‘Tis the season of twinkling white lights wrapped around the tree, the banister, the front porch columns, after, of course, unsnarling them from their knotted mess. And nostalgic ornaments: the paper-plate angel my daughter made in preschool, the clothespin Sugarplum fairy my mom bought me when I went to see my first Nutcracker in New York City, the kitschy pink and gold plastic bells once attached to an expertly-wrapped wedding present (already 12 years ago!). And the aimless wandering around Toys ‘R Us debating the merits of a $50.00 Star Wars ship (do we really need more plastic crap in the house), a (plastic) dragon, this one with glowing red eyes (to add to my daughter’s collection of several dozen), and quasi-educational video games (which might help occupy the kids on those way-too-early, wintry Saturday mornings when Christopher and I are loathe to get out of bed).
Most importantly, this is the season of joy. J-O-Y !!! Contagious, exuberant, infectious, childlike joy. My kids are amped up on joy, counting down the days until Christmas, making their gift lists over and over, refining, adding, expanding (never contracting), arguing over what they should leave for Santa—peanut butter and jelly sandwich, gingerbread cookies, spicy tuna roll? Their joy reached a new height on Saturday: my husband organized a sledding party, complete with a roaring fire in the outdoor fireplace at a nearby picnic shelter, hot chocolate and coffee, chili and ‘smores. My daughter built a sledding ramp and fearlessly soared several feet into the air, landing in snow-smacking tumblesaults; my son, a little less hardy and brave, toasted himself by the fire, marshmallow goop sticky on his face and hands and jacket; my husband, ever the generous and ambitious host, tended fire and coffeepot and chili Crockpot alike. At one point, the gang of kids tromped over a giant plowed hill of packed snow, pretending to be polar explorers in search of ice dragons. By evening, my daughter’s hair was a tangle of icy dreadlocks and my son’s feet and hands burned red from the cold. They shivered and giggled in unbridled joy.
For me? This year (scratch that—these past five years), joy is complicated as it must co-exist with the ever-present, oppressive despair, with the pervasive feeling that I am an outsider to happiness and contentment, with IT. Joy can be exhausting—how long can I smile, maintain my cheerful exterior, join in the fun and reindeer games before I begin to feel the old damning irritability, self-doubt, and self-loathing sneak back in? A few hours at best. This year is particularly problematic—the lingering fallout from this most recent hospitalization, the cancelled trip to see my family for Christmas (psychiatric stabilization travel ban in place), the dogged doubt that I can survive IT, that I can indeed get well. And then there’s the every-other day routine ECT treatments, my body purpled in bruises (I’m a near impossible IV stick), my heart wanting to hold onto the hope that this time I really will see a way clear of IT (but pervasive urges to restrict and purge and cut remind me I am in no way near free of IT).
The best that I can do is approximate joy, take my cues from my loved ones who surround me. When they laugh and tickle and snuggle, so do I. When they willy-nilly cram red-hots into misshapen gingerbread cookies (an angel or a howling ghoul?), then eat them two at a time, warm right out of the oven, so do I. When they curl up on the couch in front of the fireplace, watching for the umpteenth time “Frosty the Snowman,” so do I.
Right now? The kids have just devoured bowls of ice cream. The fire is crackling. My daughter is perched on the edge of the couch watching “A Nightmare Before Christmas”; my son is writing a story about ice dragons and snowstorms; my husband is preparing himself for a late-night hockey game, and I am feeling, momentarily, the small presence of joy: I am here, with them. I am here, not in the hospital. I am here, trying to get well. Reason enough for joy. Fa-la-la-la-la!