Episode 21: The Holiday

Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s get naked about mental health!

Everybody has a holiday special. Even the most ridiculous shows on television have a holiday special. I decided to have one as well.

I think I came up with a pretty awesome title. Let’s get naked about mental health! The Depressive’s Holiday Special. Brought to you, in part, I think, by Sir Isaac Newton.

Beginning at Thanksgiving is an especially rough time for me. And for many. The holidays create a unique kind of conflict. I think it has to do with the nature of the holidays combined with Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Tis the season of joy! Of family and friends, of giving. It amplifies the depression to an equal extent. I don’t understand why and the hell if I know what to do about it.

Before getting into the episode, the important stuff: I just want to remind everybody that I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or any kind of professional with an –ist at the end of their title. I am just a guy who has been there.

If you are in crisis, or know somebody who is, I implore you to reach out to a professional. In the United States, there is now a national hotline you can call or text. 988.

I’ll repeat that because it bears repeating. If you or someone you know is in crisis, I implore you to reach out to a professional. Dialing or texting 988 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

Aye, I’m okay. I’m fine. I’m dealing with stuff but, this time, I am sincere about it. I really am okay. I really am fine. I have my dog, Dani, and everything that I need. I have my books, my movies, and my coffee. I even have a home waiting for me.

I both love and hate the posts on Facebook. Hate is too strong of a word. It is not the right word. What is the word? It has something to do with seeing the pictures of family and friends gathered and they trigger me, so I try to avoid them. Kind of. It’s complicated.

I am truly happy to see your joy. I want to see your joy, especially the joy of the little ones. It is the little ones that make the holidays for me. I feel blessed that you share them on Facebook.

There are no little ones in my life anymore. There is no immediate family, and the holidays became an ugly thing for me, filled with stress, anxiety and became a time of the year that I just wanted to make it through. I’d breathe a sigh of relief on January 2nd, when life would return to normal. I couldn’t wait to tear down the decorations and put them away.

The holidays become a tightwire act for me, teetering between joy and depression. I try. It is a very unique conflict for me, one that I do not know how to deal with or what to do about it. The best I have been able to come up with so far is to withdraw, isolate. Like I said, I really am fine. I have my dog now, my books, my movies. And I wait for January 2nd.

All I really ask of you is not to take it personally and give me my space while I figure it out. It may take a couple decades.

How do I describe it? It started much simpler. Thanksgiving. Where do I go? With divorced parents, I was torn. I loved both sets of my parents and stepparents. A fracture began to form a long time ago. It grew over time and did not improve when I had my own family.

Thanksgiving began a time of extra stress. I enjoyed being with family, but I had to push away the stress and conflict to do so. That got even worse after my separation. Everybody invited me over. I had offers everywhere. Every place that I went, though, I felt as if I was bringing that internal conflict in with me. I felt as if I was a boiling pot on the inside with the lid on while enjoying time with people, but the pressure would build and build. The last thing I wanted was for it to burst out and be inflicted on the people who had invited me.

Finances have not helped either. “Just bring yourself,” I’m told. I know that is all they want and expect. But I expect more of me and I just can’t, which adds a layer of guilt to everything.

Then, we get into Christmas.

I’m sorry, but I truly abhor Christmas. I hate it. I have for many years now. I started liking it again when I got married but quickly began hating it even more. It is for many of the same reasons as Thanksgiving, but there is more to it.

Just 34 more days until January 2!

Bah humbug? Maybe if there was a little Suzie Whosit in my life, and little ones, it would be different. A little bit at least.

Christmas was always a stressful time. Working in the orthodontic laboratory industry, that stress was compounded. December is always a big month, and four busy weeks’ worth of work is done in three. That means long hours while you are preparing everything for Christmas day.

A very long time ago, I stopped being upset about it. Aye, it was money coming in and I knew there was a week off coming up. I told myself it was worth it.

During all of this, there is an entire day spent putting up decorations, hours spent trying to figure out why the lights aren’t working, and then there is the shopping.

I hate shopping to begin with. I don’t like crowds. During the holidays, there is a something like a dark vortex pulling me into the pit of hell: the mall.

I did figure out a way around the shopping thing. A trick I learned. A secret. Nobody believes me though. I’d go to the King of Prussia Mall, one of the largest in America. I’d go the Sunday before Christmas, an hour before they opened. Seriously.

I would get a front row parking spot that would allow me easy egress. The mall was closed, but the restaurants were open. I’d order myself some breakfast and a Bloody Mary, or two, for fortitude. I’d be finishing the second Bloody Mary when the mall would open, and I’d be in the doors.

It was always empty. I’d finish my shopping as the crowds began to make their way in. I’d see the long lines of cars waiting to get into the mall as I was leaving. With my credit card whimpering in my wallet.

I joke and say that we go from waiting for Santa Clause to being Santa Clause.

It is more than the stress, time and finances. Like I said, I’m still figuring things out.

I remember when my nephew was young, Christmas was the best time of the year, the best day. I am pretty sure I would spend the night and be there for when we woke up. But there were all those years before and all those years after.

I particularly remember one Christmas when I was in the fifth grade. I was living with my aunt and uncle with my mom in the hospital and they asked me what I wanted. I didn’t know how to ask for anything. They were well off and I could have asked for anything. I told them, “nothing.”

I got my first stereo that year, and two cassette tapes. Men at Work and Styx, Paradise Theatre. I loved my uncle and aunt, but there was a cloud over Christmas. Mom was in the hospital.

Fractures forming? Conflicts that a young boy was not prepared to work through? I don’t know, but I do know that things never really got much better until my nephew was born. Christmas was just a day to get through.

My nephew was born in 1999. There were issues, but for a few years, those issues were completely obliterated by my nephew’s smile. To me, there is nothing as powerful as little ones’ smiles on Christmas morning. –which is why I so much enjoy the posts on social media.

There were more conflicts. I have to dive back into the Mom story. Here is a piece that I wrote when I found out my Mom was dying of cancer. There was nothing the doctors could do. It was only a matter of time.


An Angry Little Boy

Protect your queen.

It is from a television show, The West Wing. The master against the amateur. A flurry of moves with pieces being taken from the chess board. Protect your queen, with fewer and fewer pieces, fewer and fewer tools. Once the queen is gone, the game is over.

That is what I remember from my childhood, my oldest memories, how I was taught to be a son. Forget childhood: protect your queen.

I’m not sure if it was from the micro culture of SW Philly or the old country culture of my family, but a mother was the queen, the matriarch. I remember my grandmother being something more than human and my uncles and older cousins being more than men. They were soldiers, warriors, the queen’s guard.

And there I was, with my tiny sword and shield, with my own queen, unsuited to the task at hand. Sometimes part of the queen’s guard. Sometimes the only queen’s guard.

Protect your queen.

I learned anger. It is a powerful tool, both sword and shield. You really haven’t lived until you have felt that primal rage coursing through your body. It was all that I had. The only coping strategy, the only recourse, the only defense. And so, I used it, made it a part of me.

Protect her. Against any and all. Protect her from herself, from the manic depression, from the insults and slights, from people and neighbors and friends and family. And from myself. –I was never allowed to turn that anger on her and so I never figured out a way to release it.

I was only a little boy.

There is this cute little meme going around Facebook, something about the approaching storm, and the warrior responding, “I am the storm.” Yeah, buddy, you have no friggin’ idea.

The storm came upon me in my earliest childhood, and I sometimes feel as if I have spent my entire life on that battlefield. Warrior and soldier, field medic, hero, craven and deserter trying to find a way off that damn field. But the storm would continue to rage, and I would always make my way back to the middle of the field, the highest ground, to see what else could be thrown at me, to see what else I could stand against, to see what else could beat me and rip at me.

Without anger, where would I have been? How do you survive something like that, how do you maintain a grip on sanity, without anger?

Protect your queen.

So, yeah, I lived my life pissed off at a lot of people. First and foremost: myself, and the conflict to live my life versus doing my duty. Second on the list is my mother, and the fundamental conflict that particular relationship brought to the storm. But nobody and nothing escaped it. Dad, brother and sister, cousins, aunts and uncles. Doctors, illnesses, episodes, surgeries and pretty much everybody and everything.

I know. I shouldn’t have been angry at anybody, especially myself. But tell that to the little boy that doesn’t want to see his mommy hurt.

I once set my anger against the manic depression. Not a flanking maneuver, not a rear-guard action or surgical strike, but a full-frontal assault. I was no little boy anymore. I was a man grown, with intelligence and abilities, and with a will and determination probably unmatched by anything you have ever seen or experienced. The anger coursed through me, and I embraced a powerful arrogance, a terrible strength that would allow me to set my will against the illness that had ravaged my mother’s life, my life.

In that apartment, with the turn of the century approaching, with almost 30 years of dancing in the storm, I called the lighting. I shoved that lighting rod in the ground at my feet as a banner and challenged it.

The lightning came. It kicked my ass. It was brutal. Defeat does not even come close to explain what happened to me there. A total shredding of everything that I was, had been, would be. There were so few pieces of me left, that I did not think I could ever put myself back together. There was not even a shred of anger left to help me repair myself, defend myself. The aftershocks of that defeat battered a defenseless mind.

Protect your queen.

The hell with the queen. I turned from that battlefield and quit. I had nothing left. I retreated to Florida. It was a turning point for me. A climatic ending or a climatic beginning. The battle became against myself, as I tried to figure out what to do with this anger.

I’m thinking now that all of the progress that I thought I had made was only an illusion. I never left the storm, the battle. I could ignore it from time to time, push it aside and live myself. Become a man. Become a husband and father, a business owner and homeowner, a friend and acquaintance and maybe even a writer. But there is still that angry little boy.

Protect your queen.

I cannot.

It’s cancer. Like manic depression but totally unlike it. An illness with an inevitable conclusion. I have no tools to deal with this. But the anger returns, with the should haves and could have beens. And I dread the passing of the storm. The event that will herald the passing of the queen will also herald the passing of the storm and I will finally be able to drop this sword and shield? What do I do next?

Protect the little boy.


It would be over 15 years between the birth of my nephew and the day my mom died. For his own reasons, my brother had cut off all contact with my mom, and that meant my nephew as well.

I thought I summed it up pretty succinctly during my mom’s final days. My brother had flown down with me to Florida, seen my mom, and then he and I got drunk. It seemed like the thing to do.

I turned to him at one point. “Brother, I love you.” He nodded. I went on, “There is a part of me, though, that hates your fucking guts.” His eyes opened wide and then he nodded to that as well.

Protect your queen. I could not protect her from my brother. I was reminded of it every Christmas. I knew the pure and utter joy of holding my nephew in my arms would be forever denied my mother.

Protect the queen? In her later years, all that I tried to do, wanted to do, was give her a better quality of life. Give her some joy and happiness. Every time I held my nephew, particularly on Christmas, the joy was tinged with a deep sorrow, a blush of anger and a brushstroke of guilt. I had hoped my brother might relent but he never did and, as the years passed and my nephew grew into a little man, the joy could not quite be pushed out and away.

Christmas meant 8 days to January 2nd.

Then, I got married. That added a whole other level of conflicts and stress. I always promised myself if I ever got married, I would never fight about money. It is something I remember my mother and father doing and then my mother and stepfather.

My wife loved Christmas. It was her favorite time of the year. As a business owner herself, doing craft shows, it would really pick up all the way to, and past, her cut off day for mail outs. I was a business owner at that point, and I was crushed even more while helping her with her craft shows. And decorating even more. And shopping even more. And my credit cards whimpering louder.

My brother is the finance guy in the family. He always said, rightly so, I sucked at budgeting and finances. He was right. My wife made me look like the budgeting king. My wife and I were both doing well, well enough that there didn’t need to be any fights about money. There never were. But there should have been. That promise I made to myself always hung over my head.

There was a lot of joy with having the family, but the Christmas onslaught grew to be too much quickly. My wife had come from a poor family. To say she overcompensated with our daughter was an understatement. It would be like comparing your kid’s clay sculpture with Mt. Rushmore.

No, I am not being overly harsh or critical because she is now my ex-wife. It is just the simple truth. 6-8 hours of opening presents? The kid would get tired and have to take breaks. I thought it would let up as my daughter got older, became an adult. Nope. I think our record-breaking year, nine hours, was when she was 26.

January 2nd? Hell, I just wanted the damn day to be over.

Year after year, we had the talk. Stop it. Ease up. A couple things is enough. We should save our money, put it towards a vacation–that she would take anyway. Yes, yes, yes. And then the onslaught would begin again.

It had nothing to do with jealousy, and it includes issues I may get into another time, but it all just made me hate the holidays even more.

It was a dysfunctional family, but it was a family. I still grieve the loss. It was my choice to divorce, but that does not make the grief any less. There is the extra added piercing of sorrow at the loss of my daughter, who decided to stop talking to me after the separation.

Every day became just another day after that. The last holiday I enjoyed was Father’s Day. It was the only holiday I looked forward to. There were no mother’s involved, no conflicts. Married and with a daughter, my dad and stepfather would get a card and a phone call.

Then, it was gone.

It all just gets heaped upon the pile. Layer after layer of, “what do I do about this?”

My family has a Christmas Eve party every year and I always enjoyed going. I don’t anymore for much the same reason as Thanksgiving. There is that boiling pressure pot and I am so damn afraid of it spilling over and infecting the people enjoying themselves.

The Christmas before my divorce, I said the hell with it. I could counter all of my family members’ entreaties with, “I’m just not up for it. I’m fine.” I was still sharing a house with my wife so spent the night at work on a very comfortable sofa. The following day, I escaped to a friend’s house who was spending the day with his in-laws and their family.

It was nice.

The following year, I couldn’t fend off my family and went to the party. One point found me outside, crushing tears away. I went back in, made my goodbyes, and ran like hell.

There is so much that is influenced by the depression. I’m not sure what this is. A very common thing that you will hear from people suffering with depression on why they isolate is because they don’t want to bring people down. I really don’t think this is that. There is that element to it, but it has more to do with the fact that I just want to be alone until January 2nd. I really am fine.

Maybe it does have something to do with Newton’s Third Law. For every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. The joy that I see, hear and feel from others reverberates in my soul. Those vibrations are like harmonics on glass. Hit the right frequency and it shatters. I will shatter. So, I just like to muffle the sounds. It is much like being at a concert where I like the music, but it is too loud, so I put ear plugs in. They don’t deafen me, but they allow me to enjoy the music without it hurting.

I scroll through Facebook until the sound gets too loud. I stop, only to return. I do enjoy seeing your posts.

I really am okay.

I really do rejoice in your joy and happiness.

There is no conflict in that.

The conflict is in me, and I need to figure it out. I wish I could recapture those few years when my nephew was a tiny one and the pure joy could obliterate all of the dissonance. Or maybe if I figure it out, there will be no dissonance.

And that is a wrap for my holiday special. The holidays are a tough time for people who are struggling, whether financially, emotionally, or otherwise. Just like you cannot tell a person with depression to “snap out of it,” or a person with a broken ankle to “just walk it off,” your joy cannot erase all the things that are going on.

I really do wish all of you all of the joy and happiness this season should bring. I wish you all the peace and miracles and movies and songs, all of the family and presents and giving and receiving. I look forward to seeing your photos.

I just hope you understand and respect my feelings, and do not take offense.


I have a late breaking PS to add to this one. As I was reviewing the script one last time before recording, I checked out Instagram. There is a group I follow, Real Depression Project.

During Christmas, with everything closed, I’ll be diving into one of my old fantasy fiction books. I always wondered why I kept rereading the same books and watching the same old shows.

Real Depression Project’s latest post had to do with “Things Those with Depression Secretly Do Alone.”

First on the list was, “Rewatching reruns of old tv shows you used to enjoy to feel a sense of comfort and safety.”


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