Weathering Depression: Surviving the S.A.D. Blues

When I was growing up in Jamaica I never understood why white people on TV talked so much about the bloody weather.

When I was growing up in Jamaica I never understood why white people on TV talked so much about the bloody weather. Little old ladies exclaimed to other little old ladies, “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” and I was perplexed by the question. Outside my window the bright, hot sun shone everyday and all day long, no matter what time of the year it was. When it rained, it did so for only a few warm minutes. Then the sky was immediately blue again.

My British pen pal wrote pages and pages about the cloudy London sky. I read the perfect penmanship and was bored beyond measure. I responded in tedious kind about the sunny skies in Montego Bay, all the while wondering why the strange girl was so interested in matters as mundane as clouds.

Then I moved to New York City and the weather report became my lifeline as I dressed for the day. There is nothing to describe the journey from the tropics, where we never think about the weather except to complain that it is hotter than usual, to a place that freezes over for months at a time every year. And for years I couldn’t understand why every September I would fall into an inexplicable, unshakable depression, why verses and verses of tragic, dark (badly written) poems filled my journals, why I wouldn’t answer my phone, or go outside, or eat very much. Every time the sun went away I wanted crawl under my covers and go to sleep forever. And for months I had minimal contact with the world beyond my apartment, and I became tacit and sharp with those close to me. Many of my relationships ended under the strain.

For half a decade, periodically and sporadically I was a wreck and I had no idea why. One week, in the year I turned 30, it rained for days and days running in New York. The skies remained black from dawn to dawn. I almost slit my wrists. The only thing that kept the razor from my skin was worrying about who would fine me and how it would affect them. And suddenly, it got warm, and the urge to harm myself disappeared.

I decided that it was time have a closer look at what was happening to me. Like any good self-indulgent writer, I started reading the journals I had kept over the years. It took me two journals to discover that though my bouts of sadness were often informed by difficult events in my life, they were completely at the mercy of the weather. If something slightly disappointing happened in the spring, I could brush it off as unimportant and easily bounce back from the disappointment. But if the same thing happened in the fall, it would push me down into a pit of sorrow.

Every fall, for the first five years I lived in New York, this pattern of behavior ensued. As soon as it got cool, I started pulling into myself. The colder it got, the more intractably depressed I became. I talked to friends about the phenomenon and found that many immigrants from the continent of Africa, from all the different islands of the Caribbean, even people from The South and California had similar tales of the cold-weather blues.

And when I googled it, I found a term, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a disease where people who experience normal mental health during the rest of the year become depressed in the wintertime. It’s some kind of negative response to the lack of sunshine and warmth. I suppose there are varying degrees of it, and I don’t imagine I had the worst version of it. Because as soon as I knew what was happening to me I felt better.

Even though I don’t know why it happens, knowing that it was not some imagined condition made it easier to navigate. I talked to my therapist about it, and thousands of dollars later, when my mood plummets, before I do anything, I check the color of the sky. If it is gray, I know I that what I feel may be driven more by the weather than anything else. Now, my life feels less crazy in the cold months, less hopeless, and more in control of my moods. That means I manage my day to day, my year to year much better than I did before.

Today, it is raining. Hard. The sky has been morose for days now. The temperature outside falls a little every hour. I am cooped up in my Brooklyn apartment, snuggled down under the sheets with one of the most brilliant minds of our time. She is sleeping. I am working, blogging, trying to make art of my afternoon. The wall in my bedroom is painted the color of a summer sky. Everyday I try my best to navigate the delicate balance between my flawed psyche and my less than ideal environment. And I suppose have found a way to be happy.

Years ago I would have scoffed at the hippie-like quest for something so elusive as happiness. But, happiness, or the absence of discontent, I have found is not something you search for in the heavens. It is simply the feeling that sustains you as you dance along the continuum of grief and anger and disappointment and change. It is the ability to feel the sun’s rays caressing your face, even with the threat of the darkest skies hanging angry overhead.

(Staceyann Chin is the author of The Other side of Paradies: A Memoir)