Beating the winter blues

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With the arrival of October, summer has officially passed into autumn, and I couldn’t dread it more. Fall is my roommate’s favorite season. She often places autumnal flowers in our living room in an effort to get into the cozy spirit emblematic of fall. She buys little pumpkins from Trader Joe’s, and we talk about painting them, but my heart isn’t in it. “Let’s drink hot chocolate and watch rom-coms,” she suggests, and I agree and enjoy curling up on the couch with her, but a part of me just wants to crawl back into bed. 

While I suffer from chronic depression, I also likely have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, a type of depression that worsens in the wintertime, possibly because of reduced amounts of sunlight. My psychiatrist recommended light therapy to assuage some of the depressive symptoms I experience every fall and winter. I’ll be getting a light box, which can help regulate hormone production associated with SAD (the Tang Center has some for students to use, too!). 

In the winter, I sleep more, and I walk around in a daze. My sense of time is distorted, and the days feel like they slip through my fingers. The season feels endless, and my depression feels like it will never alleviate. As the sun sets earlier and earlier, I feel my joy slipping under the horizon with it. There is something very distressing about the season change, as if I’m losing opportunities to find relief from my depression. 

If every season begets a feeling, summer is joy and autumn is melancholy. I spend October through March longing for the past, for a time that seems endless and unchanging. All the unhappy memories of summer are erased, replaced only with a movielike montage of happy days that may not have even been that happy in real time. 

As much as I dread fall, I adore summer. Born in Orlando, Florida, I thrive in sweltering hot weather. My perfect day consists of 75-degree-Fahrenheit sunshine and an unending sense of possibility that comes with daylight. At home, summers were filled with beach days, nighttime fireworks and parties in friends’ backyards. We could sit outside in the warmth well into the night; the only grievances were mosquito bites. When the world is warm and bright, I can believe that happiness is an achievable and imminent possibility. Although I am often still depressed in the summertime, there is an undercurrent of hope and a sense that I can still find enjoyment in the days. Sunshine is a baseline for contentment in my life. 

Even though it still feels like summer in Berkeley, I feel like I am mourning the season’s last moments before we enter fall’s rainy days. As the sun sets earlier every day, all I can think about is the hours that are lost. I am not a big fan of endings. 

The end of summer means goodbyes to my family, a barrage of homework and tests, and the end of summer jobs. It feels like freedom is disappearing. The beginning of fall brings unknowns I am not ready for. I wait with dread to see if my mental health will deteriorate by the middle of the semester like it has every semester I’ve been at UC Berkeley. I’m filled with worry that this pattern has become a part of my life. 

I’ve taken joyful summers to be a guarantee, but having SAD doesn’t mean my depression will be cured come May. This last summer, my depression didn’t alleviate as it had in the past years. I was struggling through Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation treatment and working two jobs in the city. The chilly San Francisco weather during my summer job made it feel like any other time of the year in the Bay. I had two incomplete classes to finish from the semester before, and working on schoolwork made the whole summer just feel like a continuation of the semester. I certainly didn’t feel as depressed as I had in January, but I had come to rely on the summer to be a happiness booster, and I was left disappointed. 

I don’t have to surrender to the narrative of happy summers and sad falls. The weather might tell my body how to feel, but I don’t have to play into it with all my being. 

Maybe I can find some happiness in you, autumn. With the season change there are certainly endings, but there are also beginnings. There are new friendships to be made, new projects to work on, new memories to be created in a different kind of air. Maybe this time, the season change will bring with it not just melancholy, but a new kind of contentment. 

I’ll try to be a little more optimistic this season. I don’t think depression is something that can be alleviated by positive thinking, but I might make my condition worse if I just sit back and watch it happen to me without trying to make the most of the inevitable shifts and changes. There is still joy to be found. 

Salwa Meghjee writes the Thursday column on destigmatizing mental illness. Contact her at [email protected].