Searching for Sunglasses: Existential Depression and the Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice. Photo by Peter Trimming.
Winter Solstice. Photo by Peter Trimming.

I reside in the Chicagoland area of Illinois, where a deficiency of Vitamin D in the blood is a widespread medical condition. I am acutely aware of the encroaching brevity of daylight and the darkening of the year as I stand upon the threshold of the Winter Solstice. The lengthening shadows of the afternoon loom like grim, sarcastic teachers, holding out their hands for my work, eyebrows raised in skepticism.

Although those of you in the vicinity of Saybrook who may enjoy a regular banquet of California sunshine and warmth may not fully relate, I suffer from a seasonal pattern of depression, in which the dim light at this time of the year feels oppressive. I long for bright sunshine, and this yearning only deepens as I age. Even as I type this, I sit for the first time this year under my 10,000 lux therapy light, dreaming futilely of sunny beaches, open vistas, plentiful oxygen, and blue skies! My body feels heavy and slow, despite conscientious attention to a fitness routine. I force myself out of bed by 8 am now that the teaching semester has ended, knowing that I could easily sleep the entire day. To be completely candid, I really want to just do that—let the days slip quietly past this difficult time of the year until the coming new semester forces me back into productivity and springtime quickens my blood again. I resent the fact that nothing in my life gives me permission to do that.

I am also aware of my thinking, which is very dark as well. I am so terribly far from the person I always wanted to become, even though the surface of my life is active, fulfilling, and exciting. Some part of me dimly recalls that I am blessed to be a member of a family and community that loves and supports me, that students seem to love my classes, and that I am doing good spiritual healing work as well as good psychotherapy. Nevertheless, I dwell more obsessively on all of the mistakes and terrible choices I have made in the course of my life. I fantasize hopelessly about being able to travel back in time and undo the harm I have caused, prevent the betrayals I have inexplicably perpetrated against those for whom I would also give my life. At the risk of sounding dramatic, the pain of this contradiction is unspeakable.

Despite valiant efforts to recall the good I have done for others in the sum total of my life, I simply cannot fully escape the persistent, nagging anxiety that comes from the thought that I am a sham, the worst kind of fake. I am letting myself fully feel my sadness, disappointment, and disillusion. I am allowing the creeping sense of failure to have its way for now. Perhaps, just perhaps, if I am feeling these things, then my story is not yet finished, and if I know what is missing, I may yet have the ability to find it and make it part of me as well—though the hour is late indeed.

I have occasionally wondered if antidepressants taken along with my light therapy this time of year would help me endure it until spring—just a little mood boost, a pick-me-up to get me through. I don’t seek pills though, for a number of reasons, mostly connected to my spirituality. The lugubrious feeling of my body at this time of year is a good reminder to me about where the earth is in its solar orbit. I feel a flush of warmth in the knowledge that my friends in Australia and Brazil are enjoying the advent of the Summer Solstice, a necessary balance to what is happening in this part of the world. I also recall that my Celtic and Germanic ancestors actually regarded the Winter Solstice as the mid-season point of the cold weather days of the year, not the first day of winter. It is the pivot, the fulcrum, where the length of the day is shortest and where night is at its longest. The Sun dies, and is at once reborn, as the days now begin again to lengthen. With the promise of ever longer days for the next six months, the Winter Solstice is the first herald of the coming of spring, even as winter well and truly settles in for good. It is the inspiration for all those old dying and rising god celebrations. The Sacred in me remembers that. What a grand time for what has to die in me to do just that! I surrender resolutely to that molting…

If I were mopping a floor, it would foolish to begin near the door of the room and work inward. I would end up walking over and sullying what I already cleaned. How many times in my life have I done just that? Best perhaps to start in the center and spiral out, or begin at a point very distance from the entry and work my way back to the doorway. If the Sun knows what is needed to die and be reborn, then perhaps I do as well. As above, so below. As without, so within.

As I allow myself to die fully at this time of the year, perhaps I can reach into my core and fan the embers of integrity and authenticity to new life. I have…SUCH hope…that the light in me might yet be reborn—that I have summer as well as winter in my heart.

In a moment of sweet and hopeful irony, the sun came out after I turned off my therapy light, and as I gaze out the window, I note how it reflects almost blindingly off the fresh snow that fell last night.

Better find my sunglasses for the drive to the gym.

— Drake Spaeth

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