myself with food and alcohol to get even for events that were totally out of my control. I know all this in my heart.

But the head is a tricky bitch. Let me stress I don’t feel sorry for myself; I feel disgusted with myself. I feel unworthy of the love and respect of anyone, including myself.

So that’s where I am, this jolly holiday season. The good news is I recognize my issues, and want to try and deal with them. I’m not afraid to seek help, as so many depressed people unfortunately are. I understand I owe it to myself and especially to Rita to be the well-adjusted, happy, and reliable husband she so richly deserves.

Who knows, maybe Christmas miracles do happen….

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If you or someone you know suffers from SAD or any other form of depression, don’t wait for them to “cheer up”. Help is available, and there is no shame in seeking it out. For SAD, here’s a link for more information and suggestions to cope: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad.htm

For general depression issues, this article https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/help-for-depression has information and lists of how to get help, including three hotlines.

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2 Comments

  • Thank you, Jim, for this well-articulated and poignant bit of memoir. This is a difficult time of the year for many people and it’s a time when we reflect on our mistakes and bad choices over the years, our shortcomings, and our disappointments. I, too, struggle to focus on the good things in life and the blessings we have.

    Maybe the secret is to just go with it, embrace it as honest feeling, and don’t let it get the best of you. Spring will be here before we know it…

  • Pam says:

    Enjoyed reading your Inca trail. An old highschool friend posted it a few years ago, I finally read it today. Now that I’m retired, I have time. I’m interested in exploring the world as you do, bit I’m single & have to wait until my working friends can join me. It’s easy to get in a funk, especially in January. I broke a toe & now have bronchitis, so I’m discouraged with my health & mental state. I have several trips planned but need to get in shape so I can enjoy them. I would think that living in Tennessee with all the delicious food & hot & humid weather, it would be hard to keep fit! Congratulations on accomplishing more than most in your retirement! Hang in there. Spring is soon.

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