My holiday season was characterized emotionally by the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. On Christmas Day, my entire family was together. We had a joyous feast, great music, loving embraces, comfortable conversation, and happy gift exchanges with my amazing adult children and their significant others. The sound of my little granddaughter’s feet on my kitchen floor and her wonderful laughter while playing with her uncles took me back to simpler times and made me happy. Truly, it was one of the best Christmases for the Smith family in many years. Dreadfully, a few days later, while still basking in the afterglow of our awesome Christmas Day, my best friend’s 32-year-old son tragically took his own life after battling depression for the last several years. To say we were crushed is a gross understatement. We spent the next few days just being together, loving on each other, and trying to make sense of it all. But I guess there is no understanding it. Growing up, he was the All-American kid: smart, articulate, handsome, popular, athletic, and musically talented. He had many friends and was the most popular kid in his high school. Breezed through college without so much as a hiccup. But he had side of him that the casual observer could not possibly see: physical pain and deep depression that ate away at him and made his life miserable. In a note to his dad, he commented that when he looked in the mirror, he couldn’t stand the person he saw. He had both physical and emotional pain that I guess he simply couldn’t bear anymore. And that is heartbreaking to me. I suppose I will always wonder if there was something that could have been said or done to have changed this outcome. But mostly, I just miss him and wish I could see him one more time and tell him how much he means to all of us…
In my medical and research life, I have studied pain and depression extensively and the combination of the two is very complex. I have met thousands of patients over the last three decades plus who have struggled with combinations of pain, anxiety, depression, trauma, sleep disturbance, and substance/alcohol abuse. And I can tell you, the cumulative effect of all of that can be devastating. Mental health and pain research have been the dedicated focuses of several agencies and organizations for many years and great advances have been made. But we still have a long way to go. So I hope that more people will get involved and support better science and research by giving of their time and resources for the worthy cause of finding new approaches to treatment. It is one of the most important things we can do to honor those who are gone.
So when people ask how I enjoyed my holidays, I tell them it was the best and the worst all rolled up into one. It was basically an odd set of mismatched bookends: a joyous Christmas Day of togetherness with my loving family, followed by New Years Day spent grieving the tragic loss of someone dear to me and trying to sort things out with my best friend and his family. And I am reminded once again that life is fleeting, like a vapor that appears for a short time and then vanishes. In a noisy, bickering world, with lots of stress and unmet medical need, it is easy to lose sight of life’s brevity. So please, let’s all be good to each other. When all is said and done, the things that separate us are truly trivial compared to the great joy and peace we can achieve when we love one another.
I’ll write a research blog again soon, so stay tuned. Until then, stay healthy and embrace your own happiness as much as you can.