Holiday spirit? I’ve got it in spades. I love it all — the nip in the air, the cheesy music in the malls, the abundance of Santas and reindeer trotted out on lawns and rooftops.
OK, I could do without the doughboy snowmen that topple over, but other than that, I’m a sucker for the Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales and the plastic snowflakes, not to mention the ability to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” until I’m sick of Zuzu’s petals. I’m crazy for the lavishly decorated display windows, the weekends of cookie baking, the late-night wrapping and, in particular, the excitement we feel in the company of young children. Their gleeful anticipation, for me, is pure joy.
And yet, this is the time of year I struggle with the blues. I always have. And I suspect I always will.
I think about my father who died too young and how deeply I miss having him in my life. I think about the friendships that have lapsed and the way my world has narrowed. I think about the sense of belonging I felt when I married into a large European clan and even after a dozen years being divorced, I genuinely miss my ex-husband’s family.
The result, of course, is a kind of loneliness. Although I make every effort to banish it with an ample list of good things in my life, we know this is the lonely season for many: those who are still young but haven’t found a life partner; those in empty marriages trying to make do, or come to terms with getting out; those who live far from loved ones, and are missing familial gatherings; those who are aging or infirm and alone; those of us beginning to feel our age, and are nostalgic for the past and fearful of the future.
In fact, it’s a widely held belief that depression and suicide rates increase this time of year, specifically resulting from intensified loneliness. Some sources suggest this may be tied to Seasonal Affective Disorder (S. A. D.) at least as much as the magnification of feeling excluded. And then there’s the media, reflecting a cozy reality that may not resemble our own.
As for feeling sad because of S.A.D., I strongly suspect I’m one of those millions. I consider the way I’m impacted as the light dwindles and the days shorten. I think back to the years I lived in New England, suffering through winters that seemed interminable, demoralized by mornings met with shoveling out my Mazda before the commute, my weekends often bleak, as venturing out in the ice and snow was not my idea of fun.
Naturally, I didn’t stay holed up all of the time, though I may have been tempted. I met friends for coffee, I browsed the local bookstores, but I always carried a pervasive physical sadness. At various points, I was convinced I had to be clinically depressed, yet my life was going fine, so I couldn’t figure out the cause of the problem. I also pinched my pennies to afford myself a week of escape — always in February or March, and always headed for points south. A week in Florida or a Caribbean island? Just what the depression doctor ordered! And afterward, I felt strong enough to crawl my way through the remaining winter months.
So here we are in the midst of December activities. And here I am, bundled up in 45 degree weather — you’d think it was 20 below! I’m knee-deep in images of snow flurries and jingle bells, I’m indulging in the aromas of spiced cider and Douglas fir, I’m picking through ornament boxes and memories, selecting tin toys and vintage glass balls. My mood should be chipper, but instead it’s slightly gray. The shortened days, remember?
Whether we suffer seasonal depression as a matter of S.A.D. or loneliness, or a combination of the two, what can we do to improve the situation? How do we create gifts of inclusion so friends, neighbors, and elders may find themselves feeling better — not worse?
In “Getting the Cold Shoulder,” an opinion piece in the New York Times that offers additional insight into the effects of loneliness, Hans Ijzerman and Justin Saddlemyer write:
“Research has shown that things like heart rate, levels of respiration and other involuntary physiological responses are affected by social connectedness …
A number of research groups … have reported that having the memory of being socially excluded — or just feeling 'different' from others in a room — is enough to change our perception of the environment around us. Such feelings can prime individuals to sense, for example, that a room in which they’re standing is significantly colder than it is.”
They go on to suggest that social connectedness has physiological benefits that we may not fully recognize. In other words — get out, mingle, talk, listen. For me, any form of inclusion invariably brightens my mood. That may mean wandering alone in a bookstore and hearing the buzz of humanity, strolling my local produce market and finding the crowd as colorful as the exotic fruits, or chatting with a stranger in a coffee shop, pleased as Christmas punch when a few remarks ignite an animated conversation.
And who knows. Maybe I’ll learn to like the crazy display that’s the talk of my neighborhood — complete with a light-covered sleigh, dangling candy canes, mechanical reindeer, pink flamencos and … drum roll please … a slouchy, six-foot doughboy snowman.