Well, it's the holidays, again, almost. Lots of preparation, lots of expectation. A time of joy, in theory, that nevertheless manages to be quite joy-free for many. I wrote this Thanksgiving column in 2008, after receiving a phone call from a reader who said he was going to kill himself. I don't know what happened to that reader; I never heard back from the guy. But I tried to reach out to him, and to anyone struggling through the holiday season. Have fun, if you can, and if you can't, well, try to find a way to get through it, somehow. Soldier through, endure, and all this forced jollity will be over in ... five weeks. Courage.
OPENING SHOT . . .
"You know, winter will soon be here," sings Michelle Shocked. "And except for the holidays, except for the holidays, it's a fine time of year."
Isn't that the truth? An under-recognized truth. Because while society plunges into this big, annual five-week-long festival del grubbo that begins tomorrow and doesn't really let up until Jan. 2, my guess is that for every person champing at the bit to embrace this holiday wonderland of family and parties and dinners and gifts — children, mostly, and grandmothers — there are three others grimly twitching their jaws and thinking, "Geez, not again. Not already. Didn't we just do this?"
I wish all those store soundtracks and 24-hour Christmas carol radio stations would take a break, just now and then, and play something like Shocked's lovely dirge, "Cold Comfort," or Loudon Wainright III's ode to family dysfunction, "Thanksgiving." ("Look around and recognize/A sister and a brother/ We rarely see our parents now/We hardly see each other...")
But they don't, and all the painted smiles and chirpy music can start to get to a person, particularly against a backdrop of pending economic collapse.
Unhappiness is always bad, but the holidays make it worse, with all the expectations of instant closeness, of warmth on demand, the notion that somewhere else people are whooping it up at Fezziwig's Ball while you're microwaving a Swanson turkey dinner alone.
My only insight is, as Shocked sings, you need to hold on, pass the time, and life will improve "in a year or 10."
"It is a fact of life," she sings, "that we learn to live again."
Sometimes all you can do is hold on, hope and wait for spring.
THIS MORNING'S PHONE CALL
People just don't telephone the newspaper like they used to — they e-mail instead. Tuesday morning, I received a grand total of one phone call, but it was a doozy.
The phone rings, I pick it up, say my name, as is my habit.
"In about half an hour, I'm simply putting an end to this," a man says in a flat tone, by way of introduction, and my first thought is, Geez, can't anybody just cancel their damn subscription? Must it be such a production?
He's going to be locked out of where he lives, he says, agencies won't help, and it dawns on me that he's talking about ending something more significant than home delivery.
"I simply do not want to face freezing to death in my car," he says.
Who does? I don't say that, but try to get his name from him — that seems the thing to do. He doesn't want to tell me his name or where he lives.
"Why not?" I ask. "If you're going to kill yourself in half an hour, why be shy now?"
He doesn't fall for that, but gives a litany of his woes. No job. No medical attention for his diabetes. No relatives or friends in this area anymore.
The "in this area" seems odd, and I wonder if he's for real, or somebody pulling a stunt. Frankly, he doesn't sound like one of my readers.
"No one is writing the truth anymore," he says. "Everyone seems to think it's the person's fault, and that's not true."
I point out that, if he reads the papers, he'll notice that the economic collapse is being pretty well blamed on large corporations.
"I don't think anyone's saying it's your fault," I say.
He goes on a bit, until I ask him what he wants me to do. He says I should be helpful to people in his situation, and I tell him that I'm perfectly happy to help him right now. What does he need?
"I write for a newspaper — what is it you want to happen?" I say. "We'll put it in the paper tomorrow and see if it catches anybody's interest. You can't expect anyone to care about what happens to you if you don't care yourself. Nobody is going to care about you unless you do."
I have a sense that I'm saying the wrong thing, but am making this up as I go along.
"I don't have any recourse," he says, and then hangs up. The whole conversation is over in a minute or two.
I wasn't as rattled as I should have been. On one hand, there's a lot of trouble in the world, and I don't become responsible for everyone who manages to dial my number. I'm not a social service. On the other, it strikes me that a person should know what to do, since the economy cratering must make this situation increasingly common.
"Yes, definitely," said Stephanie Weber, executive director of Suicide Prevention Services in Batavia. "We have seen an upswing in our calls and our walk-ins."
I ran our conversation by her, and while I didn't do quite the botch job that I feared — I did listen, which is important — my biggest mistake was in not quickly referring him to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800-273- 8255), where trained professionals help people understand the importance of sticking with life, even as difficulties mount, and know where to steer callers to various practical services that can help with woes that seem insurmountable but really aren't. You might want to jot that number down in your wallet, because you never know when you're going to need it.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 26, 2008