The Conundrum of Warm Winters

The Finger Lakes is a place of deep, lengthy winters. Known for having snow squalls straight into the month of May. But for the three winters we have lived here, each winter has been a little less snowy and the winter a little shorter. This year has been the oddest in particular. While we’ve had a lot of weather events, the vast majority of heavy precipitation has come in the form of rain. This is good, as it allows us to fill our water shed and makes it less likely we’ll dive head first into a drought in the spring, but it’s odd because that rainfall should be snow and what snow we have received, the inches can be counted on one hand. And it’s bad, because the hint of spring is ever present, close enough to touch, but yet still too far away to grasp, and I am left feeling the pull between the two seasons in a disastrous sort of way.

The first time I experienced seasonal affective disorder, I was in middle school, or a freshman in high school. A teen, but a young teen, and living in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The Catskills has a similar climate to the Finger Lakes–at least it did when I was a child. Long winters with a lot of snow followed by a brief explosion of spring, perfect summers, and the most glorious autumn my millennial heart could ever ask for. But as it did every year, we had a singular warm day that caused the heavy snows to rapidly melt and the scent of spring to be thick in the air. When they day was drawing to a close, the sun setting still too early for my liking, and a chill entering the atmosphere that smelled like old snow and ice, my mood plummeted. It was such a marked emotion, such a particular experience, that I still remember it clearly. I had my bedroom window open and sunk to the floor before it, clinging to the window’s ledge and smelling the scent of spring in the air while it also became too chilly to continue to have the window open. I remember the world growing dark in my mind, I remember feeling listless and lost, I remember feeling like everything warring inside me would never end.

Ever since, my seasonal affective disorder has become something I have a better understanding of. When I moved to Washington DC, I had it the most frequently of any other part of my life. January, February, then the end of July through mid September. It wasn’t just winter depression, it stretched into the summer months, some of my previously favorite months. It took a few years before I was able to put my finger on it, but suddenly I had an abundance of clarity over what was happening. The district area was much warmer than the Catskills. Winter was considerably shorter. But January and February became months where winter was nearly done. Tough, granted, because the glitz and excitement of the holidays had passed, but beside that we began having that hint of spring. And spring always arrived early, abundantly early, and I was able to feel myself bloom under the bright sun and flowering trees. Then summer came and with it high humidity and high temperatures mixed. By mid-July, it would be so hot, so humid, that I would hide away indoors. I could no longer sit outdoors comfortably and I lost the sunshine and the fresh air. My mood, predictably, would suffer.

And I say this all lightly, not giving true details of how seasonal affective disorder takes my life by the throat. Some days I can’t get out of bed, I don’t want to eat, I struggle to perform basic day-to-day tasks. My mood is morose, sometimes I have a short temper, sometimes I can do nothing beyond cry. Other times, my anxiety gets the best of me and I’m in a constant state of vibrating unease. It varies from moment to moment, experience to experience.

When we left DC and moved to the Finger Lakes, it all shifted again. Gone was the seasonal affective disorder during the summer months–although one summer it was particularly hot and I spent most of my time indoors and predictably I had a flash of the experience again. But rather than feeling the waves of depression during the January and February months, they moved to primarily March with April tacked on (give or take). The winters were longer, our January and Februarys more productive in terms of snow. For those two months, it felt like winter. But by March, that tug between winter and spring began and my depression awoke.

So I see it now, I see that summer months where I’m forced indoors due to the heat triggers my SAD. I see that it’s the end of winter, when the weather can’t seem to figure out if it wants to be warm or not that SAD is an unwelcomed roommate of our apartment who has the nerve to not even pay rent.

But we return to this year. This particular year with its weird weather and frequent bouts of rain that should be snow. We had a warm January, an even warmer February. We had temperatures drop to record breaking highs and all the trees rushed forth with the buds of their blossoms. Then it grew cold again and we were hit by one storm after another, all proclaiming inches of snow but only turning out to be a slushy, icy mix that are just enough to ruin ones day.

Like most people, if you’re reading this, I suspect you’ve gone “Well obviously, getting outdoors makes you feel better. Get outside more.” But oh, do not so quickly assume that’s so simple a thing for myself or anyone who is struggling. There is so much more going on behind the scenes. I have a child who I am the primary caregiver for, and sometimes he is sick or simply has no desire to go outside. I have a job as a writer and editor, and sometimes when the day is glorious and warmer and sunny I am tethered to my computer, unable to leave. I also am disabled. Taking walks is something only recently achieved after I had a severe issue with my pelvis creating excruciating pain when walking. For two years, I couldn’t walk to my car without discomfort. I could barely carry my purse without it causing pain, let alone anything else. But persistent physical therapy has allowed me the opportunity to walk without issue–most of the time. Sometimes, the pain flares up. Sometimes I simply cannot go outside and the weather is gorgeous but the ground full of mud so I can’t even sit in the grass to enjoy myself. Other times, I am simply too depressed to get out the door. This is the most particularly infuriating moments for me in hindsight. I have nothing stopping me and yet I can’t will myself to go.

And here we are, the start of March, the buds on the trees, and the weather perpetually hovering near freezing. Warm enough that all the snow has melted and rains come, but not warm enough to burn off the clouds and give us sunshine. It’s dark and dreary and the last few times I had an opportunity (willpower, childcare, not working) to go and take a nice walk there was a layer of ice everywhere. Therefore my mood suffers, my thoughts turn glum, and I become sensitive to the abundance of everything all around me.

After having days of feeling low, I decided to do something that has become quite the habit for me (happening at least twice each year), I took a social media break. Apps were removed from my phone, posts up to forewarn of my absence, and I am always surprised by the sudden freetime I am presented. I never think I am on social media a ton, sometimes I’m on it continuously and I’m not discussing those days where it’s clearly apparent due to the constant updates I make, I mean the rest of them. The day to day interactions. I’m on it so much more than I like to admit because when I do a break, I discover I have so much freetime on my hands. Suddenly the chores around the house are getting done quickly, books are being read, writing being done. It’s amazing.

And I’m there now. I’m in that social media break and I’m seeing the rest of my life strengthen. I’m also no longer doing a game of comparing myself to others–which is always a bright sign it’s time to log off. When I can’t get off of a social media page without feeling worse about myself, it’s necessary to step away. Perhaps I’ll do this for the remainder of March, perhaps I’ll only do it for a week, I don’t know. But already I see the abundance of life pouring in. A book outline completed for the first time, things cleaned that I’ve been putting off, and this page being updated. I wonder what other marvelous things are ahead of me.

Do you have seasonal affective disorder? If so, how do you grapple with it? What works for you?

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