Everywhere I went yesterday I could feel how excited people were for Time Change Sunday. They got an extra hour of sleep, after romping around real sexy-like in their Halloween costumes the night before. Starbucks rolled out its festive red cups and all the pepperminty goodness that goes along with them. Thanksgiving is on the way, and so: family and stuffing and leaves that crunch under your new boots (it’s boots season, too!). Then, of course, Christmas songs and Christmas lists and Santa Claus and egg nog and kissing in the New Year and and and and…
‘Tis the season! Winter is coming!
I took a bubble bath last night, had a cup of sleepy time tea. Sat on the floor and let my foster kittens crawl all over me and purr their soothing purrs. I read a book. I watched an ASMR video. I stretched, I spoke my intention to do good out into the universe. Around midnight, I crawled into my girlfriend’s lap while she watched the World Series and ran my fingertips over and over her softest cotton pajama shirt, pressed my open palms against the warm, smooth skin of her back. I tried to match my breathing to her breathing, to anchor my emotions in the rock of her constant warmth and affection. I was sick with anxiety, like being nauseous and knowing you’ll feel better if you can just throw up, only it was a panic attack trapped inside me that wouldn’t come out.
Time Change Sunday is my personal gateway to hell. It gets dark earlier (and then earlier and earlier). It gets cold in the morning and night (and then stays cold all day and all day). I stay inside to keep warm and then I stay inside because I don’t want to leave and then I stay inside because I can’t get out of bed. In recent years, I have been flattened by Seasonal Affective Disorder nearly every winter. SAD, it’s called. SAD.
I have struggled with depression my whole life. I didn’t know what it was when I was a kid, of course. No one did, really. It was the ’80s and my parents spent all their time fighting and trying to feed us, and anyway, they’d already told the doctor no (multiple times) when he tried to put me on Ritalin. The best way to deal with complicated emotions was to pretend they didn’t exist. So I went to bed every night praying to not wake up; or to wake up into a different life, and maybe this one was just a dream, and my sister would be there for real, and my cats, Tuna and Silly, and my dog, Skeeter, but everything else would be different. I wouldn’t be sad in my bones.
My depression got worse when I was a teenager, because on top of everything else, I spent all of my mental energy trying to hide the truth from myself that I’m gay. It carried over into college too. People would have called me funny, back then, if you’d asked them. Hilarious. Hysterical. I made them laugh. I made everyone laugh. And I went home to my dorm and stayed up at night and wondered if there was a way I could die that wouldn’t traumatize anyone. I didn’t want to hurt my friends. I didn’t want to hurt my family. I didn’t even really want to die. I just didn’t want to exist anymore.
Coming out changed things for me, in inconceivably enormous ways. When I finally flung open the door of my brain and heart and embraced being a lesbian (and allowed many of my friends and family to embrace it too), a lot of other stuff started tumbling out of that closet. My untreated ADHD. My perpetual struggle with depression. The growing collection of emotional wounds and scars that come from having a mother with Narcissistic/Borderline Personality Disorder. I was 26 when I dumped it all at my therapist’s feet and we started picking through it like war rubble.
A decade later, I am more mentally healthy than I ever have been. I’m in a loving, committed relationship with the woman I’m going to spend the rest of my life with. I have a job that sustains my soul and massages my creativity and every single day I get to work with some of the cleverest, kindest, good-est human beings this world has to offer. My family loves and supports me, and so do my close friends (who are my family, too). I’m making the world better, every day! And I’m rewarded for it! But winter is coming. Winter is coming, winter is coming, winter is coming.
I am never wholly happy. I mean, I experience happiness, and excitement, and even incandescent joy. I get ooey-gooey in love feelings and laugh deep and often and feel the rumble of that healing energy reverberating throughout my body. I am happy, generally. I have happiness every day. But there is always a deep well of sadness inside of me. My “baseline sadness,” is what my therapist calls it. The pain of the world, of the people and animals in it, it gets to me more than what’s normal. The hard decisions I’ve had to make for self-preservation, about my mentally ill mother, especially, they haunt me. When Seasonal Affective Disorder comes knocking at my brain’s door, it doesn’t start at zero and work its way to ten. My sadness is never at zero. Seasonal Affective Disorder walks in on at least a four.
One of the worst parts about suffering emotional trauma at a young age is that way it freezes your mind and suspends it in time. I’m a well adjusted, mostly mature 36-year-old woman. I resolve conflicts like a grown-up. I apologize like a grown-up. I face my fears and desires like a grown-up. But when I see the tentacles of depression slithering their way toward me, I feel as helpless and terrified as I did when I was six years old, playing Chicago’s Greatest Hits record as loud as it would go so my sister wouldn’t hear my parents yelling — there was a scratch on the A side that made “You’re My Inspiration” get caught on a loop, like: “You’re the reason, you’re the reason, you’re the reason … in my life.” — and wishing I had any way to fight back against the darkness that was enveloping me.
The panic I felt last night as I tucked myself into my girlfriend and clutched at her pajamas wasn’t the panic of a grown-up. It was the panic of a child.
The thing is, though, that I do have a way to fight back. I do have the tools I need in my life now. I may not feel like a grown-up when I’m squaring my shoulders against seasonal depression, but I am one. I know how Seasonal Affective Disorder manifests itself in my life, and I’m thinking clearly because it’s not here yet. I know the waterline of my baseline sadness. I was watching Home Alone early this morning when I couldn’t sleep, and I started wondering if maybe I could summon my inner Kevin McCAllister this holiday season. If I could run out into the snow and shake my fist and shout, “I’m not afraid anymore! Do you hear me?! I’M NOT AFRAID!”
I mean, it would be a lie. I am afraid. I’m afraid of the despair that always accompanies this thing, afraid of the hopelessness and sleeplessness and mood shifts and anxiety and inability to connect with people and create things I love. I’m afraid of eating too much and drinking too much to self-destruct and self-medicate. I suppose being afraid doesn’t make my defeat inevitable, though. I suppose I could choose not to hide under my covers and wait for SAD to get here and hook itself into my soul and suck all the joy and productivity out of my life.
I could start my vitamins now, plan my meals (around omega-3 fatty acids), get serious about vigorous exercise, reach out to my support network and actually let them support me, get a light box, plan walks into my day and set a timer and enforce them, make my workspace brighter, lose those (extra-)extra pounds, have more sex, try yoga, try acupuncture, try to learn (again) to meditate, socialize, plan a romantic getaway, stick to a schedule, get enough sleep, be honest about my struggle, my journey, write about it.
Maybe I could build a fortress out of the war rubble, with floor to ceiling windows to let the sunlight in.
I’ll be journaling my progress fighting seasonal depression and posting it for you here at Autostraddle dot com bi-weekly. If SAD is something you struggle with too, I’d love to hear from you. Maybe we can fight this dark winter off together.