What’s the most important gift you could give this holiday season?
The Greek philosopher, Plato, once remarked, “Whoever likes being alone must be either a beast or a God”. I’d say amen to that statement. Crisis workers tell us that at this time of the year, depression and suicide risk is highest. So what can we all do to decrease holiday melancholy?
I’ve never seen it in the index of disease in medical texts, but loneliness should be listed in big print. It’s an illness that sooner or later disrupts the lives of many people. Chopin, the great pianist and composer, must have been deeply depressed. He complained of being, “alone, alone, alone”.
Some people deny loneliness. One man who hated mankind was found laughing to himself. “Why do you laugh?” he was asked. “There is no one with you”. “That,” he replied, “is just why I do”. It is indeed a hardy soul who rejects companionship during the holidays, or any time of the year.
We often make the error of believing that the rich and famous are immune to depression. But, Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister during the Second World War, suffered from his “black dog of depression.” Repeated thoughts of self-destruction were never far away. This, in spite of the fact that during his early years in South Africa, he faced death’s door in wartime several times.
During World War 11, Sir Charles Wilson (later Lord Moran), was Churchill’s personal physician and constant companion. Lord Moran later published a book, “Churchill, Taken from The Diaries of Lord Moran”. It was criticized by the medical establishment for divulging personal information about a patient. But, Moran defended the book arguing Churchill was a public figure and a part of history.
The book depicts how Churchill’s “Black Dog” was always nearby. He told Lord Moran that he feared self-destructive urges when standing near the edge of a train platform when an express train was passing through. On another occasion he worried about standing by a ship’s railing and looking down into the water. A sudden compulsion would end everything.
Only weeks ago, I wrote about Anthony Bourdain, the famous TV personality, wealthy, a world traveler with many friends. He ended his life by hanging. To my knowledge no one knows why.
Dante, the Italian philosopher, may have answered one of the reasons for holiday depression. He wrote: “There is no greater misery than remembering happier times”. Another philosopher wrote that “man is forever terribly, utterly, alone”.
So, although this winter holiday season brings laughter and celebration for many, it is also a time of isolation and desperation for others, a moment bemoaning dreams that ended in failure, or loved ones no longer sitting around the dinner table.
Is there anything that we, the fortunate ones, can do to ease this melancholy at holiday time? I admit I am no expert on loneliness. The closest I get to this problem is sitting for hours at the computer writing this column. I’ve concluded after 45 years that it’s a good place to visit, but a poor place to stay!
For many years I have kept a prescription pad that contains several telephone numbers. It is not a list of events I have to attend over the holidays. Rather, a list of patients and friends I want to call who have lost a loved one or have encountered other emotional difficulties.
These are never easy calls. But the fact that an old friend remembered them and had not simply faded away, often eases their loss.
It’s been said, “Hell is where you have an endless conversation with oneself”. It’s not a pleasant thought. But there is an easy solution, be it only temporary.
You do not need a doctor’s prescription. But it is a prescription of sorts. And the best present you can give a lonely friend. Pick up the telephone and make the call.
This is the 43rd year I’ve had the pleasure of wishing you a healthy and happy holiday season.
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a syndicated columnist whose medical column appears in The Guardian every Tuesday. Check out his website, Docgiff.com, which provides easy access to past columns and medical tips. For comments, readers are invited to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found at Twitter.com/GiffordJonesMD.