Seasonal depression hits for me, like clockwork, the day after Halloween.
I can feel my shoulders slack and my mood weaken. November is usually busy enough to stave off the desperation that will hit later, thankfully. But the fear and paranoia are there: The sun is setting before 5 p.m. and one night spent bored and alone in the gathering dark might pull me under permanently. Thanksgiving is my first warning; Christmas is my second; and New Year's Eve is not a beginning but an end.
There are things to look forward to in November and December: parties, foods rich in fat and carbs, family, friends, gifts, merriment, all things that I love. But each will be packed up and put away like Christmas baubles in the attic come the late afternoon of January 1st, when I enter the gravitational pull of the season's unassailable black hole.
I am morose and moody during the winter, but worse, I am very, very shady. Stuck to my bed and ashamed of the fact, I make promises to friends I can't keep; I start projects I don't finish; I make plans just to cancel them just within the timeframe in which it is bad-mannered to cancel them. I am constantly saying "So sorry, I'm busy tonight. I have something else going on." Tonight, that "something else" was writing about seasonal depression. It took me hours to force myself out from under the covers to begin the task. I'm writing now, but I feel cloudy and dismal, and I'd rather just get high and go on YouTube.
I have depression all year. It bobs up like a buoy, sneakily but regularly. I become reclusive, because showing my face when I feel awful inside is deceitful. I frequently believe my depression isn't real, or my anxiety is from lack of sleep, so I end up feeling worse about both.
I've taken anti-depressants to manage clinical depression before; I've also taken them to level out the regular sadness that comes with life being life. I don't dispute their effect; I've had marginal success with Wellbutrin and Zoloft. I weaned myself off the drugs I was taking (under the supervision of a psychiatrist) because my mind is hyperactive and I tend to double down on thinking too much when I know my brain is being warped somehow. That sounds crazy, because it is. But a lot of my time is consumed by assessing my current state of affairs, and then assessing my assessment. I went off the pills so that I'd have one less thing to think about.
I've found that a lot of non-pill treatments work for my depression. In the spring and summer months I can obstruct my anxiety and depression with exercise, weed, going out with friends, and ample time spent in the sun. The endorphins are good.
But during the winter, these options diminish or disappear. Netflix and Seamless are poor replacements for sunshine and jogging. And they make me lethargic and unhealthy: booster shots for depression. While I fight my internal will, I'm trying to commit to better methods of management.
When seasonal depression sets in, I eat like a weird, shameful slug and I drink very heavily. I'm an advocate of partying long and hard, but the fallout from drinking is a day spent in bed with a hangover. Where should I avoid most when depression hits me? My bed. The drinking is something I find hard to let go, but it usually makes me feel in control to cut back. Several winters I've stopped drinking entirely just so I don't lose control.
I try to get a good night of sleep without overdoing it. Everyone has a different rhythm, but I know damn well that when I am completely horizontal from 7 p.m. onward, something's not right. I don't nap in the winter if I can help it.
I don't have a fancy mood lamp, but that's purely out of a stubborn desire to fix myself by myself. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't.
I take long night walks and when I am on a good sleeping schedule, I try to take morning walks when I can, too, which always help when the sun is out. One winter when I was living in New Jersey, I would wrap my entire body in sweaters and jackets and walk miles in the cold listening to podcasts, just to remind myself that the outside world didn't vanish because I was depressed. Fresh air does a lot of good for the head.
One effective tool for managing my depression during the winter has been routine. I'm an organized person so I love scheduling, taking notes, and making lists. But this is especially important when it gets dark before 5 p.m. and my body holds a quorum: "It's dark so let's go to bed now."
I plan out my weeks in the winter with relative precision and I try to not bail on anything so that I don't fall victim to my favorite wintertime activity: going the fuck home and not interacting with another person until work the next morning. I know which days of the week I will go running or meet a friend for drinks, or go home and relax, even when that relaxing means going to bed. If I plan out and schedule my lethargy I don't feel so indulgent—I can tiptoe around the spiral of listlessness and self-disgust. Of course, sometimes I fall in anyway.
At the same time I try to stay open-minded to change and impulse in order to keep myself and my mind flexible. I don't want to just go through the motions as a method to forestall sadness. Spontaneity can shake me out of painful boredom and bored pain. I have to force it into my winter life, though, with a mantra: This will make you feel better, this will make you feel better, repeated until I make it out of the house. Staying simultaneously spontaneous and regimented is an important year-round strategy to ward off creeping sadness. In winter, when I'm always 10 minutes of twilight and a rush of cold wind away from 12 lost hours buried in my pillows, it seems particularly important.
Maybe the most important trick for keeping myself together: staying off the internet. It's a challenge, because it's my job to be online for every waking hour. But the screen, the stream, the news, the crumbling world, the Twitter arguments, the angry commenters, the anxiety-inducing emails: When I'm already feeling low, it's more than enough to make me buckle. I've been trying to replace my online time with books and magazines. If I have to be online, I only read Clickhole. Clickhole is the only good website anyway.
I fucking hate self-help, new agey shit. I am not a disciplined person. I ask for pain meds when I stub my toe, so I have no vendetta against anti-depressants or medication. The challenge to me each winter is in finding ways to work with feeling low like depression is some stupid, inconvenient friend who needs a place to crash for a few months and who also wants to shit all over my floor. Though reading, staying off the internet, going for long walks, and sleeping well are all nice in theory, I fail at these things daily, and probably will forever. It's the knowledge that I am still trying that makes feeling bad a little less bad, if only for a minute.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]