I’ve been struggling extra hard with a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder this year. I think part of the struggle is related to my mistaken hopes that removing my family to a warmer, more southerly location would produce a milder form of the yearly blues, so to have them hit hard, yet again, feels like even the most extreme efforts are nothing against the seasonal tidal pull of a hormonal imbalance. Nonetheless, I’m dutiful: I take my pills, read my books, show up to work with a good attitude whether I feel like it or not, and muscle through some of the stickier patches. Not drinking much anymore means that I’m not dumping regular doses of depressant into my system, and I’m sure that helps. Counteracting it, of course, are two kind of big things: my chief weapon against SAD, exercise, is pretty much caput right now, as I’ve got a bum foot with a nasty case of tendonitis. And, we had a close friend die unexpectedly this season, which has brought a bevy of emotions that are hard to swallow.
But the season brings small cheers, too, not just disordered thinking. I hear many people complain about the prevalence of commercialized Christmas decorating earlier and earlier each year, but to my cheer-starved mind, they can’t come soon enough. Baubles and Santa Clauses and holly berries and evergreen wreaths and tinsel and carols and seasonal flavors (gingerbread, peppermint, nutmeg, and so forth) help perk my spirits up a bit. It’s hard to mind how “commercialized” it all is when it’s all still helping to decrease your overall sense of malaise, isn’t it?
Another thing about Christmas time that’s always helped me cope with some of the affective symptoms are the ideas that prevail throughout the Christmas tradition. I know the Christian church at some point co-opted the pagan holiday dates for their own celebrations, and I understand why many people could feel resentful of that, but I also understand why any group would want to choose late December to throw a big, festive party, whether it’s the Solstice or the mis-dated birth of your Savior. Having grown up in the Christian tradition, it’s the lyrics of Christian yuletide hymns that speak to my own continuous effort to break forth from the gloom. In many ways, they speak to the universal human heart’s desire to look past the long nights of winter to the breaking of light beyond, the months of warmth and light and easy hearts to come.
For me, SAD has always meant a difficulty seeing things positively, a dramatic decrease in physical energy, a general lethargy that transpires right when I need motivation to get through the short days and long nights. My body is more susceptible to illness, my heart more susceptible to breaks.
To hold back the oncoming tide of darkness, I bake when I can find the energy. I exercise when my body will let me. I find good stories and wrap myself up in them. And I sing carols. One suspects the hymn writers of Christmastimes long past were familiar with these same midwinter blues, when they write lyrics like, “A thrill of hope: the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!” Or, “O, ye, beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.” The image of a bright breaking dawn is not just an apt metaphor for the world’s spiritual hope being born into flesh, but is also a powerful image for people here and now struggling just to make it through from short dark day to short dark day. And when we hear the story of the page who follows King Wenceslas into the cold and dark, can we not relate when he cries, “Sire, the night is darker now and the wind blows stronger; fails my heart! I know not how – I can go no longer”? The hymn writers understood the direct parallels between these dark, cold days and our flagging spirits, and the fact that they understood and still produced great work, work that could life our own hearts in need of lifting, gives me hope that even in the midst of Seasonal Affective Disorder, I, too, may take care of myself and others; I, too, may make something that lifts the spirits.
This piece originally appeared on Meghan’s other blog, dumbleadore.com, on December 11, 2011.