January is actually the darkest month

by Kristin on January 26, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Dawn Huczek

January has a way of bringing me down, then giving me a few good kicks while I’m there.

This has been the case, in a memorable way, since January 1998 when, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the sun only shone one day: the last day of the month, when I gave birth to my firstborn. In other words, this is the 14th consecutive January that has been a struggle for me, yet somehow each January I forget, and my deep-diving moods take me completely by surprise.

Maybe I’m subconsciously trying to do a mind-over-matter trick—if I don’t think about depression or say the word, it won’t be true. Or maybe depression is just good at being extra sneaky, like the tide that very gradually tiptoes in, one gentle, lapping wave after another, stealing away your little patch of sandy paradise.

The rhythms of nature certainly have something to do with it. That’s why there are well-known terms and conditions like Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD), and a whole market for sun lamps and plane tickets to sunny places. But there are no quick fixes, (although I wouldn’t say no to a week in Costa Rica). Just as surely as my winter depression gradually sneaks up on me, it takes time for it to fade away. I think of January 30 as my winter solstice—the darkest day of the year, the deepest depth, the turning point from which I can begin to look up and emerge into the light, like I did the day my daughter was born and the sun finally shone.

Emerging out of the darkness, inch by inch

Of course, that emergence happens verrrry slowly. And it doesn’t help to fight it—at least not in that aggressive, angry, combative way. It does more good to embrace it, even coddle it a bit, and then do what I can to placate it, like you might do with a grouchy old woman who has every right to be grouchy.

Step one, for me, is admitting that I’m struggling with depression. It involves bringing it up with my husband and friends, and saying it “out loud” by writing this post. It was only a year ago that I wrote my first post about depression, Bringing a dark secret to the light. In that post (which is currently the sixth most “popular” post on my blog) I wrote this:

I blog about my divorce, my parenting struggles, my complicated feelings about God and faith. Why has depression been the big taboo subject—the one I am most ashamed of, and least able to examine rationally, with hope and even humor?

After the admittance is out of the way, and that very real thing is right there in front of you, the embracing can begin. A big part of that comes through all the people who share this struggle and embrace one another through it. It starts with feeling less alone, less ashamed.

Coddle and placate with simple pleasures

Then finally, the coddling and placating can begin. This January, I started going to yoga classes, and indulged in a knitting project for me—I’m making a sweater of the softest lambswool and mohair yarn. I’ve also been experimenting with making chai from scratch, with whole spices, and Jason has kept our fridge stocked with amazingly comforting soups and stews.

And then there are all of the ways my community helps to placate the gremlins and lift my mood. Yesterday on Facebook, I wrote “This day needs *something*. I’m taking suggestions as to what.” The responses themselves were an instant boost, even before I got around to indulging in any of them:

“Sunshine!”

“Black Dog” (an amazing barbecue place in Urbana)

“Gin”

“Cilantro?”

“Rootabagas”

“A messy art project?”

“chocolate. coconut. book. tea. quiet.”

There. Don’t you already feel a bit better, too? Together we’ll get through this, once again.

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  • Lorna

    In an email to a friend this morning I said ” I’m still fighting the blues, but only realize it when I stop to think about it (if that makes any sense).” This resonates for me with your paragraph: “Maybe I’m subconsciously trying to do a mind-over-matter trick—if I don’t think about depression or say the word, it won’t be true. Or maybe depression is just good at being extra sneaky, like the tide that very gradually tiptoes in, one gentle, lapping wave after another, stealing away your little patch of sandy paradise.”
    However it arrives, it *does* arrive, and thankfully it will, based on past experience, leave again. A lot like the tide…

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    oh, i hear this. i’m doing ok this year, but last january was awful. i had an infant, a toddler, a husband leading trips out of cell range, and snow up to my waist. the darkness was palpable.

    there is such power in naming (versus avoidance), and i like the the idea of coddling and placating depression like a grouchy old woman;) and creating space to heal.

    blessings and peace. and sunshine! and cilantro!

    “spring lies waiting, beneath the frozen ground” bill deasy/ kim richey

  • http://www.alise-write.com Alise

    I know that for me, admitting publicly that I’m struggling with depression is so incredibly helpful. For whatever reason, it feels tremendously isolating, and when I’ve had the guts to say, “This is how I’m feeling,” the response has always been, “Yeah, me too. It sucks, doesn’t it?” And I’m reminded that there are people like me. And we can go through this life together, not isolated. And that sooths my crazy brain a lot.

    And to that end (and with Kristin’s permission), if anyone reading wants to share their story of struggling with depression or anxiety or any mental illness, I host a series on my blog called Not Alone. If you’re interested in contributing, shoot me a message. Thanks.

    And thanks Kristin for making it easier for people to talk about this. It matters so very much.

  • http://www.scoutiegirl.com tara – scoutie girl

    First, “cilantro” is the best answer ever.

    Second, I just came back from LA. Everyone there is so nice, so engaged with the world & those around them. I didn’t expect that. Really, I was floored. I expected Manhattan attitudes with just a little more sun.

    But the trick is the sun, it’s hard to be depressed with your world is showered in light & flowers read round, isn’t it?

    Depression is something that’s haunted me my whole life. I certainly feel worse during the winter, although my main trigger is hormonal. Despite all the recent advances in both the medical & psychological understandings of depression, it is something that remains difficult for people – especially women, to talk about.

    I’ve made it a point to write about it when I can and I’m always surrounded by such warmth & support from those who know the feelings all too well.

    Just yesterday, I was considering how part of my “great work” may be working with young women suffering depression and helping them see the sunshine that’s available to them.

  • http://chadestes.com Chad Estes

    Thanks for sharing, again, Kristin. This winter has in many ways been my hardest as it is my first after ‘coming out’ as being in depression. It has helped to open up, talk to friends, my family, a counselor, my doctor. Today my head is filled with memories of the past, recurring behaviors, wondering how much in my life have I spent swimming in the blues, desperately wanting all that color to transfer itself to a bright, cloudless sky. It is as gray as gray can be outside my window this morning, foggy too. Comfort has been found through a doughnut (okay, two) and a cuddle with my faithful black lab. I’m hopeful that January 30 is just around the corner.

  • http://www.dearednablog.blogspot.com Erin @ Dear Edna

    This is a truly beautiful post, for such a dark subject. I struggle with depression as well and for some reason have only recently linked it to being especially worse in winter. The “winter blues” seems too light for what I experience and “depression” seems to serious. All I know is that I hate my life when I wake up and spend the day irritable and snappy. However, both me and my partner commented the other day that I have been happier than usual this year and the only thing I can attribute to that happiness is my new business, as that is the only thing that has changed since last year. It keeps me busy, engaged, creative and in touch with others. I don’t have time to be grumpy. I’m also going to treat myself to a warm vacation for the first time in my life and see how that improves my mood. It may work the opposite and throw me into the depths of despair (thank you Anne of Green Gables for that expression) for March, but that’s a risk I’m going to take!

    I’m new to your blog (thanks to Tara for introducing me). I love your writing and can’t wait to to check out the rest of your blog now!

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  • http://www.theconfidentintrovert.com Susan

    I was just saying to a friend the other day in an email that I’m beginning to hate January. I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life, so I’m used to long, dark winters. But this year, January just seems to be dragging me down. I don’t know if it’s depression — but it is a fairly deep apathy about everything in my life. I also have a few balls up in the air — the uncertainty is difficult for me. Looking forward to January being over.

    This is a great post. Thanks for writing it.

  • Nicola

    Nice post, Kristin!

    I have never struggled with real depression, but last year, at the end of January, a lightbulb went on for me when I was complaining to my husband about how blue I felt, overwhelmed, lacking energy, etc. He said, “You always feel like this at the end of January – every year! You’re usually fine again by mid-March.” And, I realized that he was completely right! I always do – every year! How had I not noticed that?

    After thinking about it for a long time, I decided it was probably some combination of the letdown that happens after the end-of-year frenzy (my job – fundraising – is incredibly demaning and stressful in December on top of the holiday madness), the seasonal affects of the winter lack of light, and the fact that January and February are pretty long stretches where nothing “exciting” happens.

    My antidotes this year are trite, but I seem to be faring better than usual: I bought one of those wacky light therapy lights that I use in the mornings in my office, I’m making sure I’m getting my exercise and sleep (so critical and usually goes out the window in December), and most important to me, I’m making a concerted effort to do some new things like writing for personal pleasure every day and taking a painting class. I also have booked a few things for us to look forward to: a trip to Disneyland in Feb. (crazy, I know, I never thought I’d do it), a weekend in a yurt on the Oregon Coast in April, kayaking lessons for hubs and me (through groupon).

    I’m still somewhat burned out from December and am regularly overwhelmed with my life, but I have been weathering this January with a lot less sadness/blues than usual.

    I’m also trying to work on accepting that this is a lower mood time of year for me and trying (TRYING!) to be gentle with myself when I feel extra sleepy or unmotivated. I am very demanding of myself and easing up a bit is hard, but when I can do it, it helps a lot!

    Take care of yourself and know that you will come out ok on the other side of your darkness!

  • Nicola

    Upon futher reflection, I just have to say that it’s clear to me that I have a lot more work to do on the acceptance part of my plan! As usual, I’m trying to manage my way through the dark time by doing, doing, doing! Not just being!

    I must breathe…and accept!

  • http://divinest-sense.blogspot.com Jen

    Oddly enough, today I was talking with a friend about this, and we agree that January and February are always the hardest, most depressing months for a lot of reasons. And like you said, I don’t always notice it until after I think about it.

    I’ve felt it too… it’s been a long time since I’ve had a long depressed stretch. I’m more aware now that it’s a rhythm of life and maybe it’s a combination of hormones and genetics and personality type and just being human that makes me prone to feel things deeply without being able to explain it. I love that you talk about acknowledging it, naming it, and then embracing it… I’m going to remember that next time I feel the funk coming on. (Or maybe after the fact. There’s always a little more clarity on the other side. :))

    Thanks for opening up. You’re not alone! <3
    And do take care of yourself. Chai totally helps. And a messy art project might not be a bad idea…

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Lorna, I hear you. To someone who doesn’t struggle with depression, it might seem like it would be fine–even nice!–to not realize how down you are. The thing is, the bad feeling is still there, hanging over you in a way that’s even more annoying when it’s unidentified. But you know all that! Here’s hoping the tide recedes quickly.

    suzannah, your description of a snowy January with an infant and a toddler takes me right back to one of the hardest Januarys I endured. Postpardum issues only compounded things. And yet, here we both are. It’s good to tell and retell our stories of hardship and deliverance, like Jewish people do, as a way of remembering and sharing hope. “Spring lies waiting,” indeed.

    Alise, you’re right–it does feel so isolating! And then, for a natural extrovert like me, the isolation and depression snowballs as I turn inward. Ugh. I’m glad I’m not in that place. I think writing about it is a big reason why I’ve been able to hold that cycle at bay. Thanks for your Not Alone series, and for all of the ways you encourage people through it.

    Tara, I agree, I love the cilantro response (especially with the question mark after it). Maybe life is like a recipe that we keep tasting, seasoning, adjusting and perfecting along the way. Anyway, I think your thoughts about your “great work” helping women who are depressed seems pretty darn amazing and important. I hope you keep turning that idea over and examining it more.

    Chad, I can really relate to what you said about memories of past behaviors, “wondering how much in my life have I spent swimming in the blues…” I look back on that time, that person I was, with so much compassion and pain, you know? Not that anything can be done besides moving on and helping others. I’m glad your sharing your story (and placating the beast with doughnuts).

  • http://www.listenfeelbreathe.com.au David | Listen Feel Breathe

    For me here in Australia I find that January is one of my better months. I think it’s because the sun shines, the days are longer and warmer and so I find that I spend more time outside enjoying the fresh air.
    Probably the harder and more depressing times come in June, July and August when the sun sets well before I finish work and I go home in the dark and the cold at the end of another long day. About that time I also start to feel like another year is going by so quickly.
    You are right, it is so easy to fall down. But we must get back up, we must keep our faith, hope and purpose, we must make time to reflect on our lives and focus on the positives, on the good things and the thoughts that make us smile.

  • http://www.joyinthisjourney.com Joy

    Coddling and placating… I’ll have to try that! :)

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    January seems like a good month to put extra focus on caring for ourselves. So many of us make resolutions at the start of the year, which is a start, but I also find I enjoy January more when I so a little purging and mid-winter cleaning of the house, cook some hearty meals in the kitchen and work on some nagging projects around the house.

  • http://therevandtheboys.wordpress.com Julie

    Thanks again for bringing such a difficult subject to the light. As a pastor who struggles with depression, I always feel like it’s a tricky thing to admit, that I often find myself in the darkness trying hard to focus on the light and love of God. I sometimes worry that those who have not experienced depression might believe that I *should* be a beacon of hope and cheer, and won’t understand how will alone cannot force me out of the valley. But, in the last few years, when I’ve found an opportunity to confess this side of myself it has usually meant relief for the one I’ve shared it with. It is such a blessing to be here in the midst of it and not be alone…

  • http://hollyhousestudio.blogspot.com Jennifer

    My goodness. Look at all these comments. Again, you strike just the right note. How do you always do that? At any rate, you know, January always seems so stinking long. And it’s STILL NOT OVER. I know this about January. I know that it has the taste of stale cookies; no more holidays, back to work but it’s cold and dark and our layers of clothes keep us from dancing.

    I also know it will be over soon enough. I find a certain amount of comfort in the “coddle” part. For just a few days, I give myself permission to wear sweats and eat whatever I want whenever I want it and to watch too much tv. And I laugh about it. I call it my snit. And I have it and then I’m done.

    It’s okay to struggle with depression; it’s okay to allow yourself to experience the depth of your moods; it’s even more okay to tell others. I always feel a bit more trusting when I know someone isn’t perfect. Makes a tighter community.

    I need to stop because if I don’t I’ll write about it all day. Hang in there.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Erin, I think knowing what to call whatever it is that we’re experiencing can be a big part of the problem. You don’t want to overstate it, or to downplay it, and the perceptions of those around you vary so widely, too (and depend on the language you use). I’m so glad to hear that you’ve found some relief in a really positive, life-affirming way: a new business! You obviously know what you need (staying “busy, engaged, creative and in touch with others”) and you’re making it happen. Good for you! (And thanks for reading and sharing with us here.)

    Susan, a “deep apathy” sure sounds like it could be depression. Sometimes you live with something like that for so long that you almost get used to it, and don’t realize how debilitating it is/was until it goes away! I hope you find some helpful ways to minimize the apathy and uncertainty as you wait for winter to pass.

    Nicola, I love your antidotes—they aren’t trite at all! I say whatever it takes. And I think this is so very wise and important, even if you wish you had mastered it a bit more: “I’m also trying to work on accepting that this is a lower mood time of year for me and trying (TRYING!) to be gentle with myself when I feel extra sleepy or unmotivated.” I think our lives ebb and flow with the seasons, in many ways. Let this be your resting/being season—give in to it.

    Jen, if you’re able to see and articulate this, I’d say you’re definitely on the right track: “I’m more aware now that it’s a rhythm of life and maybe it’s a combination of hormones and genetics and personality type and just being human that makes me prone to feel things deeply without being able to explain it.” I love that. Thanks for your honesty and encouragement.

    David, yes, maybe we should each “winter” in the other’s country! I have relatives in New Zealand, and there’s no doubt what time of year I plan to visit them (some day…). I’m glad you mentioned keeping in mind your sense of purpose, too, which is another way of keeping the big picture perspective in mind.

  • http://www.manypinksneakers.blogspot.com sarah louise

    Messy art project!! That sounds fabulous…

    I used to like January. And then…I don’t know. The past couple of years have been hard.

    My self care for the week: I imported my mother for Sunday eve/Monday/Tuesday midday. Someday these visits will not entail her throwing out bad produce from my fridge as I tackle clutter in the other room. But for now, it was that. She is a task master, and I got a lot done. We went to the movies, we took a walk…it opened my world which has been very closed. So thank you, Kristen, for writing about this, you surely see that what you are doing is allowing us to write about it too.

    (Plus I just added 2 blogs to my Google Reader from folks in the comments.)

    xo,
    SL

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  • http://turquoisegates.blogspot.com Genevieve Thul @ Turquoise Gates

    November is to me as January is to you. This post took guts and lifted my spirits a bit.
    http://turquoisegates.blogspot.com/2009/11/another-november.html

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Joy, sometimes the right strategy to employ is the “whatever works” approach. :)

    The Modern Gal, I like how you worded that–caring for ourselves. It’s not all that different from how we might treat ourselves when we have a cold. We’re not as hard on ourselves, we succumb to more comfortable clothes and comforting food, and we build in space to rest. And speaking of New Year’s resolutions, too often I think they do just the opposite, raising the bar too high and demanding too much.

    Julie, I know others have written about depression within faith communities, and the problem it often seems to generate. I can only imagine how much that’s compounded when you’re the pastor. It sounds like God has been blessing you with opportunities to share and people to truly listen (and be blessed by your honesty in return). I’m so glad, and thankful that you’re willing to be part of the sharing here.

    Jennifer, well, I definitely don’t always strike just the right note, but it’s nice of you to suggest that! :) I love your description of January–stale cookies and too many layers of clothes that keep us from dancing! Yes! I also love your definition of “snit.” Once again, you make me laugh and feel less alone, all at once.

    sarah louise, I’m curious–when you think back to the years when you liked January, what did you like about it? What images/memories/sensations come to mind? Not that you can magically make it a reality, again, but it might be an interesting exercise, making a list. I’m glad you know what to do and where to turn when you need some self-care (and I’m glad you’ve found some new blogs here–this community is so great).

    Genevieve Thul, thank you for saying that. So I wonder if getting your “bad month” out of the way early in winter is a good thing? :) Not that it makes a big difference in the end, but I’m so fascinated not just by how people’s stories are alike, but how they vary and are unique.

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