Halfway Out of the Dark

December 21, 2022

Today is December 21. I love the darkness of the Winter Solstice for its ancient observances, its fables, its mystery, and its magic: how the moonlight makes the snow glitter in the same the way that the stars shimmer in the violet-black sky. But I also know that the period around the shortest day of the year is anything but appealing for many others.

 

Those with Seasonal Affective Disorder are often mired in the darkness of December. And many people living with grief, depression, and anxiety find it challenging to navigate the cold, the lack of sun, and how the various holiday festivals seem to give joy and connection only to others.

 

I’m reminded of a Doctor Who Christmas special I once watched when Matt Smith played the Doctor. If you don’t know the show, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to have watched it to understand the episode’s message about this time of year: We’re halfway out of the dark.

 

I wish this had been something I’d seen in my young years, because aside from Christmas, the mid-winter felt crushingly oppressive. If there was nothing specifically for me to look forward to, then there was a sense of open-ended despair. And especially in my youth, no one else seemed bothered by what bothered me – everyone else seemed to be carrying on with an enviable sense of purpose.

 

Sharing how I felt was inevitably dangerous, so I kept it to myself, and I kept myself on a sort of “power-conservation” mode. I didn’t have seasonal affective disorder. Most of my year was like this. But mid-winter simply underscored its overwhelming reality, as though I were adrift on an ice flow far from shore.

 

This persisted to the point that my sense of self merged with the experience of the depression, and never once did it occur to me that this was an illusion. I felt an isolation that was reflected by the darkness of the winter months. The winter darkness invited me to take a twisted solace in its cold embrace.

 

The phrase you are not your story seems straightforward enough. But I’ve heard that phrase used once too often out of pity or contempt, so I don’t tend to use it. Instead, I would describe my own example as habitually identifying with my sense of self inside my experience of depression and isolation. And it was necessary. It was the only way my young, isolated, unskilled self could survive my environment at the time.

 

Does this sound familiar?

 

Part of feeling so depleted in late December is biological – there’s a primal reaction to all that darkness and cold that encourages a sort of shutting down. Many animals do exactly that, from toads to grizzlies, all going into hibernation. Many trees do the same, and the landscape is full of skeletons.

 

Whatever’s burdening you as you enter this period can become magnified by these short days. Depression, in its many forms, is a state of hypo arousal. The emotions flatten, and cognitive functioning slows. The defenses against whatever you’ve been struggling with are impaired or disabled. You may feel occupied with shame, regret, loneliness, illness, or despair. You "hibernate," and your energy is low. It’s dark when you get up, it’s dark when you get home, and there’s nothing lighting the way forward.

 

Our core emotions inform our aliveness. When painful core emotions infect that aliveness, we begin to experience the symptoms that deaden our aliveness. We misunderstand those symptoms to be the Self, instead of recognizing depression as our attempt to avoid feeling painful core emotion. Just as animals hibernate from the cold, so we hibernate from enduring, painful, core emotion.

 

This is what I did when I was young, because it worked. This may be what you’ve been doing, because it works. Depression works like hibernation, protecting us from what’s painful. Ask yourself: in the absence of another way to heal the pain at your core, how has your depression allowed you to survive?

 

There is another way, and it begins by “making friends” with the depression.

 

Making friends with the depression is the counterintuitive response. But when your aliveness has become infected, you want to attend to the infection. That means leaning into it, and allowing yourself to experience the depression with curiosity and compassion. It means observing how the depression feels in the body, and where it feels in the body, without letting the content which fuels the depression take over your sense of identity. For when that happens, you become lost in the story or memories in your mind.

 

In other words, you are not taking part in the depression, as you would by default. You are not swept away into the darkness. You are observing the depression with a curious detachment. Not a scientific, rational, or dissociated detachment, but a compassionate, non-judging detachment.

 

From this place of the non-judging, neutral observer, you can label what you observe: “I’ve woken to my alarm at 6:30 AM, and it’s pitch dark outside. I see the windowpane edged with frost, and I feel the air in the room is cold. I notice a hollow, gnawing sensation arising in my abdomen. It’s a complex sensation. But I can assign two labels to it: anxiety and despair.”

 

Now you want to want to compassionately inquire into the sensations, from the same place of neutral observation: “What is familiar about this anxiety and despair? Especially in the context of the lack of sun and the frost around the window? Does this feel familiar? Where else have I felt this? Who was there?”

 

As I’ve often said to clients, to where attention goes, energy grows. That’s why you’re swept away into the darkness when your attention goes to the thoughts and memories. But if your attention goes instead to the physical sensation of depression, the energy goes into growing insight around its causes. As Dan Siegal, noted author and psychiatry professor, writes, “where attention goes, neural firing flows and neural connection grows.”

 

This is the process of transforming your relationship to the depression. This does not come naturally, because you have learned through conditioning to do the opposite. You’re learning a new skill when you distinguish between your true self (as the one who can see all of this with compassion), and your fragmented self-parts (who bear the burden of the painful core emotions – who bear the burden of the infection of your aliveness).

 

It's not easy to do this alone, and well-meaning friends and family may not know how to help with that transformation. Many times, it’s important that you do this with support and guidance. That’s why I invite you reach out to me anytime at the link below if this time of year is especially hard for you. I would very much like for you to make friends with the Winter Solstice, and to be able to enjoy its magic, as I have learned.

 

In the meantime, remember that when the Winter Solstice arrives, you’re halfway out of the dark.

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