i did what i could

Posted by on February 6, 2009


This is the first winter I have spent in northern Indiana in which I have not yet experienced a seasonal shift in mood. I am pleasantly surprised with myself for making it into February without downshifting. Despite the inevitably cumbersome nature of being in my third trimester, I am moving through the days with some measure of buoyancy and an adequate ebb and flow of energy to accomplish routine tasks. Even at my best I am no Stable Mable or Fannie Farmer. I am no domestic goddess and tend to be disorganized and dreamy. But I have not been dreaming my way through this winter, or languishing on the couch.

The term “winter blues,” sounds harmless and almost spunky, like a Joni Mitchell song or a Crayola crayon, but the reality of it, in my experience, is that it is serious, like the hand of a giant pinning me down for a stretch of several months, or a spreading bruised color that bleeds and blocks out the light from my mind’s space. January, February, March: months in which my self has, in the past, gone to a place of particle stillness, inertia. My self-in-other-seasons almost can not recognize this winter self, and the sad thoughts it floats to the surface. That’s how I feel when I read some of my blog posts from last winter.

A few months ago a speaker came to the community center here at the Notre Dame married student housing complex, a psychologist from the Notre Dame counseling center. Her talk was entitled, “Beating the Winter Blues.” Again, it all sounds so harmless and upbeat; her power point presentation sported a stock image of a big yellow, smiling sun. I was glad I went though; I finally had some concrete, clinical, official-or-what-have-you information to explain my winter self to my self. I learned that Seasonal Affective Disorder has a high incidence in this area– even higher than in Alaska. I was also comforted by the other women who showed up, all wives of students and mothers like me, and shared bits of what happens to them in the winter. It did me good to hear a few practical, industrious moms, with large families, extroverted personalities, can-do attitudes, and healthy bodies, saying that they lose all sense of motivation and succumb to the gloom of February in South Bend.

This winter a few dark clouds have passed over my head, lingering maybe, but not hovering. They move on and winter sunshine reappears, bouncing off the snow blanket two stories below our apartment, then coming in through our windows. It forms occasional afternoon glow-patches on the living room rug, where I endeavor to do my prenatal yoga.

That said, it has not been a mild winter so far. The temperatures and snowfall have constituted what is called, objectively, a “hard” winter. But this refers to logistics: the thorough bundling of self and toddler required before every front door exit; the vigilant re-application of balms and lotions to chapped hands and lips that immediately negate the moisture; long days spent entirely in three small, artificially heated rooms, otherwise known as cabin fever; the sense that one is torturing a machine by turning on a car; the physical separation from the people who live right next door, simply because no one is out and about, sitting on benches or utilizing swing sets. All of this is wearing, but of course, it’s all doable too. People live here; people settled and founded towns and built livelihoods in these unfriendly climates long ago, and even climates more unfriendly, though I shudder to think of it. It’s doable as long as one has an internal mechanism in place to produce the necessary energy for the endless succession of little, ordinary, immediate, everyday winter chores. And winter is, in all its moments, in my opinion, chore-like if you live in South Bend, Indiana, with its uniquely gloomy geographical vulnerability to “lake effect” everything. I have a major bone to pick with Lake Michigan, for being close enough to ruin the weather here but too far away to enjoy in any immediate, lake-side sense.

It appears that this winter I seem to have what it takes to function in a pioneering, livelihood mode, even though every day I wonder if this will be the day my internal combustion tank breaks down and abandons me. This unprecedented buoyancy might be due to pregnancy, in which, as it is well-known, all normal rules of body chemistry can and must be thrown overboard. My asthmatic sensitivity to cats, for example, has unexpectedly gone haywire during this pregnancy, and who could say why? In Andrew Solomon’s book on depression, The Noonday Demon, a book I really enjoyed reading a few years ago, he tells an anecdote about a friend of his whose life-long battle with severe depression lifted during her pregnancy, only to return afterward. I am not talking about severe depression, thankfully, but I do hope that the lightness I feel this winter is not some temporary glitch due to the chemical irregularity of carrying around an internal baby factory.

Or it might be owing to the fact that I’ve been faithfully taking my daily spoon of cod liver oil and chewing my lemon-flavored vitamin D gummy each morning. Omega 3 supposedly does wonders, and I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t getting enough of it in my diet previously. I’ve made other dietary changes. I’ve been eating grass-raised meat and more homemade chicken broth, pure farm butter, raw milk. My body seems to respond well to these things. I also now have something I didn’t have last winter: an outlet to the outside world in the form of a part-time job three days a week. This makes an inestimable difference in my mood.

But bodies, and their chemistry, remain a mystery, and pregnant bodies even more so. I can only approach it by trial and error and hope that whatever I am doing right this winter, if I persist, will keep yielding the same results in the future. I can only hope that the proverbial rug does not shift beneath my feet, then order me to lie down underneath its heavy woolen weight.

I recall from last February a most unmotivated, diminished version of myself sitting in a shadowy living room during Esme’s nap times, listening to some newly discovered music, an album by Sibylle Baier, whose melancholic words resonated strongly with me at the time: “Remember the day / When I left home just to buy some food / Myself in that painful February mood / I did what I could.” Yes, I do remember that even just mustering the energy to bundle up and get myself and Esme to the grocery store being painfully burdensome, rather than just “a pain” in the ordinary sense of the expression, like it is this winter. I remember feeling, in a despairing way, that I could only do what I could do. That’s still the case. We can always only do what we can, but this winter, I am grateful to find myself able to do a lot more.

  1. Molly Sabourin
    February 6, 2009

    It is always a treat when you add a new post, Julia. This is the first winter in which I have succumbed to the “seasonal blues.” Perhaps, like you suggested, it is hormone related. Maybe I should get pregnant one more time…or then again, maybe I’ll just pick up some melatonin supplements.:)

  2. Alishia
    February 6, 2009

    Believe it or not, but the same black cloud can descend in the midst of a bright and sunny day in an Arizona summer. We are equally bound by a season to live small climate-contolled lives.

  3. Julia
    February 7, 2009

    That’s interesting, Molly. I do wonder if pregnancy (and nursing in the early months) has something to do with it. You were in that mode for so long.

    I don’t know much about Arizona winter, but I do know that SAD has more to do with the length of the day (i.e. span of sunlight) than any other factor, so I guess it can happen anywhere, esp if you happen to be a person with a particular sensitivity to it.

  4. Julia
    February 7, 2009

    Wait…I just realized you were talking about Arizona SUMMER…

  5. anna j
    February 7, 2009

    Dearest Julia–I am SO very thrilled to see you blogging again. And I feel blessed to have been able to share a little bit of your IN winter . . . have I mentioned that I miss you? 😉