Have you ever had one of those dreams in which you’re trying to get away from something or someone but your legs just won’t work? You feel like you’re stuck in invisible quicksand. And the fact that you can’t get away makes whatever you’re trying to get away from that much more terrifying.
This is basically how I feel when I’m depressed. I have suffered with depression periodically since I was a child. For 8 years I took an antidepressant. In fact, getting off the meds was one of the main reasons I quit drinking 4 years ago. Cutting alcohol out of my life helped my depression immeasurably, as have exercising, eating right, and an F-ing brilliant therapist I affectionately call Fartnose.
But every year some time between September 21st and December 21st, I start to see the familiar signs. Most mornings I wake up exhausted and anxious for nighttime so I can sleep again, I crave endless carbs, and can’t imagine ever not feeling that way again.
This year is no exception. I’ve been in New York just over three months. I had barely gotten over my bedbug paranoia when my body started to feel heavy and leaden, my mind congested and unfocused. You might have noticed that posts to Drinking to Distraction have become fewer and farther between. The ideas haven’t dried up; I just can’t seem to bring fingertips to keyboard. This post, which has been running through my mind from the moment I realized it’s happening…again, has taken extraordinary measures to finally get written.
In and of itself, seasonal affective disorder or SAD feels pretty awful. But when you add to it a layer of guilt, shame, and embarrassment, it can get so much worse.
And that’s exactly what I do. While I am clearly physiologically vulnerable to depression, a disease with no moral implications that I know of, I tend to view it as a personal weakness, a failure to stop being so serious and sad. I feel guilty for not being able to snap out of it, and ashamed of my inability to lighten up and just enjoy life.
But something is a different this year. While my SAD actually feels worse than in recent years, something has made it a little less scary. Suddenly I am aware of a new option: to experience the SAD without adding my “story.” Through meditation, I practice sitting with the discomfort, as it is, without judging myself, without running away from it, and without trying to reframe it into something more pleasant. It’s SAD. Nothing more, nothing less.
As a result, I feel less guilty, less ashamed. And because of that, I can respond to what is actually happening: I exercise a little more, pay more attention to my diet, sit in front of my lightbox like a plant, reach out to friends and family for support, and if I need a little more sleep, so be it.
Pema Chodron puts it very simply in The Places That Scare You when she discusses training in the three difficulties: (1) acknowledging our neurosis as neurosis, (2) doing something different, and (3) aspiring to continue practicing this way:
In essence the practice is always the same: instead of falling prey to a chain reaction of…self-hatred, we gradually learn to catch the emotional reaction and drop the story line.