I was 26 when I experienced my first episode of major depression.
Back then, I didn’t realize I was depressive. All I knew was that it was winter in New York City, and that there was an invisible force sucking me into a vortex of despair.
If you know my story, then you know that qigong is what eventually pulled me out of the vortex. To this day, qigong is my medicine.
But there was something else that helped me get through an especially tough winter — a different kind of medicine.
If you struggle with depression, especially if you struggle with dark thoughts as winter takes its grip, then this article is for you.
Reading this article might just help you to save two lives this winter.
A Beggar on Every Corner
The year was 1998, and I was walking down Broadway near Columbia University. My mission was to get a slice of pizza.
I had graduated from Columbia four years earlier. But things had changed for me since college. Depression had me in its grips, and I was hardly functional.
That’s why getting a slice of pizza felt like a mission. Just leaving my apartment was an accomplishment.
As I was walking to the pizzeria, I saw a man that I recognized. I had known him for years. His name was Charlie, and he was homeless.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, the homeless were part of the landscape of New York City. They were on every major street corner, begging for spare change to survive.
Early in my adult life, I made a decision to always give something to them. I would give spare change, buy them a slice of pizza, or give them a cigarette. (I smoked back then. Here’s how I quit.)
Even though I was unemployed and fighting off my depression, I offered to buy Charlie a slice of pizza.
Pizza as Big As Your Head
Back then, Koronet’s Pizza on Broadway near 110th Street sold slices as big as your head for $1.50.
I’m not exaggerating. Look at the image above, taken by a guy named Adam. (You can read his review of Koronet’s here.)
I bought 3 slices, one for me and 2 for Charlie. Then we sat at the pizza counter.
As we ate, I mostly listened.
Charlie told me how he had tried to move to Atlanta to avoid the harsh NYC winters. He had family down there.
“What happened?” I asked, folding my pizza in half the way any self-respecting New Yorker always does.
“Never made it,” he said.
He told me how the police had beaten him up for sleeping on a heated ventilation grate.
He told me how he had gone to a homeless shelter to heal his injuries, but instead got robbed.
“All my money for Atlanta, gone,” he said. “Lost my coat too.”
He still had a coat, but it was worthless. It was a jacket for autumn or early spring, not for a NYC winter. No way.
I noticed that talking with Charlie made me feel better, even though there was nothing good about what he was saying.
I empathized with his suffering even though my own suffering was totally different.
I was aware that I was a white man with tons of privilege speaking to a black man with none, but I didn’t have thoughts of guilt or shame running through my head.
Instead, there was one thought that kept playing through my depressed mind:
“I can do something.”
I’m Not Powerless
There’s a powerlessness in depression that sucks the hope right out of you.
(As an aside, that’s one reason why I love qigong so much. It makes me feel that I have power over my own health. If you haven’t ever tried qigong, then you can learn a simple technique right here for free.)
When you’re battling depression, you feel like you have no agency over your life, no power over your thoughts or emotions.
Sitting there with Charlie, I suddenly felt my power start to return.
Maybe I was powerless to do something about my own suffering, but I could certainly do something about Charlie’s suffering.
“Will you be here tomorrow?” I asked.
He said yes, but his eyes showed that he never really knew what tomorrow would bring.
The following day was bitterly cold and overcast. I remember that I didn’t want to leave my apartment. Hell, I didn’t want to leave my bed.
During depressive episodes, the mornings were the worst for me. That’s when the dark demon grabbed me. Getting out of bed was a daily battle, not because I was sleepy, but because I was enveloped in a fog of despair.
And the cold seemed to make everything worse, as if my energy was being diverted to keeping me warm rather than keeping me from the depths of despair.
But I had a date with Charlie, and somehow, that gave me strength. So I bundled up, and stepped out into the cold.
Stepping Into the Warmth
The previous night, I had packed a garbage bag with old clothes. Charlie had 2 inches on me, but I figured it would be close enough for jazz.
I carried the bag over my shoulder as I walked.
It took me a while to find him. I never did figure out how he chose where to stand. To me, it seemed like some sort of mysterious fishing technique.
“Rough night,” he said, shivering. “Too cold to sleep.”
I wondered how many rough nights he had had in his life. Was it hundreds, or thousands of rough nights?
I swung the bag from my shoulder. Charlie looked confused, but his face lit up as I unpacked it.
Gloves. A sweater. Wool hiking socks. A hat.
And then the pièce de résistance.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, pulling a winter coat from the bottom of the bag.
“Christmas,” Charlie said quietly, as if remembering a long-forgotten word.
His eyes began to water, and it was only a matter of seconds before mine did the same.
“Give me a hug,” I said.
You’ve got to understand that this simply wasn’t done.
Beggars like Charlie were basically “untouchable”. They were filthy and smelled awful. Most of them used paper cups to beg because they knew that people didn’t want to touch their hands.
But I didn’t care about any of that.
I wanted Charlie to have some human warmth to go along with the warmth of his new clothing.
So I gave him a big hug right there on the street.
How to Save Two Lives
Two years later, I was walking down Broadway with a friend.
I had moved to a new neighborhood, and didn’t see Charlie as often. But I saw him that day, wearing my old coat.
I gave him a hug, much to my friend’s surprise. I also gave him $10. I was employed again, and finally had some money coming in.
Charlie gave me a thumbs up sign and a big smile as we walked away.
“What’s the story there?” my friend asked.
“Oh, I gave him that coat two years ago,” I said. I noticed that I had a big smile on my face.
“You probably saved his life,” my friend said. “That was a harsh winter, and I heard that a lot of beggars died.”
“You might be right,” I said. “Maybe I did save his life.”
What I didn’t say was this: He probably saved mine.
Depression is Invisible
Back then, I didn’t talk about my depression. I’m honestly not sure if my friend knew that I was depressive.
And if he did, I doubt that he knew I had been suicidal.
It wasn’t until much later that I started openly talking about those dark thoughts.
Unfortunately, this is common among depressives. Because of the stigma, we hide.
Chances are, you have a friend or a family member who is suicidal. But you probably don’t know who that person is because they hide it so well.
I was 26 when I gave that bag of clothing to Charlie. Years later, I was shocked to learn this fact:
Depression is the 2nd leading cause of death in 15-29 year olds. [source]
In other words, I was right in the danger zone.
Winters are especially tough for depressives. The combination of the holidays, the colder weather, and the lack of light can be fatal.
Depression kills 40,000 Americans every year, and that winter, it could have killed me.
But it didn’t kill me. And it didn’t kill Charlie. So who saved who?
If you’re depressive, then like many of us, you may struggle to get through this winter.
For some of you, your life may be at risk.
But there’s something that you can do. There’s a method that works.
I’m not talking about qigong or meditation. Those things work too. But right now, I’m talking about giving.
Giving is medicine. Research shows that doing good is good for you. [source]
Giving is good, but for depressives, certain kinds of giving can be better than others.
For example, it’s good to give to charity. I give every month to several clean water charities through Global Giving. (Always do your research before giving to charities to make sure that money is reaching the needy.)
But if you are depressive, I suggest that you focus on a specific type of giving: Volunteering.
Why Depressives Should Volunteer
Doing good is good for you, but it’s better if you can actually interact with humans (or animals) who are suffering.
It’s the interaction that turns volunteering into medicine for depressives.
Had I anonymously given Charlie some money or clothing, it wouldn’t have helped me as much.
Read this awesome PDF to show how volunteering can help you in a variety of ways.
If You Need Help Right Now
Some of you probably aren’t ready to volunteer, and that’s okay.
If you need to talk to someone, then visit this site right now: 7 Cups of Tea.
You can talk or chat with trained active listeners 24 hours a day.
Or if you’re having dark thoughts about harming yourself, then please call 1-800-273-8255, or click here:
Seriously, these people can help you, even if you don’t know how. Just call, or go to the site and chat with them. Do it now.
If You Want To Help Depressives
If you want to help depressives and you have some training, then you can volunteer to be an active listener on the 7 Cups of Tea site.
Giving is good for everyone, whether you are depressive or not!
After Winter Comes Spring
I live in Florida now, so I no longer battle the cold.
And my depression is well managed, thanks to qigong.
But you know what? Winters can still be tough for me.
They are tough precisely because I know that there are thousands of depressives out there who won’t make it through the winter.
My heart goes out to them.
This post is my way of helping them make it to spring.
If you found this post helpful, then please consider sharing it using the links below. Maybe it will reach the right person, and maybe it will even save a life (or two). From the heart, Sifu Anthony