I always get the winter blues around this time of year.
Like, every year.
A few years back, I went with my wife’s family to China in early December. We were there to support my father-in-law, who was receiving an award for his work in helping to improve Chinese hospitals. I spent the entire time pretty depressed and anxious. I was happy to be there—or at least I wanted to be. I wanted to appreciate this cool trip exploring a foreign country—the homeland of my wife’s family. But I wasn’t all there. I wasn’t really present. And I felt ashamed for it.
The following year, my wife was pregnant. I discovered my deepest worries and anxieties about the coming baby during that winter. He wasn’t due until April. But that winter felt unbearable at times. I remember nights waking up in a panic, horrible images of death and terror and murder. Many times at night I wondered if I was going to wake up the next morning. If anyone was going to be there for my son.
I think for many people, this type of experience will sound familiar. For others, it will sound strange—even solipsistic or selfish or mad. It’s difficult to explain what goes on in the mind of someone whose depression and anxiety have taken control. And it’s difficult to understand how someone can feel fear or sorrow for no reason.
It’s not that I don’t see glimmers of hope or sunshine or laughter amidst the chaos of darkness. And, thankfully, I’ve learned ways to remain functional during these blue periods. But I always felt that a lot of people don’t really understand, or that think they I’m not trying. I am.
Last night, I considered calling my loved ones to say goodbye. But it’s not because I was going to kill myself. I’ve never had any serious suicidal thoughts, even in my darkest periods. It’s just not in my nature. But I was fairly certain I was going to die anyway. That the universe would just open up and swallow me whole. That I would descend into the permanent, spiraling black. And that this strange movie was over.
It’s moments like these where you cling to anything that feels like an anchor to reality. A call to my parents. A walk through the neighborhood, a glance at the moon. I found myself wandering the aisles of Safeway, searching for the perfect box of milk—and chamomile tea—to bring a calm to my sense of impending, sickening dread. I didn’t want to fade away.
And then there were moments of screaming and clutching the phone while talking to my parents, who listened and chided and walked with me. Under the moon and street lights, and past the haze of houses and people. No one seemed real, not the drivers on the road or customers at the store, or strange figures walking by. The neighbors I imagined in their houses, peering out at me as I gasped and sobbed.
Memories, and the story of your life, the arch of narrative and sense of identity are difficult to find at times like these. It’s as though I’ve lost all memory, a kind of fear-induced amnesia. Edges blur and life is just a distant, eery pantomime.
Somehow, I managed to make my way back to my family last night. I settled cautiously into bed, near my wife and our beautiful precious little boy. I tried to focus my attention on my breath and body laying in bed. The feel of the sheets against my skin. A certain part of my mind still felt like I was in a dark wind tunnel. But somewhere, on the periphery, amidst the feeling of unreality, I could tell I was still there. A certain part of me was able to be mindful of the situation, however distant. Like the moment when you realize you’re in a dream, but you haven’t quite woken up yet.
I got some sleep, my first in 48 hours. Everything was okay.
I can’t say for sure if this is the only episode like this that I’ll endure this winter. I can’t say for sure if that inner sense of dread won’t carry with me for days or weeks like it has in past winters. But I can say that I feel better right now. In this moment.
From the perspective of mindfulness, all thoughts and emotions, even the most overwhelming terror and anguish, can be seen for what they are—an appearance in your experience. It’s possible to not lose control in the most uncontrollable situations. It’s possible to suffer and remain open, compassionate and aware of it.
But it’s also hard to do.
It’s a long road.
I’ve got work to do.