It’s a cold winter evening, the sun is setting and I’m writing while I half-watch a rerun of “The Good Wife.” The t.v. is on because I need the background noise. I need it to drown out the feeling of dread churning in my stomach and making my whole body hum with anxiety. In people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, what I’m experiencing right now is called “sundowning.” As the sun sets, anxiety, confusion, and feelings of despair start to set in. It’s worse this time of year. Shortened daylight hours and frequent drops in temperature are believed to result in seasonal fluctuations in serotonin levels, making some people more susceptible to depression during the winter months. The clinical term for this susceptibility is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
I have some other terms: hypersomnia, listlessness, melancholy. There are reasons why depression is often described as a winter. In the words of the poet A. Alvarez:
A suicidal depression is a kind of spiritual winter, frozen, sterile, unmoving. The richer, softer and more delectable nature becomes, the deeper the internal winter seems, and the wider and more intolerable the abyss which separates the inner world from the outer.
During the winter, the metaphorical transforms into the literal. One of the symptoms of SAD is a feeling of heaviness in the arms and legs. It is a familiar feeling to anyone who has ever found themselves incapable of the physical exertion required to get out of bed in the morning. Grey, icy days compound the difficulties associated with this type of major depression.
As I see it, though, the winter provides an excellent opportunity to discuss more openly the realities of living with chronic depression. People are much more open to conversations about the weather than they are about their inner lives, but during winter these two things merge. People are more open to talking about their experience of depression when they feel that it is bounded by fluctuations in temperature. The weather is perceived to be fairly banal and innocuous small talk and so it creates an opportunity to talk about more difficult subject matter.
Since the beginning of time, people have made sense of the rhythms of life through natural metaphors. One of the most famous passages in literature describing these connections comes from Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.
Depression is frightfully common, yet little discussed within churches. I believe that this passage from Ecclesiastes can provide a helpful framework for talking about depression without putting people on the defensive. If we can talk about grief, we can talk about the melancholy without meaning that defines so many people’s experience of depression. But, we have to commit to conversations that go beyond superficial chatter about how awful “wintery mix” is. The first step is to recognize the symptoms of depression. It’s also important to know that there are populations more vulnerable to depression. The young and the old are both more susceptible. Women, too, are especially vulnerable. The World Health Organization estimates that by the year 2022 major depression will be the leading cause of disability in women.
When we begin to examine the complexities of mental illness in the United States by talking about the weather, we quickly see how interconnected we all are. The seasons are a universal experience and an easy starting point for many of us. “How’s the weather treating you?” starts the conversation. The church seasons can continue the conversation. I invite churches to visit stations2015.com for more information on how to use artwork and the Passion story to invite faith communities into deeper, social justice-centered conversations about mental illness and behavioral health during this coming Lenten season.
Mary Beth Button is an artist and writer in Memphis, Tenn.
Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Button.