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Tips to Navigate Deep Winter Depression

Personal Perspective: When depression doesn’t take a break, agency is key.

Kristina Tripkovic/Unsplash
Source: Kristina Tripkovic/Unsplash

Depression never "closes up shop." No, like Denny’s, it’s open 24/7, 365 days a year.

I should know. I experience some form of it every year. It doesn’t last as long and isn’t as intense as it used to be, and I’m grateful for that. But it still comes around. When it does, it sucks. Really sucks. Those of you who have experienced clinical depression know what I mean. Loved ones of those who experience depression know what I mean too.

Operation "Take Back"

As in past years, in this recent holiday season carefree insta-family-photos abounded, chipper mall music played endlessly, and Hallmark movies like Single All the Way trended on Netflix.

I have nothing against the holiday season, per se. In fact, I did my best to mitigate my love/hate relationship with the holidays this year. I "took back Christmas" (as a wise friend suggested). I did the season my way. My mantra: No pressure, no guilt, no "should-ing" on myself. I didn’t send any cards or bake three types of cookies. I didn’t even take that quintessential walk the first day it snowed.

I did, however, go Michael’s-craft-store-obsessed and wrapped gifts with care, creativity, and lots of jingle bells. But this was because I love wrapping presents. I lit up and decorated my grandma’s tabletop tree and haphazardly hung lights around my front door. Martha Stewart definitely doesn’t live here, and that’s just fine with me.

The Winter Whammy of Depression

I usually get hit with a couple of weeks of depression in November when the light is lessening, again in January, and sometimes in February. You might have guessed; winter isn’t my favourite season. Depression in December is almost a given. A few days before Christmas this year, I felt its shadowed fingers slowly pulling me down.

I always look for reasons why it might be happening. Why it might be twining itself around me like an itchy scarf. This year is my first real Christmas without my husband, who is now my "was-band." We both agreed "ex" sounds too much like an executioner or gruesome fatality. So, we decided I’m his "was-wife," and he’s my "was-band."

Though going our separate ways was a wise choice, it doesn’t mean I’m immune from feeling melancholy. Ours was a 20-year relationship. That’s a lot of shared shortbread.

The Paradox of Chasing Happiness

The problem now is I was face-to-face with this slimy green depression, and self-rejecting grit lodged in every part of my body. I fluctuated between running from it, hiding from it, breathing through it, over-analyzing it, texting about it, and finally "getting-on-with-my-day" about it.

The last option has the best results for me. Frustratingly, the more I try to 1) figure out why I’m depressed and ruminate and 2) scramble to do something to feel less depressed, the more depressed I feel. Does anyone out there relate?

This is the cruel paradox that is the pursuit of happiness. The more I try to feel happy, the further away happiness gets and the more discouraged I become. The more I beat myself up for being depressed and unable to get out of my mess, the more I try to get out of it. And so, the vicious circle repeats.

Even after over two decades of experience with depression, lots of self-management tools, therapy, and good insight, I still forget to relax and let the symptoms of depression pass, as would the symptoms of a cold. Amid depression, it’s hard to remember all I need to do is put one foot in front of the other, do my best to tolerate the discomfort and uncertainty, and allow myself to feel my emotions. Yuck. I know. But the only way out is through, right? No detours here.

And above all, be as kind to me as I can (or at least remember someone who’s shown me kindness because sometimes I can’t muster self-compassion).

I do as my counselor, Hard-ass Andie, coaches me to: I feel my feelings while I go about my business. Hiding under the covers and not leaving my bed might feel comfy temporarily, but in the long run, it only makes my depression worse.

So one day, three weeks ago, when I still felt depressed, I snuck in an extra hour of sleep, then argued with myself, debating the benefits of getting out of bed, and I got up. No small feat when your body feels like cement glued to a duvet.

I took my medication and texted a friend to be a check-in buddy. I told her I’d go for a run, shower (something that takes an uncanny amount of effort when clinically depressed), eat lunch, and start a bit of work. There wasn’t so much as hope in my day as a structure on which hope could be built.

Doing these things didn’t magically make the depression disappear, but it made me feel like depression didn’t own me. I have a say in my life, maybe not how I feel all the time, but I have agency. That’s another nugget from Hard-Ass Andie. She reminds me that I’m powerful and have choice in my life, even if depression tells me I don’t.

If you are experiencing depression or "simply" feeling blue or lonely, remember you don’t have to figure out why. You don’t have to scramble to change how you feel. Instead, remember you have agency.

That might feel like a big fat lie. But I’m here to tell you it isn’t.

As days passed, and I used my agency to make choices in the right direction, I started to feel better. When depressed, we can take one step at a time and get on with business. Yes, it will feel uncomfortable, even bleak at times (I speak for myself), but going about small everyday activities helps pass the time while depression makes its way out of our systems.

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