The Light Box (Advent for the Skeptical and Weary, Part 2)
Here in New York, it’s normal for grown-ups to grouse about winter. Much complaining about the ice-crusted driveways and shoveling and and the dark days and the flu. That thirteenth snowfall is so magical, says no New Yorker ever.
(By the way, this is part 2 of a series of little musings called Advent for the Skeptical and Weary. Because Advent is a season about hope, and joyous expectation, and the discipline of waiting… but this year, I’m kind of skeptical and weary.)
This churlish anti-weather platform is not my position on winter. I like snow. Even the thirteenth time. Even shoveling it.
I don’t hate winter; I just dread what it does to me.
My on-and-off depression gets markedly worse as the days get darker. I can predict its onset every year: late October it begins to feel like I’m swimming in heavy clothes; by November I’m keeping my mouth just barely above the waterline; at some point in December I just give up treading and go under. I cannot tell you how many Christmases I have spent the day holding back tears.
The best way I can describe what happens: Imagine that over the course of several weeks, your paycheck gradually stops coming. Over the same period of time, the commuter train that takes you twenty miles to work each morning gradually stops running. By December, you now have to walk or bike twenty miles in the cold to get to a job you’re no longer getting paid for. But in this scenario, you are not allowed to quit your job.
The job is life itself. In these depressive winters, I run on sheer willpower. Everything is ten times harder and the rewards have evaporated. To return an email, to wash the dishes, to be patient with my child through another tantrum, to stay focused as someone talks to me, all cost twelve times more in energy, even as the rewards drop off. But I must do these things.
I don’t remember when I first heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but it sounded like another one of those trendy and overapplied and possibly invented diagnoses. (Also, did they have to give it a cutesy acronym?) All the same, it gave a name to what happens to me. Eventually, spring comes and I get a flood of energy and ideas and I’m off and running again; but for several months before the light breaks in, there’s the awful waiting of winter.
One year, it got so bad that around February, I reverted to some pre-rational state of superstition about the natural world. I literally did not believe spring would return.
* * *
In my early twenties, when I was new to church, and newly in love with it, and all eager-eyed to volunteer, I used to serve the coffee and bagels every Sunday. I worked alongside a woman in her sixties who hugged me like a great-aunt every time I walked in, and had hair permed the color of orange pekoe, and all her words came out rapidly, as if they were bottle-necked somewhere inside her and pressing to get out as soon as possible. Dogs. Lasagna. Costume jewelry. Kohls charge. Grumpy husband. Birthday book. And one day, she began to tell me about a friend of hers who suffered depression every winter.
“Wait, that’s me,” I said. “That happens to me.”
She told me that her friend had bought a special full-spectrum light on a stand that she sat in front of every morning, and it helped her.
This sounded crazy to me. She was a sweet lady, but… Okay, right. A magical light that you sit under. It probably makes your hair glitter, too, and then fairies appear and make you breakfast burritos.
I researched the lights and they were expensive. Like, about $150. I was a freelancer. But I was tired of losing months and months of my life to depression. It was almost November at this point and things were about to get real. I ordered the light.