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Searching for Sunglasses: Existential Depression and the Winter Solstice

Posted on 20 Dec | 14 comments
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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Comments and Discussions

Thank you for the fine

Thank you for the fine writing from the heart, Drake. I too have been particularly affected, or at least more noticing, of the steady drain of vital life energy that began sometime this fall. All my eager plans and visions for future programs, outdoor adventures and writings that seemed so inspired last spring and summer... look now like mania and irresponsibility. The fall/winter self seems older, slower, more skeptical, (p)reserving of life energy rather than eager to scatter it about the landscape and community. Extended sleep and avoiding social (holiday) socializing seems like the only reasonable response to all this.

Although I can't seem to alter the mood or thoughts in the midst of this darkness, I am trying a new thing. The observing of it, as you have, is valuable I believe, and your sharing of it inspired. I will be much more aware and perhaps "ready" for this soul-downshifting next approaching fall, like a trekker who knows he will run out of carried food at some point and will need to improvise mid-journey. I lighten way up on the workshops/ commitments and heavier lifting for the season. I do sleep more and nap more, a lot more, and am nearly non-guilty about that.

I shift into contemplative prayer mode, meditate longer (because there is no daylight seducing me off the cushion for more play), write longer Christmas messages, actually take up the watercolor brushes that have been sitting silently since the class last February. An unabashed fan of Eckhart Tolle, I write down on 3x5 cards, "Drop the Resistance": to the depression, the low energy, and the ridiculous expectations that I would somehow function in deep winter the same as I do in full-testosterone Spring/Summer. The earth itself has tilted away from the sun: who the F am I to think I am different, after preaching the gospel of shamanic interconnectedness with the cycles, seasons and creatures all year long to others!

Several years ago, back in my hometown of Rochester, Minnesota, I was out for a wintry walk in a rural county park near the nursing home where my mother was failing with Parkinson's. I stopped on the drifted bank of a small frozen pond, alone, 5 degrees and windy, looking at the ice frozen feet-thick and rock-hard around some hapless cattail reeds stranded offshore. Everything around me appeared quite dead, of course: the oaks, shivering poplars, the absence of animal or human life in the empty park. Then, with a quiet little insistence, this thought: "Frozen does not mean dead; it means _held_."

I believe we are all being held in a rather firm embrace these months. Not dead, or even dying. Just held. My job, I believe, it to allow that. Hold still, receive the embrace, drop the resistance and the stream of negative thinking and self loathing that accompanies it. To be a winter mammal like the rest of my animal kin that pretty much withdraw for the season in dignity and stillness, honoring their Creator. And the Spring to come.

Jeff, thank you so much for

Jeff, thank you so much for your warm support and inspiring response!

Thank you for your post and

Thank you for your post and your honesty.
I found this blog because I googled "why am I always so depressed at the winter solstice" and a link to your posting came up. I realised a few years ago that my seasonal depression coincided with Chistmas week and some years specifically on the winter solstice. I was trying find out if others have this same problem too. I too avoid anti-depression medication. I have found for me they just would numb me out and not really make me feel better. I take vitamin D, eat healthy, exercise 2 to 3 days a week and that seems to help. Thanks again for your post.

So glad you found this

So glad you found this post--glad it resonated!

I enjoyed reading this

I enjoyed reading this confessional blog, Drake. I so do appreciate the courage to face melancholy head on, and a willingness to accept and embrace it; I think melancholy has a beauty of it's own to offer when we allow it to teach us.

Best wishes,
Brent Robbins

Thanks Brent!

Thanks Brent!

SAD is a genuine health

SAD is a genuine health problem here in the middle latitudes of Alberta. I live at approximately 54 degrees N and sunset was at 3:20 pm yesterday, December 20. I gulp fish oil, extra calcium and vitamin D every day during the winter. I should find my "daylight" lamp and bath in its white light for an hour to help me re-synch my sleep cycle with normal diurnal folk.

Thanks for the reminder to celebrate the return of the light. Many of us simply remain in our caves and forget that the sunrise (in approximately 2 hours here) will be steadily getting earlier until summer solstice when the sun breaks the horizon at around 3:20 am and it doesn't truly darken all night.

I wish you all the best of the season!

Thank you! I wish the same to

Thank you! I wish the same to you and yours!

thanks for the soul-searching

thanks for the soul-searching share. i especially connect to the wisdom of the spiral:

"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."

wise, indeed. blessings!

As someone who has struggled

As someone who has struggled with depression all my life, often exacerbated in winter, I think you sound like a follower of Christian Science. You won't consider pharmaceutical therapy because of your spiritual beliefs? Why not allow a little gray area into your life and allow yourself to pursue this form of healing as well?

No, I am far from Christian

No, I am far from Christian Science indeed, and my life is full of gray, especially this time of year, lol! It's not like I am a fanatic about my personal choice not to seek meds. For instance, I would be loathe to turn down a medication that might save my life from a disease unless it were a big quality of life issue, though I am certainly of the opinion in my professional work that psychotropics are over generally way over-prescribed and serve the profit motive of pharmaceutical companies more than anything else. The whole point of this article, though, is that for me there is value in embracing the whole experience and learning from the natural reactions of my body in its connection to the planet and its cycles. I derive satisfaction form the experience of "leaning into" my sadness rather than moving away from it. That is a common theme of many articles you will find on this existential website as well. If you feel judged by me in any personal choice to use meds, that is certainly not the intent of this writing. :-) If they bring you much needed relief, I am very glad to hear it. Solstice Blessings to you, whoever you are!

Your own deep work is an

Your own deep work is an inspiration to me Melissa! Looking forward to the next CN retreat after the New Year.

I am a psychotherapist

I am a psychotherapist trained by Drake. (Or as I call him, Dr. Spaeth) So, Dr. Spaeth, beautifully thought out and beautifully written. I wanted you to know I refect on your teachings often while I provide psychotherapy to my clients. Thank you for trying so hard to live authentically and by sharing it, helping others to do so as well.


Nice to hear from you Peter!

Nice to hear from you Peter! Thanks for the reassurance that my work has an impact for those of you doing the hard stuff in the community!

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