A Survivor’s Birthday/Christmas


On Thursday I asked my therapist, “What am I doing here?”  She replied, “Life review.”  On Friday, a friend asked for my New Year’s resolutions.  Saturday I went to see the movie “Hugo” wherein the child, whose father had trained him as a watchmaker, said, ‘Machines don’t have any extra parts; everything has a purpose.  If you think of the world as a machine, then what’s my purpose?  What’s yours?’

On Sunday—my 65th birthday—I went to a black church.  When I got too sick to attend my nice white church, they forgot my name.  They also couldn’t remember where I live or what my phone number is.  Last week I went to the Christmas cantata at the nearby Community Folk Art Center (“Community Folk” being the euphemism for “black/African-American”).  The acting and producing was amateurish but the singing was strong and ranged from really good to utterly awesome (see also the woman who sang “Mary, Did You Know” with power and grace).  I was reminded of what I already knew:  if you want strength and faith, go black.  Yesterday I did.

The church was nearly full.  In the past three years I have journeyed through half a dozen white churches.  They are half empty.  Black people, unlike white people, accept that life is hard.  White people think that life should be easy for them and they get bent out of shape when it turns out differently.  Not so with black people.  They know that life is hard and the only way you can get through it is by faith alone, so the faithful gathered to shout their trust in God, and to praise the Lord.  It filled my heart with joy and I will return next week, God willing.

In the afternoon, I opened presents from some friends and received a couple of well-wishing phone calls.  When I looked at my Facebook page, I was surprised to discover birthday wishes from around the world.  The readership of my blogs has grown tenfold and my readers were sending me birthday greetings from New York, Iowa, California, Florida, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Australia.

In the evening, my oldest and best friend took me out for dinner to an Italian family restaurant.  At home, my diet is whole-food, plant-based, no oil—and I was shocked to discover, while noodling around the Mayo Clinic’s website—that I am, in fact, a vegan.  Sheesh.  I had no idea.  My aide, the erstwhile Amelia, has been a vegetarian since she was fourteen and thinks I’m pretty funny, quite possibly because I’m so stupid that I didn’t realize I’d become a vegan.

Despite how I eat at home, in the world I revel in “regular” food:  Italian bread made with white flour and served with butter, a tossed salad made of iceberg lettuce, and twice as much lasagna as ever should be served in a single portion.  Lasagna:  meat, cheese and pasta swimming in oil—oh, so tasty!

Afterwards Marilou drove us on my birthday tradition:  a trip through a rich neighborhood to look at the Christmas decorations.  I am a classicist:  the best Christmas decorations are a candle in every window and a big green wreath with a red bow on the front door with the whole house being lighted from outside by a couple small spotlights.  So last night I started developing the Woodlen Christmas Decoration Rating Scale, which got Marilou laughing a lot.

If your front door wreath has gold balls (or any kind of balls; I am very big on balls this year or, more correctly, I like big balls) then you get extra points.  Decorating with colored lights instead of all white also gets you extra points.  You totally lose points if you put lights on deciduous trees; that is totally gross.  You can put lights on your evergreen trees, your house or your fence, but putting lights on trees with no leaves is simply not acceptable.  Putting large Santas, snowmen or nativity scenes in your front yard it okay if done tastefully.  Putting the sleigh and eight not-so-tiny reindeer three feet away from the manager is not.  Jesus was not a gift from Santa.

In the end, we were greeted by a group of neighbors—grandparents, parents, children and dogs—carrying real candles and singing “We wish you a merry Christmas.”  All that was missing was snow.

I am a psychiatric survivor.  I survived—not mental illness, but the abusive damage heaped upon me by the American psychiatric system.  I took antidepressants every day for twenty-six years, during which time I was hospitalized about fifty times and attempted suicide about a dozen times.  After I stopped taking prescribed drugs, I taught myself how to recover from depression.  I am now an old, happy person, wondering what I am doing here and what my purpose is for next year.

By the grace of God, I will continue to discern my true path.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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