Outside my window, the sky is bright blue and clear, the customary winter fog nowhere in evidence. If you didn’t notice the grass tipped with frost, you could easily imagine it to be a 70-degree day. This is winter in California. Born and raised here, I’ve never had to contend with winter snow, unless by choice. But that familiar feeling sets in the day after Christmas, a heaviness of limb, inability to choose between tasks, lack of desire to do anything—so unlike busy, Type-A me the rest of the year.
You might say it’s just the comedown after a month of party prep. Christmas detritus is everywhere—the cats unearth stray ribbons and torn strips of silvery and red wrapping paper all over the house. The forlorn stockings hang deflated at the hearth. It’s strange that I can adore these sparkling decorations for 30 days and then, with one big explosive day of unwrapping gifts and entertaining family, the sight of the wooden nutcrackers and the cheerful holiday bunting puts my teeth on edge. I wish I could snap my fingers and have it all disappear back into its boxes.
I’m blue, I thought, the day after Christmas. My husband had gone to work, my son was still cranky and slow-moving, a couple days recovered from a Christmas eve stomach flu, and there was nothing left to be prepared or planned for. Blue—that’s what we say in my family when we’re feeling down. My mother, who couldn’t be with us on Christmas due to knee surgery, texted me: “I’m feeling a little blue without you guys.”
And what is the composition of “blue” exactly? There’s the wispy blue out my window, the blue of my son’s new blanket. The bold turquoise blue of my office. The color blue is too cheerful, though—it doesn’t match the color of my mood, which feels more like the gray slate on the front of my house, like the color of rain clouds, like tarnished silver.
“Why do you keep insisting you don’t have seasonal affective disorder?” asks my friend Amy, who suffers quite a bit in the darker months.
I offer the bright sky as my first shred of evidence, the fact that I actually like gray-sky days (and love rain) when we do get them. I assert that people who suffer SAD feel depressed, while I merely feel blue.
Blue holds a tiny grappling claw against the cliff of darker feelings. Blue is temporary. Blue refuses labels. Depression, on the other hand, is a condition, something diagnosed by professionals and treated with medications. Optimists like me don’t get depressed. Do we?
Begrudgingly, I look up seasonal affective disorder and find the Mayo Clinic’s definition: “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons—SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer.”
The fact that some people experience it in the spring or early summer suggests that it may not be as weather-dependent a condition as I imagine. “Don't brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the ‘winter blues’” it goes on to say.
The honeyed drone of Joni Mitchell moves through my ears—her song “Blue” is about darker blues than mine—“acid, booze and ass/needles, guns and grass” she sings—and yet her words were forged in the same '70s as my parents were struggling with similar issues.
Another friend suggested I might have mild PTSD—a label I’m even less inclined to claim for its widespread use and for the fact that those I know who really do suffer it have such severe symptoms I’d feel like a jerk for even suggesting it.
The more I mulled it over, the more likely it seems to me that there is, indeed, something about this time of year—sunny skies notwithstanding—that caves in around me (and many others, I’d wager) despite my best efforts. The American economy thrives on industries that push happiness as a commodity one can eventually purchase through various fitness, fashion, spirituality and dietary means.
If you didn’t unwrap that happiness in a gift box, there’s the yawning expanse of a New Year ahead that will exert a Jillian Michaels level of pressure on you to improve yourself or at least get yourself together. Whether you came together at the holidays joyfully with people you don’t see often enough, or you felt forced to engage with relatives you’d rather not have, there’s intense pressure, collisions of emotion, both new and old.
No wonder, in its wake, some of us collapse into lethargy that runs the gamut from blue to depressed. What’s more, nature (at least in North America) crawls in on herself, moves into hibernation, but we humans rarely follow suit.
This year, the only New Year’s resolution I’m making is to embrace my blues as a reminder that this time of year is for reducing expectations and going slower, like the rest of nature.