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Why the Question 'What Does Everyone Want for Christmas?' Hurt So Much

“What does everyone want for Christmas?”

We were seated, ready to start the birthday dinner at a fine restaurant. December 2nd, and my niece had just turned 17. She’s an amazing, young woman who has seen her own share of adversity, but this isn’t her story, it’s a moment of mine.

As a family, those of us present at this special occasion, my mother, sister, brother-in-law, niece and dear aunt, have covered quite the collection of struggles. We know the gritty details of one another’s most decadent atrocities. We love each other through it all. Unconditional love is the greatest gift we have ever given one another.

It’s surprising, the questions that will bring tears to one’s eyes. My sister asked, “What does everyone want for Christmas,” out of the goodness and love she possesses. It’s one of the best parts of the holiday season — thinking about special people in our lives, and what unique thing we could put together to light them up, and in so doing, give us joy as well.

Still, my sister’s question tore at the fabric of my mind and sent my emotions tumbling. It hurt, both in its goodness, and in what it meant for me. I was being selfish. I was thinking how I could afford to give little but unconditional love. Yes, I just typed that, “little but unconditional love,” the aforementioned “greatest gift” of being in my family. It’s hypocritical that I would ask nothing more than love from anyone, and consider it worthy of many gifts in return, but have such a hard time accepting a gift that costs a few dollars from those whom I have loved in such a fashion myself.

My disability, and the resulting periods of inability to work, sometimes prohibit me from buying Kleenex, because it’s a luxury item, sinus infection or not. Panic often sets in because I’m encouraged to eat three meals a day by the doctor, but can only really afford one, if that. When I have to ask a friend if they can help me out with some tampons because I can’t afford the tampons and the multi-vitamin my doctor suggested to counteract the harsh side-effects the medications used to save my life, which take a toll on my body. When I contemplate selling myself, because I don’t have anything else left to sell, and my cat needs a prescription food or an emergency medical procedure.

It’s devastating that disability law ensures me the right to have pets, which are vital to my emotional stability, while SSDI, disability income, seems to say, “Go ahead and have your essential fur-companion, but be ready to not have quarters for laundry, or laundry detergent, if you want to feed them.” There are many who have it far worse than I, most people who live on disability really have heard that… enough, and do know it, as well as appreciate what we are given. It just seems sad that society is willing to support the disabled, but don’t appear to believe the disabled should get the luxury of feminine protection products, clean clothes, well-cared for pets or to buy a few Christmas presents for family.

I’m getting ahead of myself, and rather off topic. This is not a story about political or economic change. I’m afraid tangential is a forever hallmark of the way my disease manifests, so bear with me, I swear there’s a point coming in this hyper-talkative menagerie. Let me tell you what my reply to my sister’s question was: “I want to understand the space-time continuum.”

It wasn’t a lie. When I was in college and manic, before I really started complying with medical advice and treating the bipolar, the mania had me convinced I had mastered the space-time continuum in a way that was revolutionary. I filled 20-plus pages of a notebook in a few hours with the keys to that subject, though I had never done any research on it. I later discovered that, though there were some intriguing ideas contained in those pages, I had, in fact, been deceived in my brilliance by the euphoria and delusions of mania — once again. Mania likes it when I believe its grandiosity because then I’ll sacrifice sleep, diet, medication, treatment and more importantly, balance, in order to fuel it. Mania would like me to believe that its fantasies are realities, and if I follow them to the brink of insanity, for the sake of genius of course, it won’t kill me. It’s a biochemical deception at its peak.

Deep down the truth is that I gave my sister an answer to her question I hoped would communicate my desire not to get anything for Christmas, because I am unable to give anything in return. I had sent a text to her, my mother and my aunt a week earlier, admitting with shame I would be unable to contribute in that way this Christmas. The text did not say they could not buy me gifts, but I implored them not too. I was afraid they would. I said I would still love to be around as they exchange gifts, because I love all the glow of the spirit of this holiday, but I wouldn’t even be able to afford, in funds or energy, to make a homemade craft. Their love was gift enough for me! It is only in writing this that I realize the selfishness of wanting to deny those who are able the chance to watch someone they love unwrap a gift they dearly wanted to get for them.

In my mind I thought my reply a way of evading receiving without being able to reciprocate equally. The look on my sister’s face after I answered her question, well, I won’t make assumptions about what she made of my comment. She’s very bright, though and she knows me well, let’s just leave it at that. In the end it was my brother-in-law who challenged my selfishness and depression in a way that startled me awake. In reply to, “I want to understand the space-time continuum” for Christmas, he said, “So you want books. Lots of books.”

It was a witty reply, and humorous, as wit often is. It shot a bullet through my mistaken armor of shame dressed up as self-sacrifice. In the end I was proliferating tit-for-tat thinking, one of the greatest ills of modern society. It took a simple response not aimed at any particular goal, just honest to goodness candor, to wake me up. It changed my entire outlook. It changed how I perceived my sister’s expression. It made me smile, and laugh, and remember reality through the oppressive conditioning of leading a life with inherent societal stigma.

We watch Christmas movies all the time about financial strain, the ills of greed, the “joy” of being poor and of accepting the support of others. The pauper’s life can be immeasurably full and deep. However, it can be extremely hard to be the pauper more times than not. If you are the disabled this may be true for you. If you are consistently the one praying to be able to give as much as you get, pleading with the universe not to have to be a burden, or a hindrance—well it can make accepting a gift feel like a punishment, or the pointing out of a flaw you feel you must have, regardless of how much you give when you are able.

Spreading out need, when need is your humble lot in life, is important. Worrying you ask too much of people is an hourly acceptance. How to evenly request financial, medical and emotional support is part of the professional patient’s resume. Doing so with dignity is even harder. It’s why we need to have as large a support network as possible, but still, it tends to be a small group who we rely on most. The greatest fear is that we, or maybe I should just say I and own it…  am a burden too great for any. That my contributions do not measure up to the support and gifts I am given. The synthesis there of the lump in the throat moments when I have nothing to give, but still, my humble lot in life of having a disability and needing a village, is no less present than it was in the good moments when I was able to excitedly offer my own presents in various form.

The truth is, “The Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas,” heck even “Christmas with the Kranks” are about the beauty that happens when we throw out tit-for-tat and watch the beauty of the human spirit, ill or not, despondent or suicidal, enervated or lost, pour down like rain through a freezing sky until it is a stunning white wonderland of human connection.

I may never understand the space-time continuum. I may never finish the degree that, at 36, I still haven’t accomplished because of a disease that has caused me to spend more than one holiday at a hospital dining room table. With over 30 hospitalizations, some of the nurses at the hospital are a part of my village now, and I’ve learned to appreciate that. I may not be able to bear children because it could destabilize the bipolar I to a point where I could die from the suicidal nature of hormonal imbalance colliding with the disorder. There are a lot of “I may nevers”… but… I will recover from the suicide attempt I had this past June, my first since age 19, when I finally accepted my illness and started to flourish within it. Started to see it as an attribute. See what it has enabled me to learn, and the people I have been able to help because of it. I will share my voice. I will survive; because that is the greatest gift I can give my family, and my indelible spirit!

I am a gift. You are a gift. And I can be selfless enough to let people love me in many forms. I can face the fear of questions like, “What does everyone want for Christmas?” I could even read some books on the space-time continuum. I can do a lot, but we, my we, my village…we can do way more with less tit-for-tat on my part.

If you think this account a little opinionated, self-pitying, corny or sentimental, I am sorry. Of all the disgusts in the world, the idea of not being substantial, independent, intelligent or prophetic seems a pretty common fear for many people I have come to know who have bipolar. The truth is, life is heartwarming. Life is for those who struggle for optimism. For people who want to understand all those seemingly insurmountable intellectual subjects, and achieve their own genius at it, but who also cry at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The greatest gift my illness has given me is the appreciation of oppositional, but co-occurring, states or truths — the biggest of these being the head and the heart.

I think I may know what I want for Christmas now. What do you want for Christmas?

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock via vladans