I didn't know what I was getting into when I moved to Louisville, KY. It's a little known fact that Louisville is actually rainier than Portland, OR. Forty-five inches per year, vs Portland's thirty-seven, and fewer days of sun than Fargo, North Dakota! Louisville has about 170 days without sun per year. That's close to five-and-a-half months of no sun. And unfortunately, those months without sun tend to cluster in the winter.
I grew up in a place that had an annual average of about 220 days of sun, and even on non-sunny days it was at least partially sunny. In Louisville though, during the winter months the cloud cover is low, oppressive and near constant. It's enough to drive anyone to the edge. And every year for the past ten, I have dreaded winter.
Seasonal depression is just like "real" depression
You loose interest in things that make you happy. You want to sleep all the time. You run out of motivation to do even the simplest tasks. And yes, you are sad, deeply and exhaustedly sad. Often people turn to drinking and isolation. In years past, that was my go-to. Watching movies and watching my laundry pile up. Nursing hangovers and self-medicating with any kind of potato - roasted, chipped, fried, I'll take them all.
Last year was different though. I quit drinking the summer of 2018, and started looking for healthier ways to cope with things. Fortunately, I'm part of a pretty huge wellness community here, and seasonal depression is a common topic of conversation. Everyone discusses their favorite supplements; Vitamin D, Magnesium, Ashwaganda, CBD oil. We compare our favorite SAD lamps, or the best infrared saunas in town. We get acupuncture for seasonal depression, hot yoga classes, we try "forest bathing" and Wim Hoff techniques of immersing ourselves in freezing cold water, even when it's 20 degrees outside. In fact, over the years people seem to be sharing and finding all sorts of wonderful methods to combat the winter blues.
Honoring the Turns of The Wheel of the Year
Last winter, I finally started to feel it lifting. I didn't struggle like I had in past years. I felt, well... good. But regardless of all the holistic methods I've employed, I actually attribute my ability to thrive during the winter to something else: celebrating the Winter Sabbats. I've acknowledged the big one in years past, the Winter Solstice, by having a fire and maybe a little ceremony. But these last couple years have been different. I decided to create a strong ritual around each one, including both quarter and cross-quarter days.
The wheel of the year consists of the four quarter days - which are observed solar events.
The Solstices, Winter and Summer: the longest night and longest day of the year
The Equinoxes: Spring and Fall: days where the darkness and light are equal
The Cross-quarter days are the days that fall evenly between these four. They occur on the first day of the month. Some of these are familiar - everyone knows Halloween, known in pagan circles as Samhain, which falls between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice. Lesser known cross-quarter days are Imbolc (Feb 1st), Beltane (May 1st) and Lughnassad (Aug 1st).
According to pagan tradition, Samhain is actually considered the Witches New Year. It's a time when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest, and the last of the harvest is reaped.
Each of these days is an opportunity to reflect on the cyclical nature of life. It's comforting to know that the darkness has necessity. That the light will return. It's important to recognize that we need that time to get quiet, to go inward, just like the seeds that scatter in the fall. Just like the plants that go dormant, and animals that hibernate.
Beginning the evening of Samhain, I led a deep community meditation for our personal ancestors, guides and ancestors of the land. I created a communal altar for folks to place photos or belongings of people that had passed, and kept the candles lit throughout the night. We asked for guidance, blessings and wished them well on their journey.
Then, for the 2019 Solstice we hosted a huge feast, complete with a yule log. We placed the log on a table, and all evening during the party, friends wrote on little pieces of paper the things they wished to release from their lives. After a big dinner we all carried the log and papers outside to the firepit and ritually burned them all, calling in the four directions, and throwing branches of sage and juniper on the fire, drumming and singing. Afterwards, returning inside to eat the chocolate yule log I had baked, play instruments and sing songs into the night.
And finally, for Imbolc - a time when I would normally be deep in the pit of my depression, I spent the day alone outdoors, observing paw prints in the snow, and spotting the push of crocuses and daffodils- those tough little harbingers of Spring. I gathered horsetail reeds from my frozen yard to create a Brigid's cross for my altar, and meditated on the return of spring and the goddess awakening. Expressed gratitude for the winter, and promised to tend the fire until the return of Spring.
These rituals and ceremonies gave me a deep and sustained sense of comfort. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the season, I felt an alignment and hopefulness I've never experienced. I set the intention each time to go inward and rest, rather than push myself and collapse. I vowed to not be afraid of the darkness, and asked instead to have my shadows illuminated. And the space that we held for community and sharing was powerful. It provided our friends with an alternative to what has become a celebration of consumerism that leaves so many feeling empty and disconnected. Sharing food and music with family and friends, is so simple, and so healing.
This Winter Will be Different
This year, 2020 brings with it unique challenges. We can still celebrate, but our celebrations will be more solitary. No big feasts, no large gatherings. But that doesn't mean that we can't still honor these times. Nature is doing its thing, as it always does. And if there is one comfort in this practice, it's that the wheel is always turning, and there will always be change. What is here now, will be gone tomorrow.
But I'm not gonna lie, this year my seasonal depression is returning and just honoring these holidays won't be enough. I'm increasing my Vitamin D, piling up firewood, outfitting every room in my house in fairy lights. I bought a puzzle. I'm taking up some new hobbies. I'm going to try to take walks every day. I'm trying to shower and get dressed no matter what I have scheduled. I'm prioritizing rest and attending my online sober groups.
Between bouts of melancholy I've been thinking a lot about how we will reflect back on this year. We really don't know how this time is going to affect us long-term. I suspect we won't know for years to come. It's both unnerving and confusing to be living through a time that is life-changing and defining. We'll get through this, together.