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Here's an example of a mat and frame one collector decided upon for my etching, "Streets of New York".

"Streets of New York", Etching by David Sandum
"Streets of New York", by David Sandum

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

David Sandum Hospital Drawing

For many people, Christmas is a glorious time. Neighborhoods are aglow with bright lights, homes are filled with decorations, and family and friends meet and rejoice, exchanging gifts and feeling their bond grow. Holiday movies and songs are wrapped in nostalgia, triggering happy childhood memories of visiting Santa Claus and dreaming of the toys he would leave under the tree.

For those of us suffering from mental illness, however, this season often brings nothing but intense guilt and pain: the gifts we can’t afford to buy, the children we feel we are ruining by being unavailable to them, the spouses we are letting down, or the flashbacks we experience of arguments, tears, and anguish.

Years ago, when I was hospitalized over Christmas, I saw this pain in everyone around me. People hardly spoke, most of them lonely and consumed with shame about all they had lost or did not have. It was especially distressing for those without a family. Our ward had a scrawny Christmas tree that we decorated. I saw it as mockery. I wanted to burn it or throw it out the window! That tree reminded me of how worthless and different I was. Had I done something good with my life, I would have been home with my wife and two boys, not in this place feeling invisible. Yes, that Christmas tree was a taunting testament to my failures, to my empty existence outside of society.

Then a nurse asked me to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” with him during a simple Christmas lunch with patients and staff. He played the guitar and we sang together. I am not a singer, but I sang with all my heart. Many nurses and patients started to cry, and I realized that this was what Christmas was all about—living in the moment, free of expectations and judgments. I have never forgotten it.

Life is up and down. When I’m going through a rough patch, I dread holiday gatherings and the obligatory chitchat around the table, having no energy to address comments like “How are you doing? You seem much better.” No, I’d rather be by myself. But now that I am in a good period, I’ve been looking forward to the holidays again. Luckily I have been blessed with a strong wife and a caring extended family. For those who battle depression and are alone, Christmas just provides another chance to beat themselves up and feed their self-hatred. If you know someone in this situation, invite them into your home, but don’t ask questions. Simply offer love and good food! They will be most grateful.

A quote by the speaker and author Daniel H. Pink comes to mind:

“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”

(Since I've moved this blog to a new site, I've cut and pasted past comments here)

Bouwien Luppeslink

12/25/2017 09:12:08 am

Great blog, David. Thank you for your valuable perspective.

Gunhild Hotte

12/25/2017 11:53:16 am

I was just this very morning busy writing in my journal about this emotional thing - thank you for the insight on this matter

Linda Gillanlink

12/25/2017 07:05:05 pm

Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective David,

Greta Olivaslink

12/26/2017 04:25:39 pm

Thank you David for sharing your experiences. It helps others so much and I am so glad you are doing well.

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

David Sandum, "Winter Clouds" | Gouache | 2016

"Winter Clouds" | Gouache | 2016

Most of us have the need to do something exceptional—to be special. This compulsion has always been a catalyst for human exploration and advancement. We want our lives to matter. I have met many people who experience a crisis if this need goes unfulfilled, if they believe they can’t contribute anything of value to the world. As someone who has struggled with depression for most of my adult life, I finally understand that my illness has been all about self-hate, about the loss of my personal dignity. I used to have goals and ambitions, but they suddenly vanished, and I told myself I had failed. Thoughts of being a total loser were always pressing, and I often felt my family would be better off without me. Now I realize these kinds of thoughts are at the very heart of the illness. Every clinically depressed person I’ve met has felt this way. It doesn’t matter how often we hear that we are loved. We don’t feel it—or believe it. When I was in the throes of the illness, fatigue, hopelessness, and physical pain constantly reinforced this belief. No one could fix me. The train had left the station, and the world had continued on without me. In my memoir, I write, “Depression [has] to be the only illness that [strips] its victims of any desire to get better.” At rock bottom, we are the living dead to some extent, without any self-respect. Of course, such thinking is a huge challenge for friends and family members. A man once told me how frustrating it was to be the friend of someone who struggled with long-term depression. “He’s so selfish,” he told me. “He never wants to do anything I suggest or even be there for his own children.” “Let me ask you something,” I said. “How did you feel the last time you had the stomach flu and you were vomiting all over the bathroom floor? Would you have been able to go to the movies or attend a parent-teacher conference?” “That’s different. His depression has gone on for years, and the flu wouldn’t last that long.” “Would your view change if your friend was diagnosed with cancer?” He paused. “I’ll have to think about that.” “Be there outside the bathroom door,” I said. “Tell him you understand he is in pain, and that you’re there for him when he’s ready.” It’s important for loved ones to understand that those of us with a mental illness are struggling with a difficult medical condition. When we aren’t judged, glimpses of self-awareness can occur over time. Now sixteen years after I was diagnosed, I feel that life is finally manageable, and my dignity is slowly returning. It has been a long and hard road, but I believe that empathy is what I needed the most. Today I focus on giving it to others.

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