As a young adult growing up in the Northeast, I used to split the year into two halves. The first glorious half ran from mid-April to mid-October. It was a time of warmish to hot weather, abundant sunshine, swimming in the ocean, drinking cold beers on the beach. The less pleasant other half ran through Fall and Winter and was comprised of shorter, darker days, chilly to numbingly cold weather—and every so often, a case of the blues.
I have since chalked up my moments of fall and winter melancholy to Seasonal Affective Disorder (ironically known as SAD). Wikipedia concisely defines it as “a mood disorder subset, in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year exhibit depressive symptoms at the same time each year, most commonly in winter.” Or in some cases, the fall.
The blues and SAD are not to be confused with deep depression.
Today, there are many examples of well-known people who have suffered crippling depression. An historical example is Abraham Lincoln. He was at times suicidal and a business partner of his once said “his melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” A recent WebMD article detailed 19 celebrities who have admitted to extended bouts of depression, including Lady Gaga, Dwayne Johnson and Jim Carrey.
Writing in The Marginalian, Maria Popova tells us about Bruce Springsteen and his “tumble toward the edge of the abyss.” His father had a history of debilitating depression and seems to have passed this dark trait onto his son. Springsteen writes in his memoir Born to Run:
My depression is spewing like an oil spill all over the beautiful turquoise-green gulf of my carefully planned and controlled existence. Its black sludge is threatening to smother every last living part of me.
He has analyzed what’s going on during these dark days and determined its cause is indefinable. In his words:
What most people tend to want to do is, when they feel bad, is to name a reason why you feel that way: “I feel bad because…” and you’ll transfer that to someone else “…because Johnny said this to me,” or “this happened.” And, sometimes, that’s true. But a lot of times, you’re simply looking to name something that’s not particularly nameableand if you misname it, it just makes everything that much worse.
Yet, Springsteen has developed ways to deal with his depression, “skills that help me in dealing with it.”. His strategy is akin to going with the flow, not fighting the blue monster, but tolerating it:
My “skill” is sort of saying, “Okay, it’s not this, it’s not that — it’s just this. This is something that comes; it’s also something that goes — and maybe something I have to live with for a period of time. But if you can acknowledge it and you can relax with it a little bit, very often it shortens its duration.
What some call the blues, Ari Weinzweig calls despair.
Life philosopher and deli owner Ari Weinzweig devoted a recent email column to “dealing with despair” which to my ear sounds a lot like the blues. Weinzweig says it is a feeling that he experiences irregularly, but “when it does hit, it can be hard to handle” and can get serious fast. He explains:
Despair, as I’ve experienced it, is a loss of belief in the future. It’s the sense that all the existential exits have been blocked, making a path to a more positive future impossible. At best, despair is difficult. At an extreme, the depths of despair is a place in which we wish that our lives would end. It would be disingenuous to say I’ve never had that feeling.
So, he has come up with some novel coping mechanisms to get past it, with the aim of “honoring despair to create the kind of healthy lives we want to lead.” My favorites follow. The words below are mostly Weinzweig’s, though I have done some editing and added a few thoughts of my own.
6 Ways to Cope with the Blues
- Feel it. Uncomfortable as it is, learning to feel the despair is the right thing to do. So don’t fight the feeling. Recognize it for what it is and sit with it. Which takes us to point #2…
- Know that the blues will eventually end. When you’re immersed in the feeling of despair, you may feel as if there’s no way forward. But if you work with it, it does eventually depart—and better things follow. Getting stuck in despair does nothing good; but feeling it, honoring it, and working through it can quietly help change your mindset.
- Watch for joy. While it’s true that joy can appear on its own, the reality is that there are joyous things happening all around us. Joy is there. We just have to be mindful enough to notice it. Get outside and begin to look around. Take a walk through a park. Try paying a little more attention to what’s happening in the outer landscape as opposed to the inner one.
- Get going. Even small steps in a positive direction can help you through the blues. This isn’t about running away. It’s about moving one mental foot in front of the other. As Joan Baez said, “action is the antidote to despair.”
- Make art. Throughout human history people have painted, written poetry, played music, etc. as a way to work through pain and despair. Rather than mindlessly scrolling on your phone, engage with your emotions in a creative way.
- Be actively grateful. Paying attention to the good in your life, even when—or maybe, especially when—the problems feel overwhelming makes a difference. As Sam Keen writes:
Make a ritual of pausing frequently to appreciate and be thankful. Notice that the more you become a connoisseur of gratitude, the less you are the victim of resentment, depression and despair. For no particular reason you can detect, depression lifts, despair is replaced with an undefinable sense of hope, and enthusiasm returns.
The soul master Thomas Moore has his own take on the blues.
It’s an issue Moore has written about at length and I have featured here before. Unless one is clinically and chronically depressed, Moore argues that when you feel sad, it is best not to treat these moods with pharmaceuticals. You need to ride out these periods as best you can, especially when the symptoms can be lessened through exercise, proper sleep, a healthy diet, and prayer or mediation. Moore warns:
Ours is still a therapeutic society that values the removal of symptoms over the soul’s sparkle and shine…broaden your imagination of what is happening to you. If your only idea is that you’re depressed, you will be at the mercy of the depression industry, which will treat you as one among millions, for whom there is only one approved story.
The dark night is a time for soul work, for digging deep into the self, and in Moore’s words discovering “what it is to live religiously.” The author explains what happens during this period, when you experience the world from the point-of-view of the soul:
It is the deep, dark discovery of roots and cellars, the opposite of enlightenment, but equally important and equally divine…letting your spark light up a dark and dangerous world is a way of healing both you and your world.
Moore sees the dark nights of the soul as indispensable to our spiritual growth. While he recognizes the difficulties and challenges they pose, he believes the darkness can add “character and color and capacity” to our lives and are a gift to be appreciated. In his words:
Nothing could be more precious than a dark night of the soul, the very darkness of which allows your lunar light to shine. It may be painful, discouraging, and challenging, but it is nevertheless an important revelation of what your life is about. In that darkness, you see things you couldn’t see in the daylight.