Last year, I went with a friend to the Great Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition here in Seattle, and I blogged about it. I had a wonderful time. But beneath the surface, I was feeling this great, yawning, howling, aching chasm of loneliness.
While I spent most of the holidays bravely stuffing that down and trying not to let it overwhelm me, it was a very near thing. Sometimes I could feel it surging upward, and I knew that if I let it take over, I’d probably lose my battle with depression and start howling or something.
Even so, Figgy Pudding is a wonderful event, and I decided to make it part of my Christmas tradition. I went again this year with my husband. As we stood there, listening to the carolers beneath the glow of the huge Christmas tree, what I felt was joy. No physically painful ache in the pit of my stomach. No feeling of being on the verge of hysteria. Just contentment. What a gift this man is in my life. He’s all I need for Christmas.
And then I looked around at the crowd, and I realized that no one who looked at me this year or last would have known my state of mind. I’m sure there was a lot of joy in the crowd, but also a lot of longing for companionship. A lot of pervasive emotional pain. The fact that it often looks one and the same is a bit troubling.
I’m not saying that everyone in the whole world must walk about two by two in order to be happy. Some people are perfectly satisfied being alone. I know I felt that way for quite some time. Some people who are in relationships are even more lonely than their single friends, and that’s got to be even more emotionally excruciating.
I just find it kind of enlightening to realize that there’s really no way to know what’s going on beneath the surface unless you talk to someone. We need to communicate more. We need to put down our devices and actually connect.
And to those of you who are swirling in that deep dark pit of loneliness that I used to know all too well, I just want to say that it may feel like that’s your forever, but keep reaching out. You never know when someone will take your outstretched hand, and that changes everything. I’m living proof of that.
I could never live in one of those housing developments where all the houses look exactly the same. They are devoid of personality. It would feel like living in a storage facility to me. A place where people are warehoused. Communities like that have no soul.
Have you ever noticed that some neighborhoods seem more lonely than others? In some places, you see no one out on the sidewalks. Even the cars disappear into their own little garages, and don’t emerge again until it’s time to take someone to work or school. It’s positively dreary.
I prefer more vibrant neighborhoods, where everyone gets to be unique and has a reason to get out and mingle. I finally figured out what makes these places different. It’s completely a matter of zoning.
If you have small businesses mixed in with the housing, people are more apt to know their neighbors. They also get to know the people running the businesses. You eat at the local café. You walk to the library and the corner store. There are playgrounds for the children. People know each other’s dogs by name.
I think that neighborhoods that are all business or all residential are a blight on the landscape. They do not speak to the most basic human need to interact. We already have too much temptation to hide in our houses and stare at our televisions. We need incentive to get out there and engage with one another. Without that, we have even more reason to be polarized.
If a study hasn’t been done already, I think someone should look into the rate of depression as it correlates to the type of neighborhood in which one lives. I think the results would be quite interesting. In the meantime, I think more city zoning commissions should take actual human beings into account when planning livable spaces.
I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Leo Kottke in concert the other day at a lovely little venue in Seattle called Demetriou’s Jazz Alley. I’ve written about Kottke before. He’s a supreme talent. I highly recommend that you see him if given the opportunity.
He intersperses his amazing music with stories that are often every bit as good. On this night, though, he said something that kind of made me sad. I’m paraphrasing here, but he mentioned that he tours alone and he lives alone, so talking to us is really his only social life.
He was half joking. But the man is 73 years old. The thought of that level of loneliness is kind of heartbreaking.
That got me thinking. There’s really nothing that corelates with loneliness. You certainly can’t tell by looking at a person. Kottke is talented, active, still touring. He’s led a successful life. None of that staves off loneliness.
You can be rich or poor, young or old, famous or unknown, smart or stupid, kind or cruel… and yet none of that prevents or encourages loneliness. It’s like there’s no real way to thwart it. There’s no loneliness vaccine.
You can do your best to spend time with other people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll befriend you. You can be active in your community, but that doesn’t mean anyone will want to spend time with you. You can dedicate your life to caring for others, but still, there’s no guarantee that anyone will care for you.
A lot of people are lonely in a crowd. So loneliness doesn’t even corelate with isolation. Loneliness stands alone. That’s scary as hell, if you ask me.
What’s the special sauce that prevents loneliness? I haven’t a clue. I’d love to hear your thoughts. The only thing I know is that we need to reach out to one another. We really do.
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Sooner or later, every train engineer will have someone step in front of his or her train as a way to permanently solve a temporary problem. That must be a heartbreaking experience. You want to stop, but you know you can’t. I suspect that all you can really do is close your eyes, swallow really hard, and get ready to fill out a boatload of paperwork.
No doubt this sometimes happens to bus drivers as well. And I’m sure ferry captains have their fair share of jumpers, just as we bridgetenders do. I can’t even imagine what first responders deal with on a daily basis. It’s a part of these jobs that no one wants to talk about. Helpless Stress.
It’s that feeling of being completely out of control. It’s that desire to save someone, and not being able to do so. It messes with your head. It’s the kind of vicarious trauma that people don’t quite understand until they’ve experienced it themselves.
The most frustrating thing about it is you know you’ve been through something big, but you’re not physically hurt. Nothing shows. Your wounds are on the inside, where no one can see them. So your friends and loved ones often expect you to “snap out of it.”
If you have experienced helpless stress, I urge you to take it seriously. Talk to a professional; someone with experience in crisis or grief counseling. Don’t try to simply power through. What happened is not your fault, but if you choose to not cope with it, that can compound the problem.
You’re not alone. Help is out there. Please seek it out.
When you make plans for the future, you’re demonstrating a delightful amount of optimism. Because life is fragile. It can pop like a soap bubble at any time. I’ve seen that happen more than once.
John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”
Sorry, John. You know I love you. But I disagree. I think life is making plans. The alternative, making no plans at all, or sitting back and letting the world kind of wash over you, is a form of death.
We are not meant to live like moss on a tree. The fact that we feel the need for religion shows that we struggle with accepting fate. I don’t think we are meant to be so accepting. We are meant to be the architects of our own lives.
Plans give you purpose. Purpose is what makes life worth living. I find the best antidote for depression is having something to look forward to.
Even more evidence of optimism is making plans with someone. It says, “We’re in this for the long haul.” “I have great expectations for us.” “You are the person I want to spend time with.” “I have faith in our relationship.”
The only thing I can think of that’s better than anticipating your future is anticipating your future while holding someone’s hand.
The other morning, I went into the kitchen to fix some breakfast for me and my dog, and the entire room was full of rainbows. It didn’t last long, and no, I wasn’t hallucinating. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Diamond-like drops of water were hanging down from the awning outside my window, and the sun was out for a change, and at the perfect angle to cast its light through those drops, causing the rainbows. The mirror in the kitchen also happened to multiply them. I stood there for a moment, embraced by color, thinking how wonderful it is to be alive. What a wonderful life I’ve had and am still having!
Afterward, while poaching an egg, I wondered if my loved ones know I feel that way. You see, I do struggle with depression. I have done so my entire life. I suspect I’m better at hiding that from strangers than I am from the people who are closest to me. I can see how it would be easy to assume I lead a joyless existence.
That’s the beauty of having a blog. You get to put your thoughts and feelings out there for all to see. So, in the event I’m run over by a bus tomorrow, here, for the record, is how I feel about my life.
On the whole, I try to look at every day as a precious gift. I’ve been given ample opportunity to learn and to travel and to experience amazing things. I’ve loved a lot of people, and I’ve been loved in return. I’ve had quite a bit of good luck, having been born in a relatively free country with relatively good opportunities, at a time in this nation’s history when women have had relatively few restrictions, and I have cherished that independence.
If anything, I’ve eaten too well. I’ve mostly experienced decent shelter. I have taken advantage of the brain that I was born with. Even in my darkest hours (and there have been plenty of those), I have never forgotten that most people are far less fortunate than I have been, and I try not to forget that I’ve done very little to deserve this privilege.
There have been enough unexpected rainbows in my life to make me feel grateful. I am, right here and now, happy with how my life has turned out, and excited about what’s to come. Because of that, I fully intend to look both ways before stepping into any bus lanes. I hope you will do the same, dear reader.
In A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, Scrooge utters a line that I’ll never forget: “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” As detestable as Scrooge may be at first, that sentiment has always made sense to me. Christmas should never be forced upon anyone.
Part of the reason that I see a spike in jumpers at my drawbridge at this time of year is that when you’re depressed, being told that you’re supposed to be merry simply because it’s that time of the year is, well… depressing. It’s almost as if you have to bear an additional burden of guilt during this season, because you’re not feeling all Joy to the World.
And people seem to forget that there are as many ways to celebrate the holiday as there are celebrants. Some people are extremely devout and focus on that aspect of the holiday. Others are secular and celebrate mainly due to family tradition. Some people go all out, filing their yards with a million lights, synchronized to music, and buying gifts for even the most distant of relatives. Others are very quiet and discrete in their observance of the day. Some don’t celebrate Christmas at all. Everyone has a right to keep Christmas (or not keep it, for that matter) in their own way.
I must confess that for a few years, there, I wasn’t really keeping Christmas at all. When Chuck, the love of my life, died in 2014, I just couldn’t find it within me to even acknowledge the day, really. I didn’t put up a tree. I didn’t exchange gifts or go to any holiday events. In fact, I basically did my best each year to keep my head down and pretend the holiday didn’t exist.
Since I’m not a Christian, my Christmas focus has always been about love and family and warmth and togetherness. And suddenly I found myself all alone. I really didn’t see the point in even trying to go through the motions, when that tsunami of grief was liable to wash over me at even the most unexpected of times. I wandered through an emotional wasteland, where all the mistletoe had long-since withered.
This year, though, I’m starting to slowly lift my head and come out amongst the living again. I’ve attended a lot of holiday events both alone and with friends. And while I still can’t justify the expense and effort of putting up a tree and decorating it when I’d surely be the only one to see it, I did decide to decorate in my own special way. The first step was taking my Christmas box out of mothballs.
I pulled out my Christmas lights, and affixed them to my bedroom wall in the shape of a (decidedly abstract) tree. (Those Command removable hooks are one of life’s great inventions.) I replaced those lights that had burned out, and that process made me reflect on the passage of time.
Decorating was a bittersweet experience. I realized that on some level I had really missed my Christmas ornaments. They’re almost like family members that I had been neglecting. Each one has a story. There was the Nisse that my grandmother brought from Denmark. There were the many ornaments my mother made for me, and some that I made as a child. Many are keepsakes that I got during various vacations, which brought back happy memories. Some were gifts from friends. I chose a few of my favorite ornaments to hang on my abstract wall tree, and I must say, they made me smile.
And then, like a blade through my heart, I came across this ornament that I had made for Chuck. I had forgotten all about it. I held it in my hand and tried not to cry. But I decided to hang it anyway, because he will always be a part of me.
Another hard moment: Deeper in my Christmas box I came across the stocking that I had cross stitched for Chuck. I can’t remember if I ever had the opportunity to fill it for him. We only had 4 years together, and I don’t know when I made it. But I decided to hang it on my mantel so that the stocking I made for myself wouldn’t look quite so lonely. (I haven’t had a mantel since 2010, so it seemed worth decorating. Nice to use it for something more than a place to show off my book, which incidentally, makes a great gift. Just sayin’.)
After I finished decorating, I looked around, and felt rather proud of myself. Yes, I’m still alone. Yes there were tears in this process. There will probably always be tears. But I’m home. It feels like home.
To celebrate, I participated in one more tried-and-true holiday tradition: The annual humiliation of the uncooperative dog.