The darkest time of the year
Daylight savings comes to an end this weekend.
Every year, I struggle with seasonal depression. This year, I'd really like to break the cycle so I wrote about my thoughts on the winter, depression (and seasonal depression), their links to capitalism and our continually dwindling work-life balance. I hope this resonates with you, and if it does, please share with others and don’t hesitate to drop a comment or email to me. I appreciate each and every reader and response. Thanks for your support.
Over the course of a year, the sun sets at a different time every single day. This fact may not resonate with some, but since I’ve learned it, I’ve also learned about the Summer and Winter solstices — and by extension the Spring and Autumnal equinoxes. These solstices mean a lot to me but for vastly different reasons.
Our seasons are deviations of time established by the spatial location of the sun in relation to the earth. But our seasons are also defined by where we are on earth; the seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres are flipped with each season being flipped to its opposite corollary. In the southern hemisphere, their winters are during our summers and during our springs, they are experiencing their transitory fall. While flora flourishes in the northern hemisphere during the months of March, April, and May, the flora in the global south fades away in a burst of yellow, orange, and red beauty. While plant life expands in the south, plant life perishes in the north. Every region on planet earth has different climate depending on elevation, longitudinal and latitudinal position on earth, even the preponderance of human and corporate agitation affects the climate of localities.
The social implications of changing seasons is not an immutable fact of reality defined by the positions of quantum molecules but rather a social construct devised by humans. This results in the many defining features of the seasons in American culture. The association of the leaves changing colors, football, scary movies, Halloween; these are all associations we created and cultivated that did not exist until a population of people developed them. The same is true for Christmas; while holidays are undeniably linked to American consumerism and capitalism, traditions and holidays have been celebrated by humans since the early days of culture.
These changing seasons are a fascinating aspect of society because while day-to-day life doesn’t seem to change much, week to week, month to month, life can look radically different for an individual and society. Those equinoxes and solstices, they themselves carry a special value relative to the geopositioning of the sun relative to the earth. That’s a wonderful concept as it does carry dramatic implications for our planet: fat bears double their weight before hibernation during the cold months, vibrant monarch butterflies migrate more than 2,500 miles from Canada to Mexico, alligators enter something similar to hibernation called “brumation,” squirrels hoard resources in a behavior called “caching” to prepare for activity during winter. The unseen world all around us does not shut down when it comes to cold weather, nor does the human world. Our world is unmistakably different during these times, though.
For me, this time of the year has long been a time of contradictions. I used to say I “hated,” “loathed,” or “despised” this time of year due to seasonal depression. I’d tell myself that the lack of daylight drained me and caused my depression. While there is certainly some truth to the effects of seasons on our mood, I’ve begun wondering if this is less due to seasonal changes but rather the already-existing cracks in our lives and society that are widened when the angle and temperature of the light is shone on those cracks. Much like the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t expose any issues that people weren’t talking about before, and this is true of every societal or global calamity like the Great Depression, climate change, or the Great Recession, these issues hum in a subterranean, subperceptible part of society that is only present when you go searching for it. We knew wealth inequality was a major risk factor for people before COVID-19 brought the world to its knees, the pandemic only served to expose that truth in a hyper-focused way. These realities are true on a societal and global scale, so what if the changing of the seasons is just another example of shifting circumstances changing our frames of reference and showing us the world in a different light?
We are so far behind in our conversations surrounding mental health and mood disorders. On one end of the spectrum, we have toxic positivity crusaders who position everything as a simple mindset shift in “choosing to be happy,” and on the other end, we have people who promote the idea that medication — usually anxiolytics, amphetamines, benzodiazepines, or some form of antidepressant — is the ultimate and only solution to the chemical imbalance in our brains. Of course, as most things tend to lose nuance when they reach such a fever pitch, a lot of important conversation is dismissed or shrouded in confusion.
The older I get, the more I realize how much of life just is and much of what we believe things to be are covered by layers and layers of our own experiences and biases. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Everything we perceive is filtered through our senses and all of our sensory perceptions are then filtered through our own brain’s processing machinery, meaning what we perceive as something is not necessarily how somebody else will perceive something. Even two siblings growing up in the same environment can have much different personalities. This shouldn’t come as a shock, but there is not a doubt that our assumptions in how others perceive the world, and how often we assume others perceive it similarly to ourselves, influences our personal and political perspectives. Sure, there are things that we can all fundamentally agree on, such as “every person is equal,” but the reality is that how we define “equal” can lead us to have much, much different opinions on equally. Our biases can be exploited by politicians and corporations for political gain or profit.
The contradictions of winter are strange to me. I feel a sense of nostalgia for every month of the year. I think back to November as a month of excitement; school was busy but the end of the year was near and Christmas was a countable amount of days away. Thanksgiving was always a special time to see family and eat heaps of food and lay on the couch and watch football. December was delightful; school was decorated, the cold evenings were marked by starry lights and Christmas decorations, January was a time of revival in focusing on goals and enjoying more time inside and more video games when I was younger and warm coffeeshops and scarves when I was older, February was a short month with snow yet spring was on the horizon, and March was when the days get much longer quickly and outdoor sports were reasonable again and days in the 40s and 50s felt like 60s and 70s. I look back with a sense of resigned contentedness when I think back to these months. The reality of those days is much different to my memory, though.
I remember those times fondly but during those days, my depression was always, always worse. On top of that, these months were when I struggled the most with self-esteem. I’ve not written that much about my struggles with self-esteem (though I’m quite open about it), but I’ve been hard on myself and loathed myself for physical attributes, mental competence, professional and personal skills, interpersonal relationships, writing, and anything else I can find where I can relentless berate myself. There’s no doubt that these months put me in a precarious position; I’m confined indoors with less vitamin D (a problem for people with CF especially since vitamin D deficiencies are already common) without my usual safe-place of nature walks and hikes with Duncan to act as my most effective balm for mood issues. The cold months are doubly difficult for me as an extrovert as this time of year just presents less opportunities for social gatherings or things to do with friends.
And yet, I look forward to these months every year. My aforementioned association of warm coffeeshops during chilly days is a very safe memory for me. I think of these places as the spiritual home for my writing, which just might be my favorite activity in the world. I look forward to winter because, like the aura of fallen and changing leaves during the sharp winds of October, there is an aura of calm during these winter months. We present ourselves a little differently during the winter months, almost more authentically, less concerned with others because we seem to be more concerned about figuring out what to cling onto before the world opens up more. Even though the first COVID-19 lockdown occurred right around the restart of Daylight Savings last year, those few weeks, terrifying as they were, broke something fundamental about our world. In some ways, this break was tragic, but it also exposed just how much so many of us refuse to allow ourselves the comfort of our own interests and comforts. We were clinging to the social connections through Tiger King and virtual Zoom parties and baking our own bread and indoor workouts. We were picking up new hobbies or just not doing much for the first time in a long time. Those early days of the pandemic were horrible in a lot of ways, but I look back fondly at the sweet ways everybody was trying to make it through. I think of those days in the same way I think about winter.
I want to be expressly clear that I have struggled with depression and suicidal ideation for the better part of 10 years and seasonal depression for probably 15 or more, but have only been diagnosed and treated for about three and a half. There is no doubt in my mind there are genetic predispositions for depression that alter the brain chemistry resulting in symptoms. But in the same way that somebody can be more likely to break their ankle due to bone structure, there are other factors at play. Somebody who hardly ever does any physical activity is less likely to sprain their ankle — no matter if they have a higher likelihood or not — than somebody who plays sports for a living. Somebody who has a genetic predisposition for depression is therefore less likely to develop depression if they have their material needs met in other ways. Even somebody without a profound predisposition for depression can develop depression if they don’t have parental, familial, or friendly support and they undergo serious trauma. Some studies even suggest that 50% of depression cases are genetic and 50% are environmental, demonstrating two important points: Depression does not care who you are, and also, some people are just less likely to develop depression due to their environment.
What I most wonder about seasonal depression is if we are seeing a collection of people who develop worsened depression during this time of year for a collection of reasons: less sunlight means less vitamin D and less outdoor activity, colder weather means more time inside and less time socializing with people, and an association of this time of year based on our pasts leading us to further perpetuate our own seasonal depression by believing the future is predicated on the past.
It is mostly taboo to talk about the association of capitalism and the burdens the never-ending pursuit of profit and growth has on individuals held captive by a system that relies on working most of our lives, resulting in a cycle of exhaustion and a sense of never having the time to pursue interests for the sake of pursuing interests. I am guilty of this myself; my most favorite hobby writing has become a part-time job which has inevitably deflated some of the joy of writing. There is evidence that when we go from doing something we enjoy doing — called intrinsic motivation — to receiving payment for that same thing — extrinsic motivation — we begin to enjoy doing that thing less. Capitalism incentivizes this; if we enjoy doing something, we convince ourselves that doing that thing for a full income would be the best path to happiness. The commodification of joy has turned us against ourselves.
I find it difficult to believe that depression, seasonal and general, and anxiety are not linked to the way we labor in this system. These issues exist all year round, but winter exposes them more dramatically because we have less time, energy, or motivation, to pursue the activities that we are most intrinsically motivated to do. Life does not have to exist in this way and we should seek to rail against his pattern of life. I don’t know if there is a simple answer for how we do that but I think it starts with us being honest about our work-life balance and the way the world is currently designed for us to work until our deaths.
We often talk about working hard now so we can enjoy retirement. What do we see in retirement that will make us generally happier? Maybe it’s the opportunity to do the things we want to do simply because we want to do them while having passive income or savings to live off. Theoretically, it is during our retirement that we will be able forgo extrinsic motivation (aka an income) to pursue life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait until retirement, which may never come for millennials or zoomers with the rate of climate catastrophe and stagflation.
For me, the first step is going to be prioritizing the parts of life that I enjoy doing for the sake of doing during these cold months. I’m going to try to write more (both for money and for enjoyment), I’m going to read, I’m going to continue cultivating plants, I’m going to try to socialize more through the means that we experimented with during the early days of COVID-19. I’m also trying to reframe my perspective a bit by pursuing activities that are not as readily available during the winter. The winter offers me a time to ski, to hike in places with less human activity, to explore the coffeeshops and museums of my new home in Washington, DC, and Arlington, Virginia. If animals adapt instead of loathing the changing of the seasons, I don’t see why I can’t also try to change the lens from saying I “hate” this time of year to finding the things that are available during this time of year. I’m sitting at Barnes & Noble right now drinking a coffee from Starbucks, and one thing Starbucks doesn’t have during summer is the red cups and peppermint mochas that I love during November and December. That’s a start.
Daylight savings ends this weekend, and the days will continue to get shorter until the winter solstice, just as they have every day since the summer solstice. But once the winter solstice passes, daylight gets longer every day for the next six months until the summer solstice.
I know I’m not the only one that struggles with seasonal depression, so if you’re struggling now or anticipate struggling during the next couple of months, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Thanks for taking the time to read this essay. It would mean a lot to me if you shared this essay with friends you think would enjoy it or even just sharing it on social media means a great deal to me. Also inviting people to subscribe to my writings is invaluable to me. Other writings are available at trelarosa.com.