Every year when February rolls around, while other people post on social media about how much fun they're having sledding and building snowmen and drinking hot chocolate, I think, shoot me. Just shoot me now. Throughout the winter, I struggle with a vague despondency, but in December, the holidays keep me occupied, and in January, there is the afterglow of the holidays. Then comes February--28 or 29 bleak, gray days which send me into a hopeless funk that lasts approximately until the first daffodil blooms in mid-March.
As February drags by, I have less and less energy. Everything requires extra effort--making a pot of soup, walking my dog, writing the simplest sentence. Although normally an early riser, I sleep later and later, and once I'm up, I find it difficult to stay awake. My thoughts turn dismal and morbid. I think about mortality way too much, about global warming and prisoners of war and the collective failings of human beings. I worry about my health, about the health and well-being of the people I love. I find even the most casual conversations daunting and draining.
I've had this annual bout with despair--aka seasonal depression--for as long as I can remember, and over the years, various doctors have suggested I take medication. However, while I know antidepressants can be very effective and life-giving to people who have more serious, prolonged periods of depression, I want to avoid taking medication if I can. While I may one day change my mind, I believe that, for me, for now, the better choice is to ride out the winter months, knowing that come mid-March, I will wake up one morning, instantly, inexplicably invigorated.
This year, my normal February blues have been compounded by with other "real" problems--financial worries, frustrations with my work, a household full of elderly, declining pets, etc. It has been my normal seasonal bout of depression on speed, or, rather, the exact opposite of speed. Depression on tranquilizers, perhaps. Once again, though, I am plugging through because I know that, though I will feel pretty miserable for the next six weeks, the end is in sight. Winter cannot last forever, right? In the meantime, here are a few things I have found that help me beat the winter blues:
1. Though I sometimes have to coerce myself into doing it, I exercise. And by exercise, I don't mean I wander aimlessly to the mailbox and back. I mean I do rigorous exercise that causes me to pant and sweat, that releases endorphins and gives me a renewed sense of optimism. I go to spin class and Zumba. I go hiking and bike riding, but most often, I walk my dog (who is, frankly, as disheartened by winter as I am). Sometimes, an hour-long walk isn't enough. Sometimes, I walk for two hours, or even three, and when I am finished, no matter how dreary and cold and blizzard-like it is outside, in my mind, it's a bright, sun-soaked summer day.
2. I cut way, way back on my alcohol intake. I realize that sentence may make it sound like I normally kick back a fifth of vodka a day. I don't. Still, while during the rest of the year, I might enjoy a handful of beers per week, in February, I guzzle sparkling water and do not stop until I have consumed five cans a day or until the abdominal bubble build-up becomes excruciating, whichever comes first.
3. I do not allow myself to be inundated with upsetting news stories. While I do read both local and national news online, I choose to skip "heartwarming" (code for extra depressing) stories of abused dogs and critically ill children. I also do not watch hours-long coverage of school shootings or terrorist attacks or drowning refugees or police brutality or any other horrible thing over which I have no control. It's not that I don't care about these issues. It's that I tend to care too much, and so I have to put my caring into perspective. I care at the ballot box and in the day-to-day way I live my life. But it does me no good to immerse myself in these stories until I feel too dejected to get up and walk my actual, real-life, not-abused dog who is sitting by my chair asking very nicely if we can please just go on a walk already.
4. I regularly take vitamin D (orally) and B12 (shots), and because I am old, I also use hormone replacement cream, which is, I suppose, a kind of medication. In any case, if I think too much about why I am using the cream--because my youth is over, spent, gone, never, ever to return--then I become instantly despondent. But if I just rub it on my thigh and pretend it's lotion, it seems to give me a little extra pick-me-up.
5. Though I normally enjoy edgy, dark films and books, I have instituted a February ban on this sort of material. However, a few nights ago, I accidentally violated my own policy and watched a documentary about Amy Winehouse. It was, for the record, amazing, and it would be fantastic viewing material for, say, August. However, when I was finished watching the film, I wanted to shoot up heroin. And smoke crack. And binge drink. And date someone truly terrible for me. It was a good moment to pause and reflect about why the "Keep It Light" policy is necessary--because my tendency to be one, giant sponge, passively soaking up other people's misery, needs to be kept in check.
6. I listen to music a lot. I even listen to sad music, which I know is a violation of the "Keep It Light" policy, but melancholy music, unlike sad films or books, still seems to have a positive effect on my mood. Don't ask me why this is. It just is.
7. I make a point of emailing and texting and calling old friends who are funny and fun and not all down-in-the-dumps like me. And if I end up getting together with some of those friends for lunch, I try to focus on how my friends are doing, not on how I am doing, which works out well for all of us because no one wants to hear how I'm doing in February, not even me.
8. The converse of this, unfortunately, is that I must avoid the naysayers in my life -- the perpetually angry and angsty, the Debbie Downers, the obnoxious overachievers, the pathetic underachievers, the chronically dysfunctional. Even if these people really, really want to hang out with me (because who else do they have to hang out with?), they will still have to wait. I simply cannot do it in February. Their shortcomings, unfortunately, remind me too much of my own.