Letter from Harrisburg
Winter can take us to dark placesby Dorcas Smucker
“Were there 50 of them?” she joked, referencing the title of the best-selling book.
Neither of us has read the book, but we are familiar with winter’s varieties of gray and the creeping heaviness of seasonal affective disorder that comes with this time of year.
This will be my 25th Oregon winter, so I know the pattern. The sunny days of late summer stretch on and on, well into September and sometimes on into October. I pull carrots, go camping, and inspire the family to help me can 50 quarts of applesauce. We try to wash windows but give up when the farmer to the north plows his field and covers the clean windows with dust. I ride my bike in the evening and smile into the glorious setting sun.
But then the clouds move in and so does the dark cloud of depression. The rain falls and so do my spirits.
Suddenly I sleep a lot more, crave cinnamon rolls and stop caring about the last of the squash going to waste in the garden. I find excuses to stay at home again. I can’t decide on a menu for Thanksgiving dinner but obsess for days about the nasty woman who stepped right in front of my car and then yelled at me in the WinCo parking lot as I was slowly driving away. Oh, she was evil, blaming me for her own inattention, and why couldn’t I think of a withering reply? I no longer care much about the dirty windows. Lastly, my energy disappears, and making my bed in the morning and recycling the newspaper are like wading through knee-deep peanut butter.
I am able to laugh at myself now because I immediately recognize the symptoms and I know this malady has a name: seasonal affective disorder. Thankfully, it also has a solution — for me, a careful mixture of vitamin D, nutrition, herbal supplements, taking walks and connecting with people.
Many of us in the Northwest deal with SAD, I’ve learned, our symptoms ranging from mild to debilitating.
At a midwinter writers’ group meeting at my friend Jessica’s years ago, the subject of winter depression came up. We all dealt with it, to some degree.
Jessica said, “When the sun came out accidentally yesterday, I just had this surge of energy.”
We all nodded. It had happened to each of us.
Jessica said, “Wait. Did I just say the sun came out accidentally?”
We laughed. What an apt description of an Oregon winter.
SAD wasn’t funny the first winters that we lived in Oregon, especially when it took over reality to such a degree that I was in full-blown depression. Unfortunately, the deeper one sinks into any mental illness, the harder it is to recognize the problem and ask for help.
A friend had the courage to say the words: You are depressed. You need help.
There’s a strange power in that seemingly simple step of verbalizing the truth. Especially for someone with a long family history not only of mental illness, but also of hiding it in silence, our private anguish has to crank up a long and difficult auger before it finally spills out of our mouths as complete words.
“Something is wrong.”
“I have a problem.”
“I need help.”
Having an observant, compassionate friend who articulates it for you can be a godsend, catching you before you fall further or crash completely.
Saying it in words enables you to reach out for skilled help, find out that the darkness has a name, and discover hope.
This isn’t normal. Life can be attractive again.
Recently, in preparation for a speech, I visited the Lane County office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Staffed mostly by volunteers, NAMI offers classes, information, referrals, and — most of all — support.
“I wish I would have known about you years ago,” I said, thinking of all the floundering I could have avoided.
My hostess nodded, affirming that it’s often a long route from recognizing the problem to getting help. The important thing, she emphasized, is knowing that others have survived the same issues, and they will help you overcome as well. Recovery is possible.
My first step in fighting SAD was to buy a big white electrical apparatus with the ambitious label of “Happy-Lite,” which I placed on my desk and tried to stare at every morning.
It worked, to some degree, but I found it terribly hard to consistently sit in one spot for half an hour a day.
Plus, it invited too many adolescent jokes. One irritated word from me about the dog getting hair all over my skirt again, and a child would snicker, “Mom, did you forget to sit in front of your Happy-Lite this morning?”
One winter, I tried prescription antidepressants but hated the side effects, especially the sense of placidity, as though I had no emotions at all.
Eventually, I found the combination that works for me. At last, I have weapons at hand when the autumn cloud moves in. It’s hard to describe my gratitude for this, the relief, the sense of finally being in control.
Thanksgiving dinner is now an enjoyable challenge. Buying Christmas presents is a huge job but not overwhelming. I have the mental clarity to pray for the inattentive woman stepping in front of the car and give thanks that she wasn’t hurt.
“She probably has SAD, poor thing,” I think.
The pain of winters past becomes a gift: I not only recognize signs of depression quickly enough in myself to ward it off, but I also see symptoms in others long before they have the ability to say the words for themselves.
“This is what I see,” I tell them quietly. “I’m worried about you, and this is what I suggest.”
So far, no one has resented my intrusion.
“I hadn’t expected the profound relief of someone noticing,” one of them told me. “It means I’m not invisible … that my pain is not falling on blind eyes all around me.”
Winter will likely always have an edge of subtle dread. But now it also has a beauty of its own — a foggy feather across the Coburg Hills, a sun-edged gap in the southwestern sky, bare oak branches black against four distinct shades of gray; and a darkness finding words, past sadness redeemed in new compassion, a heavy listlessness replaced with gentle strength and light.
Dorcas Smucker is a homemaker and mother of six. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
She blogs at Life in the Shoe-- www.dorcassmucker.blogspot.com
To order Dorcas's new book, Footprints on the Ceiling, mail a check for $15 (postage included) to Dorcas Smucker, 31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR 97446