I have recently been informed, via internet search, that ‘Doldrums’ is a colloquial expression derived from “historical maritime usage”. Apparently, there is an actual physical space in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans where a large low-pressure zone keeps the winds and oceans still. Historically, I image that means sailing ships caught in such an area floundered in their inactivity. For me, that is what doldrums mean; inactivity, stagnation, despair.
Thankfully, we’re passed the first stage of my Winter Doldrums. I’m from a Northern climate, and have moved to another. Each year, the sun rises in the summer at a frantic rate, and you can get so much done. 18 hours of daylight is energizing, glorious, and cumulates in the Summer Solstice, where the sun in my hometown dips below the mountains, but never truly sets. Sunset and dawn become one blended moment, an unending day. I don’t remember the first time I realized that this pattern demonstrates the way Earth rotates on it’s orbital axis, but that is now what I think of each year, marveling at how very small I am; a single person in the great, wide everywhere.
Of course, the opposite of this never-ending day is darkness. Each year beginning in November, I sleep longer, manage a little less of my daily life, and cry more at sad movies and animal adoption commercials. One might reasonably argue that this is a classic example of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and to you I say, kindly keep your logic out of this discussion. It doesn’t count as SAD when everyone does it. We all sleep poorly, we all feel sad, we all dread the Winter Doldrums.
The worst years so far were in Elementary and High school. Imagine, if you can, what it feels like to arrive at school in total darkness, broken only by the faint orange light from industrial city lamps. Image seeing the pale, thin, rising light from the windows of your classrooms after 10 a.m., but you can’t leave the room. The sun is a pale yellow orb that never reaches the sky above you. Instead, when not blocked by dark snow clouds, the star slants light from an angle, it’s trajectory clearing the mountains, but never much farther. You walk down windowless hallways to the next class, and watch the light fade as you take notes, trapped in a plastic chair. You return home in the same orange tinged darkness; the sun set at 3:30 that afternoon. Months of darkness await you.
It is worth mentioning that the rate of depression, violent crime, and substance abuse is generally quite high in Alaska, and most Northern climates. It’s a mystery.
This year I’ve gotten past November fairly well. It’s required some lying (of course I didn’t just wake up) and (Oh, I was just so busy working on that essay, sorry I didn’t text you back), and rather a lot more caffeine than is good for me, but I’m still keeping up fairly well with course work, friends, and family. Cleaning has had to be sacrificed, but hey, it’s not like the laundry won’t all still be there waiting for me. However, even as I revel in my tiny success, I know this wasn’t the hard bit. The three weeks leading up to Thanksgiving are difficult, but it’s not enough days to really unhinge your life. October, November, and December all have major holidays, you just have to make it to a week that’s actually fun.
The hard bit is managing work, life and your personal health through January, February, and March. 3 months of winter, darkness, and failing to keep yourself on track. I’m already falling behind, but I’ll be right as rain come Christmas. That’s not the hard bit. Beginning in January I’ll start to flounder, procrastinating on assignments, arriving late to meet friends, and generally slowing down. By February I’ll see the downward spiral, but feel helpless to stop it. I’ve slept through a whole day before, and the next. March brings uncontrolled anxiety. Stress from work and school are at an all time high, you’re unprepared for assignments and exams, it feels like you have no one to talk to, and you are alone. The Winter Doldrums indeed.
How very depressing.
I’ve repeated this cycle for many years, and remember just a bit of it as a child. I know it’s coming, and manage some winters better than others, but will feel this each and every year of my life. Knowing that, I’ve slowly, and sometimes even intentionally, found coping strategies that make life a little bit better.
I make a calendar. Usually it’s sticky notes stuck to the wall, and I yank one off until I don’t need to anymore. On the bad days, it’s comforting to know I’ve made it through one. more. day.
I sleep more. Knowing I’ll be tired all the time means I pick my battles. 10 hours of sleep is acceptable, 20 is not, so I set my alarm for ten hours, and don’t drag myself out of bed before then if I just don’t want to.
Pajama days. If it’s really bad, I get two days a month, in sickness or in health, to put on clean pajamas and do absolutely nothing. No cleaning, work, or anything else productive. Usually I end up reading Harry Potter. Almost without exception, it feels like I’ve wallowed enough by the next day, and the boredom of my self imposed exile is enough to make me look forward to the real world again.
I forgive myself. It’s hard not to hate yourself a little bit when you fail, and 3 months of failure to thrive can build up an unhealthy amount of hate. On the bad days it drags me under, and there is no hope. I cannot see the struggles we all carry, but wallow under the weight of disappointed friends, getting behind in work and school, and failing to take care of myself. On the good days, I tell myself it’s alright. I’m still a good person, and I am greater than the sum of my Doldrums. Then I repeat it each day until I believe it.
Through a combination of geography and brain chemistry, the Winter Doldrums are here to stay. So am I.
If you’ve any useful coping mechanisms yourself, like those nifty sunlamps, let me know. I like to try out new things.
Also, you can read some articles that argue with me about warm climates actually having more violent crimes, Will your next (Ice cream) Cone Murder You?, or try the actual article from the New York Times. Or we can all just listen to Here Comes the Sun and cry about how very sad and lightless we are.