A Christmas to Remember: Hope for Bipolar in Unexpected Places

on December 21, 2021 2 comments
A Christmas to Remember: Hope for Bipolar in Unexpected Places

A Christmas to Remember

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen
Snow on snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter
Long, long ago.
Christina Rossetti 1872

Living with bipolar disorder can be a trying time during the sometimes-complicated holiday season, when everyone else seems to be in the festive spirit. For many of those with mental illness, there is often very little merrymaking to be had. In my case, Christmas cheer and bipolar disorder have been mutually exclusive, especially when my energy level has been so low, I haven’t showered or even changed my clothing in ten days. And the shelves in the fridge are barren except for a sad array of condiments.

The following story happened years ago when I’d been suffering from depression for six straight months without a moment of happiness.

“I’d been living in a world without sunshine or leaves.”

Those dark months of despair and self-loathing that stole my energy, spirit, and strength are thankfully long past now.

I feel comfortable saying I’m in recovery these days, given the length of time I’ve been stable. And although I’m still able to remember those bleak days with total recall, these memories no longer cause me any pain. That is the remarkable beauty and healing power of recovery.

snow

The stars of my story are the dedicated staff in psych wards who listen to patients’ woes and care for them with great compassion. Scattered over a 30-year period, I’ve been the recipient of many generous acts of kindness as an in-patient. There was hot chocolate at 3:00 am, night after night, when my problems seemed insurmountable, and sleep eluded me. The staff was always there to help me mend my tired mind—when they themselves were often tired—a mind that craved and needed sleep but only roared in the quietness of night.

The staff sees us stripped bare and accepts as we are: frightened, devoid of ego, status, possessions, or even hope.

They understand existential dread like I know how to breathe.

They are my heroes.

It was December and the city was in the throes of a cold spell. I was a patient at Venture, a small 20-bed mental health facility off Main Street in Vancouver, where I would find myself over the holiday season. I had stayed at Venture—close to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, notorious for its large homeless population—for four consecutive years, each time for depression and short stays of approximately four weeks. By December 24th, I had been there a few days and was filled with trepidation about the impending “season to be jolly” since all the joy had been sucked out of me months before.

I hadn’t yet earned overnight privileges, so I would be stuck at Venture on Christmas day. But it didn’t really matter much, as my life was in shambles. There would be no children greeting me upon my release since they had gone to live with their father permanently. No partner. No job. No nothing.

I felt alone in the throes of that malevolent depression like I never thought possible. Alone as in the last person standing. 

No one appeared to be that ill—compared to the seemingly sicker patients one sees in major hospital psych wards—as I looked around at the animated patients playing Name that Tune in the living room. Several of the patients appeared to be homeless, with drab and ill-fitting clothing, and a hygiene that was understandably lacking due to no access to private bathrooms. It was as if they had been living rough before arriving at this place of healing.

There never seems to be enough permanent housing for the homeless in Vancouver, and that month was no different. I remember thinking mental health professionals must have been working overtime to find these patients any type of bed in time for Christmas. It’s a harsh time of the year for this population, made harsher still by mental illness and inadequate clothing. There was also a windchill making it feel much colder than it really was.

There never seems to be enough permanent housing for the homeless in Vancouver, and that month was no different. I remember thinking mental health professionals must have been working overtime to find these patients any type of bed in time for Christmas. It’s a harsh time of the year for this population, made harsher still by mental illness and inadequate clothing. There was also a windchill making it feel much colder than it really was.

I went to bed thinking Christmas would be just another day: no family, no turkey, no presents. But I awoke to a gift only nature can provide, of quiet gentle snowflakes blanketing every imaginable surface five inches deep, with its simple message of peace and calm. East Vancouver had been transformed into the heavenly storybook land of Narnia overnight.

“East Vancouver had been transformed into the heavenly storybook land of Narnia overnight.”

Narnia

And in my tiny room there was a small Christmas gift bag sitting in the middle of the floor.

It was most unexpected. The staff had thought to make this day special even when Santa usually flies over places such as these without stopping. But that night Father Christmas had left me a present in the form of a shiny red gift bag. It was a simple gesture given in the true spirit of Christmas.

“I was surprised to experience a transitory moment of happiness given my wretched state. Mental illness was not able to rob me of this small pleasure any more than the Grinch was able to steal Christmas.”

It struck me that morning alone in my small spartan room, with a single bed and threadbare bedcover, that happiness wouldn’t have as much value if we experienced it all the time. Maybe happiness wasn’t a constant state. I’d always imagined it was, when I’d been living in a miserable state for months at a time, in the shadow of the sun. Perhaps happiness was a fleeting sensation. And if someone were lucky, they could have a few fleeting moments of happiness each day. Its impermanence makes us appreciate it even more.

I still remember the gifts more than a decade later: Cheap, turquoise fuzzy socks; a Starbucks’ gift card for $10; a jumbo chocolate bar; a pair of wool gloves; a red striped candy cane; and a small notepad and ballpoint pen. Thoughtful gifts for people who had nothing and needed gloves, socks and a cup of hot coffee to brave the uncharacteristic cold.

I started to cry.

gifts

I felt immensely humbled and enormously grateful that the staff had thought of us on what was far from a stereotypical Christmas. They knew this day would impact patients profoundly, triggering melancholy thoughts of not being with our loved ones. This small gift had meant so much to me.

I made my way downstairs only to be greeted by the smells of bacon and cooked breakfasts wafting up from the dining room, instead of the regular offering of dry cereal and toast, and an unexpected newfound energy about the place. The huge snowfall had buoyed our spirits—if only briefly. Everyone was talking about it–even those who had not been talking much.

At dinner I was able to secure a seat at a table with two men who knew each other from Riverview, a massive mental health facility that had been shuttered years before.

They were both much older than me, and in very poor shape physically, with that faraway look as if they’d taken refuge in their minds many years before. As we spoke, it quickly became apparent they’d lost so much more than me.

We all have the same dreams and aspirations in life for ourselves and our children, no matter what our mental state: to have health and happiness without suffering.

We all have the same dreams and aspirations in life for ourselves and our children, no matter what our mental state: to have health and happiness without suffering. Unfortunately, not everyone obtains these. They had experienced huge life-altering losses, firsthand, giving them a deep understanding that life is a series of stages–not all of them good– and, despite all this, they still managed to be quite amiable.

That evening it occurred to me that some people, like these two men, manage to find happiness in the smallest of places, or challenging circumstances, even when there is sometimes little to be happy about.

“Maybe I had to recognize happiness a little bit more in the future as sometimes I couldn’t see it when feeling so low.”

I was starting to realize depression had a lot to do with the perception I had of myself and the world around me. I had developed a pervasive negative view over the years. I was guilty of distorting my reality by viewing my life as a parched landscape with cracks in the soil where nothing ever grew.

I’d known for two decades that I could make the highs higher by what I did, felt and thought. It was blatantly obvious after a night of unrestrained sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Could I also make the lows lower through my thoughts, feelings and behaviours? It appeared so.

It was slowly dawning on me that bipolar disorder wasn’t something that solely happened to me but was something much more nuanced that happened with me.

“Because I played an active role in influencing and reinforcing my moods on either end of the spectrum—whether I liked it or not.”

In A Christmas Carol Scrooge was able to grasp—with the aid of The Ghost of Christmas Present—that Bob Cratchit and his family were undeniably happy, even when battling extreme poverty. What type of apparition would it take for me to recognize richness in my life however small?

At dinner, we had a traditional Christmas banquet replete with crackers, with carols playing gently in the background. And there was plum pudding if anyone had the room.

It was one of my lovelier Christmases despite all the anticipatory dread of the previous few days. As I looked around the dining room, all 20 of us were wearing our brand-new, turquoise fuzzy socks. A simple pleasure even I was able to recognize in my depressed state. And as a result, I was warmed by a fleeting bit of happiness for the second time that day.

I’d been more open to the notion of happiness during my few days at Venture than I had been in years—perhaps ever. It was virtually the last place I would have gone looking for it, but there it was.

It had done me good to be amongst those less fortunate than me because there had been many times when I thought I was at the very, very bottom of the slush pile.

Devalued, disregarded, dumped.

I was able to see this wasn’t entirely true. Depression can cause a change in thinking, altering perceptions; being at Venture over Christmas had given me new perspective. I realized it was me, and only me, who could change my pessimistic way of thinking.

And I told my negative inner voice to shut up. I had listened to it for far too long—longer than I had ever listened to anyone in my entire life. It was supercritical, mean-spirited and unforgiving.

As I lay in bed that night, I was psyched by my new attitude and, for the first time, could envision a small seedling taking hold in the parched landscape that had become my life.


More Blog Posts by Louise
A picture of Louise in a blazer and dress pants in front of a navy blue background. She is Caucasian and has shoulder-length grey hair. She is smiling.
A Bipolar Story
Louise’s first blog post is an authentic, heartfelt reflection on what it means to learn to live well with bipolar disorder.
Louise is standing with her two adult children. On the left is her daughter Kiki, with long dark hair. Louise is in the middle and has shoulder-length grey in a half-up style. On the right is her son John who is tall with brown hair and a beard. They are all Caucasian.
Hope and Redemption: Family and Bipolar Disorder
Louise’s next post is a story of reunification with her kids after challenges from bipolar disorder.

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2 Comments on “A Christmas to Remember: Hope for Bipolar in Unexpected Places”

  1. This is an encouraging article of transformation and hope. Amid the sadness there is something good and a spark of happiness if we look around for a pearl hidden within.

  2. A heartfelt and authentic view into the lives of those struggling with mental health issues. One of hope and salvation amid oftentimes insurmountable challenges.

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