Strange Gifts and the Search for Santa Claus


I enjoy seeing the world through the lens of synchronicity and magical thinking, and a synchronicity contributed to the publication of this story. This Christmas Eve, one of the editors at Mad in America contacted me to ask about a Santa Claus story I’d mentioned on Facebook. This particular story came out this holiday season as I was thinking about my own mental health journey and insistence on following unorthodox signs in my own life to find things that could heal me on a number of different levels.

In many different cultures around the world, the healers of a community are often “chosen by the spirit” through illness or injury, after which they develop powers of healing and second sight. Often the precipitating event is a knock on the head or spinal injury. This relates to my journey in such a way that I have been able to identify with the “visions” that traditional cultures describe as walking between the worlds, and which in our North American culture are often labeled as psychosis or magical thinking.

In my case I developed a severe depression, depersonalization and other symptoms after a concussion around the age of 20, and then suffered a major blow in a small but potent ATV accident in my thirties. This set off a series of very serious mental health crises, leading to (among other things) the loss of my home. I was dealing with a significant frontal lobe brain injury, impairment of executive function, low-level seizure activity and PTSD, and I dealt with it without the resources of the western medical model for most of the time, because I simply did not have the financial resources or support to access them. And also because I had the sense, even though I was impaired, that a medication-based route might leave me stuck in limbo, limiting my functioning, because I was concussed and SSRI’s had, in the past, made me even more numbed out and under-functioning.

As it turned out, I was probably correct. I got better without medication, and keep getting better and exceeding my own expectations and baffling others who have had certain perceptions of me for decades. This type of outcome may not be typical of a head injury that has been misdiagnosed as another type of mental health issue and just medicated without looking at the deeper cause.

One of the most impulsive things I ever did was to drive across the country to meet Stephen Larsen, a psychologist who has greatly popularized neurofeedback therapy for treating head injury, through his two books, The Neurofeedback Solution and The Incredible Healing Power of Neurofeedback. Stephen also has a background in transpersonal psychology and shares my interest in shamanism and folk medicine traditions. I had begun treatment with neurofeedback with a psychologist in Seattle after reading one of Stephen’s books, and it was helping me recover quickly, without the use of medication.

In the last three years I have settled in a new home in New York state, and two years ago I began training as a neurofeedback technician myself. My work has brought me into a sphere of amazing people and cutting-edge therapies. I see firsthand the realities of mental health delivery, the lack of funding, and lack of oversight of polypharmacy at a time when drug company marketing and political lobbies drive and dictate so much of what is called mental health care in the United States. I also see the wonderful people who work tirelessly to serve in their practices amidst incredible regulatory hurdles – people who put aside personal difference to talk to each other on the phone in a human way about people who we want to care for and empower in their lives, their struggles and their breakthroughs.

I hope you’ll enjoy my Santa story. It came from my right brain, which is sometimes depressive and visionary, creative, messy, and full of gifts, not unlike the man in the red suit.

* * * * *

This winter I’ve been thinking about the times I’ve met Santa Claus.

As a child, I refused to hear “the truth” about the man in the red suit. I was determined to find him, and that was that. He was as real as could be and adults who said otherwise were lying. My heart knew this.

My life has been very colorful at times, and at times very dark. And when it got dark enough, I started seeing the man in the red suit around a lot. One such man was jolly, and always wore red shirts. I had gone to a medicine circle to pray after my ex-husband left and I was alone in a broken-down house in Olympia, WA, shivering and cold. The man told me a traditional story about Lady Louse, who was living in a dirty house like mine that she tried and tried to fix, but couldn’t get clean. He would come over and we would light candles and sage in my kitchen. I would bake loaves of bread, leaving dough under my fingernails, and make soup out of vegetables from my garden and the freezer. He would play an elk skin drum and sing, and then he slept in my attic. The man in the red shirt never hurt me. I was sometimes afraid of him and his magic, but I started to drive him around. One time we were driving through the mountains at night near Flathead Lake in Montana. It’s very dark up there, with no lights along the highway. The sky was a beautiful velvet indigo with so many stars. We were laughing and singing and driving. And then an elk crossed the road and stared. We almost hit the elk, but I steered right by him. It was a moment frozen in time. We looked at each other and my friend said, “That was the most beautiful animal I have ever seen.”

The following year, I lost my home right after Christmas. Once all of my many things were packed into storage, I got very sick with the flu and became very weak. I would go to the Vietnamese Buddhist temple in my neighborhood to sit quietly on the cushions and light incense for the Buddha. There, another man in a red suit would greet me. We sat down for tea sometimes. He gave me a book about how to become an Arhat – a “perfected person” who has attained nirvana. I had to envision losing everything, including my senses and my memory. One day I came in to sit and I was very emotional. The monks in the temple were playing music with wooden sticks being clacked together, accompanied by high-pitched singing in Vietnamese. The man in the red suit went into the back room and got a heavy statue of the Buddha in bronze and plunked it down before me. “Here. Take this home, sit in front of the Buddha and meditate.” I did. And when it was time to go on my journey I packed my things in my car and put the Buddha beside me in the passengers seat.

That year I would travel across the country in search of a new adventure. My friend in the red shirt had moved to Montana. I visited him in his little house, sort of a cabin garage in Kalispell. He had a pile of tuna fish sandwiches for me – he wanted to make sure I had enough to eat if I got lost and didn’t have enough money to buy food. I made it all the way across the country, and when I got to New York a new friend asked me if I wanted to see another guy in a red suit. We ended up volunteering at an event with the 17th Karmapa. The man in the red suit started talking about fear. It was a blue sky day, but then a giant storm kicked up outside the tent where he was speaking, and almost blew the tent down. We held the stakes and people ran after the Thangka paintings that were hanging in the tent. The man was wearing a red suit but was surrounded by a blue blaze of light, the likes of which I had never seen before. I noticed a symbol on the altar of the temple which matched a necklace I was wearing around my neck, a gift from the Vietnamese monk back in Olympia. I showed it to someone and they told me I was wearing the Kalachakra mantra, which is for purification of the body and mind in preparation for enlightenment. My life again changed forever by the man in the red suit.

In the fall of that year, I would return to Olympia. I rented a room and got a job as a hospice caregiver. I actually had a lot of fun helping a jolly and volatile man in his 60s make his transition after a long battle with prostate cancer (I was hired for the job because I showed him that I was able to load and unload his pistol). He had hoped to make it to Christmas, but I think he knew he wasn’t going to. Around Halloween, he had me buy him a grim reaper scythe right before we made a final trip to see his oncologist. The oncologist talked to him about how things were going, discussed with him his favorite topic, the New York Yankees, and then he posed with the staff for a photo with the grim reaper scythe. Later in the day when I was helping the man settle in at home, things were going kind of badly with him being in a lot of pain and the medicine not taking effect. We got a text message from the oncologist office – they sent us the grim reaper picture with everyone smiling ear to ear, and we laughed. That day felt a lot like Christmas. Full of appreciation for life and death. A few more weeks went by, and my new friend slowly spent more and more time in bed. He was headed out on a trip though, he was sure of it. His bag was packed by the hospital bed. He would wake up and say, “Where’s the bag? Do you have the tickets?” I’d say, “Of course we do,” and lift the bag up to eye level. He was ready to fly. And then one day, about 6 hours after my shift was over, he left on his journey.

After I stopped working, I was prepared for a journey also. I had a budding relationship that I wasn’t quite sure about, but I was going to move to where he was living in Wisconsin and see if it would work. In the dead of winter. A risky proposition.

So, going about my business at holiday time, tying up loose ends and preparing to leave, one day I was harried and rushed when I spotted… Santa Claus! In a dirty pickup truck, looking tired. At that time I had a veritable altar of silk flowers and other doodads on my dash. “Santa!” I said. “You look beat! Someone needs to give you a gift!” I made him a bouquet, and he smiled so big! He went in his truck and got out a candy cane for me. And we had a hug – two perfect strangers, weary from the road. This, I guess, is the way it works when you are headed out on the road and you think you can’t stand any more. Magic shows up.

It used to be that the times when Santa Claus would show up were times when I was worrying about whether or not I had the right kind of medicine. I know when I see him that he is the medicine, and that he is showing me how to live.

A lot has changed for me now. I live in New York now, and last Saturday night I was in Brooklyn. My boyfriend is Jewish and we’d been celebrating Hannukah together every night. We had just gotten back from a holiday event that he was photographing – I ran the video camera in the balcony, and at the end of the show we were both given red and white roses as a thank you. We went out to eat with a bunch of the organizers afterward, and when we were done with dinner we saw a black SUV cruising the neighborhood with a menorah on top. We cheered for them. They circled the block and came back and called to us from their car window. I went over to meet an entire Lubavitcher family. They had a gift they wanted to give to us. I handed one of their daughters a white rose, and they handed a menorah to us out the car window. We had a homemade menorah at home that we had been lighting every night, and then for the eighth night we lit our new menorah. My boyfriend’s father had immigrated from Germany as a child. The last name of his family, which was changed by US immigration, was Wanderer.

May you meet the old man with the beard on your travels this winter. In a world where so many are frightened or mistrustful of the traveling stranger, the slightly unkempt gift-giver, or those who laugh too loud or too often, may he show up, accompanied by magical portents, and with love.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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Heather Duke
Heather Duke is a neurofeedback technician at Stone Mountain Center in New Paltz, NY, an outpatient psychotherapy practice that offers neurofeedback among other modalities. She's also a clown, a fact that her boss often mentions to patients to their amusement and confusion. She writes down her dreams every night.


    • I agree, great piece. And I lived through two, unfortunately drug withdrawal induced, summers of the most staggeringly synchronistic, “magical mystery tour” adventures, while beginning on my healing journey.

      My “Santas,” however, consisted of absolutely everyone around me, plus seemingly all within the collective unconscious. Including real life people who were also query filled, because they could supposedly hear my dreams and prayers, but most wanted to help me heal. Theoretically, so we could jointly begin our “magical mystery” journey into learning to “live as one.”

      Still praying for peace on earth some day. Still praying we someday learn to “feed the world.” Is being a “beautiful dreamer,” actually now equatable with being “psychotic”? I prefer my hopes and dreams for world ruled as a mutual respect society, to today’s psychiatric, stigmatization ruled society.

      Happy Holidays to all.

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      • Imagination, creativity, multi-dimensional perception–that’s our salvation. When we interpret this as ‘pathology, we’re in big trouble. That’s the biggest double bind I can imagine.

        Life is not linear, nor are human beings dull and powerless. That’s a tiny little box with hardly any air to breathe, into which no one can really fit and stay sound and sane, imo. Life is filled with magic, if we allow ourselves to believe it, see it, and experience it.

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  1. Sorry I missed this post last Christmas! It’s ironic, that one of my favorite metaphors is to say that all so-called “mental illnesses” are exactly as real as a present from Santa Claus – but not more real!
    Hey, I should know! As a kid in modern America, I got LOTS of presents from Santa Claus! But, as an adult, not so much! Thanks, Heather!

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