This month, there are a lot of “service pieces” in magazines and newspapers with helpful advice about how to not be sad at the holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah. These well-meaning columns have suggestions on how to change our moods and move away from sadness. However, I have a theory that having feelings that match reality is mental health, not mental illness.There are many books written about mental illness, and there is very little written about mental health. My favorite definition of mental health is this: “An unflinching dedication to reality.” If I think I’m just a heavy drinker, I’m out of touch with reality, because I’m an alcoholic. I need to know what is real, so I can successfully adapt to it.
I used to be sad at Christmas, and then I got over it. Suddenly, the sadness is back. I was sad at Christmas, because I came from a crazy, violent, alcoholic household as a child, and Christmas was one of the most dangerous times. I always got hurt at Christmas. We lived in New York City, and the New York World Telegram and Sun, the afternoon newspaper, had a little box on the front page, counting down the shopping days left until Christmas. To me, that little box felt like a death row count down, leading to my own execution on Christmas Day. The violence was that terrifying.
I have been in a loving marriage with Priscilla for forty-two Christmases, and our daughters grew up with charming and happy Christmas days, which we provided them. They have children of their own, and our grandchildren also grew up without fear. I was dying inside for many of those happy Christmas mornings, but I did my very best to hide it from them, and in time all my own fear went away. I finally welcomed Christmas day.
Recently I went to my doctor with a concern. I have bruising on my right leg, without any injury. Nothing has happened to me, but I’m all bruised and puffy. My doctor is at Health Partners, and she is very thorough. She tested my blood, and it’s fine. Not too thick, not too thin. I passed twelve blood tests. She sent me for an ultrasound to detect blood clots. There aren’t any, which is good news, because clots are dangerous. We still needed an explanation.
I told her a story, that from ages 8 to 11, I was frequently beaten on that leg and in that region with wooden boards until I passed out from the pain. Could it be, I asked, that the leg tissues themselves just aren’t very robust? That leg hurts, is puffy, and bruises easily, and the other leg is intact. The bruised leg is the one that was badly beaten, and the other one wasn’t. She agreed that this was probably the cause.
The good news is that the situation is not dangerous. The tissues just aren’t robust. It just looks bad, and it aches. It feels bad, it can be hard to walk on, and I feel sad, because it is sad.
In 1984, I began psychotherapy because I was suicidal and had no memories of childhood. I suspected that there was something bad there, but I could not remember. I asked God to help me remember something from my childhood. The next morning, right on the top of my pile of socks in my dresser, was a single colored photo slide my father had taken of me, from my 18 month birthday. I had never seen the slide before, and I have no idea where it came from. I had the slide blown up to a photo. In the picture, I was in a high chair, with a pot of chocolate frosting. Even so, I looked immensely sad. At 18 months old, I already had bruises on my legs. God gave me that photo, to begin my journey of remembering and recovery from abuse.
Sadness does not need treatment, and it does not need cheering up. When I’m done feeling sad, I’ll feel something else. I’ll be sober, which is the most important thing. So will you. I wish us all a Christmas, Hanukah, or holiday filled with God’s love.
John MacDougall is the Spiritual Care Coordinator at The Retreat
His book, “Being Sober and Becoming Happy” is available from Amazon.com