Our Christmas Eve Story

Christmas EveChristmas Eve 1989 was our first without our mother. The tree was up. The presents were wrapped. But there was a deep sense of melancholy in the house. Nothing felt the same.

I was 17, and I didn’t expect things to feel the same. Nothing had felt the same for the past seven months. Our entire lives had been turned upside down, and we were still trying to find our way through the chaos. Christmas was no different.

My sister and I had long stopped believing in Santa Claus. And, indeed, there was only one thing we wished for that Christmas — one thing that could never been found under a tree.

We wanted our mother back.

We missed her at Christmas more than ever. Because she was the center of our family celebrations, just like she was the center of our world. Everything felt wrong without her. Not just because she wasn’t there. It was the little things we never realized she did.

I spotted one such thing on my way down the stairs on Christmas Eve. I could see our three stockings hanging over the fireplace — one less than last year. Two of the three were already fat with secrets. The third hung limp. My father filled our stockings, but he didn’t bother to fill his own. I realized that he had probably hadn’t filled his own stocking for at least 21 years. It was one of the little things we never noticed.

“Come here,” I called to my sister, my voice urgent.

“What?” she replied, already annoyed at my tone.

“Look!” I pointed. “We’ve got to fix that.”

She stared at the limp stocking for a moment. She looked back at me with her mouth slightly open.

“Let’s go,” she said.

I grabbed the car keys and shouted at my dad that we’d be back. We headed out at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, desperate to find a store that was open.

How could we not have thought about this? And, indeed, at the same time, how could we have known? It mattered more that we fixed it. We were on a mission. This was one small thing we could make — well, not right. But not as wrong.

It was not going to be easy. We lived in a small town. It was late. Shopping was limited at the best of times. On Christmas Eve at 9 p.m. in the 1980s, everything was closed. Kmart. Albertsons. Vons. Thriftys. Sav-On. Everything, it seemed, except the mini-mart at the gas station.

Thrilled when we saw the lights and the customers at the pumps, we headed for the aisles of candy, nuts and snacks. We piled things on the counter — Corn Nuts, Necco Wafers, Tootsie Rolls, candy canes and little treats we knew our father liked.

Pleased with ourselves, we smiled at each other when Dad saw his stocking the next morning. He probably had more junk food in that thing than he could eat all year.

We still felt the presence of loss more than anything else that day. I can’t remember a single gift I got or anything we did. But I do remember that mini-mart and the smell of gasoline and the little thrill I got when I saw the tub of Corn Nuts, 3 for $1.

And I remember laughing with my sister. And my father’s look of surprise. And a stocking so full, it couldn’t hang from the mantel.

And that made a truly terrible Christmas just a little bit more bearable.

For those of you who are experiencing loss this Christmas, I wish you one small moment like this one.

And a bag of Corn Nuts from the gas station too.

Early Detection in Mental Illness — Thoughts about John Lennon’s Death 30 Years Later

Lately I’ve been thinking about early treatment and mental illness. When we talk about cancer, we say, “Early detection is the key.” What about early detection for the mentally ill? I recently heard a psychologist arguing on the radio that the field’s focus should include avoiding initial breakdowns, especially in teenagers. Just as early detection and treatment improves the possibility of survival and allows for less invasive treatment in cancer, so does early detection in mental illness avoid changes in brain chemistry and debilitating treatments. 

This requires that we teach people, particularly young people, how to recognize symptoms of mental illness in themselves. And our system needs to be prepared to help people before they’re in dire straits. People need to be able to say, “I haven’t had a breakdown, but I’m heading that way and I need help,” and then get the help they need.

Today this seems especially poignant. Thirty years ago Mark David Chapman had a psychotic break and murdered John Lennon. Chapman’s history of difficulty with conflict, expressing his feelings, and drug use as a teenager are basic indicators for someone who may struggle with mental illness, although drug use can be a sign of a teenager sensing his or her instability and attempting to self-medicate. If other people had been following him closer, or if Mark Chapman had been taught to monitor himself, to ask for help, would John Lennon be alive today?

Has access to care and self-awareness changed in 30 years? Will it change 30 years from now?

Military Condolence Letters, but not for Suicide Survivors

Here’s another surprise: the president doesn’t send condolence letters to families of soldiers who’ve committed suicide. According to cnn.com, a review of this policy is to conclude “shortly.”

I hope that’s true and that the Obama administration changes this policy. Such a practice adds to the stigma of suicide. I’m trying to be charitable and try to imagine why such a policy would exist in the first place. After all, I imagine that these condolence letters, as kindly written as they may be, are probably form letters. Perhaps it’s harder to write a form letter about a suicide. Also, I can see how it may seem that a soldier who is killed in combat, by enemy fire, may seem to have made a greater sacrifice. But with the extreme burden our soldiers are under currently, what with back-to-back tours, extended tours, etc., who is to say that they’re not making an extreme mental and emotional sacrifice? I would not be surprised to find out that such situations make soldiers all the more fragile, mentally and emotionally.

May the Obama administration recognize this, and recognize the families whose loved ones have taken their lives while serving our country.

Welcome to Families of the Mentally Ill

We started this site as an Internet resource for the families of people with a mental illness. Our mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1980s at age 45. Armed with only her nursing textbooks and some terms we picked up at the numerous doctors visits, our family tried to navigate the medical care system and my mother’s illness. Sadly, she committed suicide several months later. Michelle was 17. Denise was 14.

While progress has been made over the past 20 years, we feel like our nation is very behind in understanding and treating mental illness. We are not medical doctors, psychologists or social workers. We are just two people who loved someone who had a disease. We dedicate this site in memory of our mother, and we hope to offer a way to support other families who are going through similar ordeals.