What Finally Put an End to My Christmas Depression
It was a Thursday afternoon, December 17, 1964, when Mom died of a ruptured brain aneurysm. She was only 34. I was 14. My little brother Jerry’s seventh birthday was the day we saw our Mom laying in her silver casket at the funeral home. She was wearing a pretty blue dress and her hair was obviously done by someone who didn’t know how she usually wore it. Our baby brother, Randy, was barely 3. He reached out to Mom crying “Mommy,” as if she were just asleep.
Memories of Christmases’ past faded quickly that Christmas. Colored lights, a Christmas tree and Santa Claus were all fading images in a teenager’s mind. The four decades following Mom’s death were marked with a major depression each December, ruining the holiday for my wife and — after our divorce — for my partner.
Mental illness stigma in the 1960s was the same, if not worse, than it is today. My dad should have taken me to a psychologist or psychiatrist for treatment for my depression after Mom died, but in his mind “no son of mine will be called ‘crazy!’” Mom’s death was the loss of unconditional love. Her last words I overheard her tell the physician were, “Tell Tommy I forgive him.” It was in connection with property damage I caused in a juvenile prank with my friends. It drove up her blood pressure, which contributed to the burst aneurysm and took her life. Guilt haunted me for decades, as if the normal grief of a parent’s death wasn’t enough.
I was eventually treated for major depressions after graduate school, but it was the wrong diagnosis. Bipolar disorder ran in the family, but it was never acknowledged or treated because of fear of stigma. My untreated illness destroyed my marriage and ended by college teaching career. I got the diagnosis a year after my brother Jerry’s suicide. He, too, had bipolar, but was too ashamed and fearful of stigma reinforced by our dad to get professional help. Jerry was 35.
It was my grief over the sudden end of a long-term relationship that coincided with the 40th anniversary of Mom’s death. I met a grief counselor by chance. I never heard of that specialty in psychotherapy. Grief counselors aim to help people cope with grief, mourning the death of loved ones or with major life changes that trigger feelings of grief. He said he often advises his clients to write a letter to their diseased loved one. “Go somewhere to be alone,” he said, “read your letter aloud and then burn it.” I decided to try the ritual on December 17, 2004. I was 54.
Here’s an excerpt from that letter:
I’m so sorry I could not let go of my grief over your death. It was 40 years ago today, but each December I relive those days and it always leads me into a depression. Depression destroyed happy holidays with the mother of your grandchildren and undiagnosed and untreated mental illness eventually destroyed my marriage.
Please forgive me for holding on to my grief. You wouldn’t have wanted that. I heard you tell Dr. Hathcock to tell me you forgave me for the trouble I got into. Just before you slumped over the steering wheel in horrible pain after you picked me up from school that day, you said, “As long as I live I will never help you out of another mess like this!” I haven’t been able to forgive myself for that stupid decision I made when I was 13. I had to learn the hard way, as you always reminded me when I was a little boy. The lesson I finally learned at 54 is that the power of guilt is not in the failure of others to forgive me, but in my failure to forgive me.
Pacifica, California is a beach town just south of San Francisco on Highway 1 toward Half Moon Bay. I often went there to walk along the beach and up the side of a high cliff overlooking the ocean. I chose the top of that cliff as the place where I would read my letter to Mom. I cried as I read aloud the words I wrote, visualizing every moment of December 17, 1964, the saddest day of my life matched only by Jerry’s suicide. The wind off the ocean kept me from lighting my cigarette lighter. Fortunately, I had lit a cigar before climbing the cliff and used it to ignite the two-page letter. I watched the wind scatter the ashes into the bright December afternoon sky.
I never had another Christmas depression.
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