Years ago, I learned firsthand that serving others in need can also help alleviate the heaviness of a long episode of bipolar depression.
Bipolar Depression on Thanksgiving
Years ago, when I was a 20-year-old with a new diagnosis of bipolar disorder, my parents had dragged me—kicking and screaming—from my native land of California to the tundra of Des Moines, Iowa. I was attending college, and it was Thanksgiving Day.
Days were dark, with no sun in sight. I felt broken, like a dropped mirror shattering into a thousand pieces.
I hadn’t made any friends since moving, and friendship had always meant so much to me. I was emotionally eating to numb the pain.
It felt like I would never be “me” again. All hope was gone, and it felt like things were never going to get better.
I did have two things going for me:
I had a psychologist who was the very best. She would have done anything to pull me out of the depression.
I had a family—a mother and father who loved me despite my being transformed into Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
Hard Feelings Each Thanksgiving
I had grown up in Thousand Oaks, California, and, while I was in elementary school, our class went on a field trip to Olvera Street, which is in the oldest part of downtown Los Angeles.
We ate lunch in a park and threw our garbage in old trash cans when it was time to go. Then, suddenly, men who were experiencing homelessness began rummaging through the garbage cans. It was heartbreaking to watch them eat scraps of peanut butter sandwiches.
Although this was not a planned part of the field trip, we learned a lot that day because we saw the faces of “the homeless” in a way we never had been exposed to before.
This eye-opening experience stuck with me, and in college, I took a class that focused on individuals who lacked fixed, adequate housing. I learned from an amazing professor that some people in this situation wanted to become “productive” citizens and get off the streets, but finding a way to do so was not easy. For others, this way of life was a result of mental illness or substance use disorders.
For years, on Thanksgiving Day, I would feel guilty sitting on the couch in my warm, cozy house as I watched coverage of people without basic resources getting a special meal at a local soup kitchen.
New Traditions in a New Place
That year in Iowa, my family and I decided to do things differently. We had our superb meal like usual, but then we headed out to volunteer at a shelter to serve a Thanksgiving meal to others.
The volunteers showed us around. I was a fish out of water, 100 percent out of my comfort zone. It was hard to hide that.
As the people came in, my body began to shake like a leaf blowing in the wind. We began to serve the food. One man noticed my shaking and asked me about it. I was not sure what to say. So, I told the man I was cold.
Like the unexpected lesson from my childhood field trip, a few images from this experience have stayed in my mind. Their hands showed their tough skin that had to withstand the harsh outdoor winters of Iowa. I noticed one man’s missing teeth as he put on a huge, grateful smile. Another man had a long, white beard similar to those in the music group ZZ Top. He seemed so kind.
The pleasantness of the meal did not mask the reality of how so many lived from day to day. These men had nothing but the clothes on their back, and I wondered when they last had access to a clean shower and items for personal grooming.
Everyone sat together and seemed to appreciate having warm food in their stomachs. Each man and woman felt human and important that day. Each person was a son, a daughter, a friend, a brother, or perhaps a husband or wife.
I could see the face of God shining in their gentle eyes.
After the meal, we played bingo, and the men and women won personal hygiene products like shampoo and soap. I could see that some were disappointed that that is all they received. I felt sad because these people deserved so much more.
Recognizing My Blessings
I left the shelter changed. I was able to take the focus off my pity party and see the world through someone else’s eyes.
I began to look at life differently. I had so much going for me. I had so much to be grateful for. I had a roof over my head, food in my stomach, and a family—which included two soft-coated Wheaten terriers, all blessings in my life. I had been looking at things all wrong.
I was amazed at how the people we had served were so happy and grateful for their meal. They felt human and loved, even if it was just for a day.
To this day, I still remember the gratitude those men had. They were thankful in a way my family and I could not comprehend.
Perhaps those who live with fewer resources are more thankful than people whose lives are filled with material possessions. Finally, my family and I understood the true meaning of Thanksgiving and gratitude for everything God has given to us each day of our lives.
Bipolar Depression & Helping Others
I learned a valuable lesson, too, that one way to battle bipolar depression is to start helping others and to turn the focus off myself and to open my eyes and see the world through someone else’s eyes.
I try to remember that everyone has problems and some people have it much worse.
I felt the clouds lift that day, for the first time in months. My attitude changed. I had a new coping skill: to put others before myself. I have carried that lesson from many years ago to the present day.
Susan Johnson graduated from Drake University with a BA in sociology. She is the author of Some Dreams Are Worth Keeping: A Memoir of My Bipolar Journey. Since her diagnosis of bipolar I in 1995, Susie's true passion in life is to help break the stigma of mental illness and to bring hope to those who live with one. An accomplished inspirational speaker and guest blogger at bpHope Blog, Susie was the subject of a “This Is Me” Q&A in bp Magazine in 2018. Her writing also appears in the Catholic Exchange, the Kingdom Revelator, and Las Vegas Pet Scene Magazine. Susie co-leads a mental health group at her church and currently works with special education students as an instructional assistant for a school district in Nevada. In 2021, she gave a TEDx Talk called "Having a Mental Illness Is Not a Death Sentence" at TEDxTenayaPaseo. Susie enjoys hiking, baking, traveling, practicing yoga, spending time with her goddaughter, and taking trips to Cancun. Originally from Thousand Oaks, CA, Susie now makes her home in fabulous Las Vegas with her husband, Gary, and Siberian cat, Angel-Ann. Visit her website, SJohnsonAuthor.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
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