Depression season: Hope for the bleak, SAD midwinter

Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) became the premier woman poet of her day in her mid-thirties. I love her for providing this stanza, which describes the season into which Jesus entered our time and place.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Jesus may not have been born in winter and he certainly was not born in England! But He definitely needs to be born every February in Pennsylvania. We are in the “bleak midwinter” right now. People are sick, pipes are freezing, cars are crashing and many of us are facing our yearly depression.

Around this time of year many people in the Northeast are sick of winter.  We’re sick of the short days, the lack of sunshine, the cold temperatures, and being forced indoors because of the horrible weather.  Winter gets old — fast. If you have brought out the yearly fantasy of moving to Florida with your relatives, we hear you.

In the 1980s, research at the National Institutes of Mental Health led to recognition of a form of depression known as “seasonal affective disorder” (shortened to SAD, appropriately). Seasonal affective disorder was categorized under major depression to signify depression with a yearly recurrence, a condition far more debilitating than the average “winter blues.” Mention of SAD in research and books peaked in the 1990s, and today SAD is considered a diagnosable (and insurable) disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines SAD as “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons,” beginning and ending at about the same times of the year.  Symptoms include a loss of energy and moodiness. More recent studies suggest the whole idea is suspicious, but now we are used to idea and you may have diagnosed yourself, already.

Whether we have a major disorder on our hands or not, the bleak midwinter excites bleakness. Every time I look at Christian Rosetti’s picture (above), I don’t wonder why she could write such a descriptive SAD scene in just a few lines. She had a few drifts of permanent snow on her feelings, I think. So when the winter comes around and we get sick, grumpy and joke we have SAD it makes sense not to brush off our yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that we have to tough out on our own.  It is always good to follow our feelings around a bit and see what they are up to.

There are ways to keep our mood and motivation steady throughout the year. If you’re the Mayo Clinic you’ll recommend that SAD sufferers try light therapy (replacing lost sunlight), psychotherapy, and/or medications. All might be useful, more likely if used together. If you (or your therapist) think you have SAD right now, or you are just grumpy and unmotivated, here are a couple of thoughts and some faith-based counsel that could help you figure out what to do next.

Be careful about a quick SAD diagnosis

SAD is more about observing people than testing data. Recent studies that do plow through a lot of data can’t really find a seasonal increase in depression. If you feel depressed right now it may be more about how you are personally ordered rather than about being subject to a seasonal disorder, as if you caught SAD and need a chemical remedy. The seasons of the year often excite things in us that were going unnoticed. That’s normal life, not a disorder.

People experiencing feelings associated with SAD might want to get a couple of opinions before they treat their feelings with medicine. Even WebMD notes that “What we are observing is that Americans are increasingly viewing psychiatric medications as a solution for a wide range of social and interpersonal problems and for dealing with daily stress [and] general medical providers appear to be going along with this trend.” Depression has physical, psychological, social and spiritual components. Just taking a pill may make a difference, but might not solve the problem – and a drug-based-only solution might make things worse.

Image result for philadelphia arctic blast
Here is a seasonal disorder.

Jesus arrives when the winter is bleak

The winter is often the best time to lay low and listen to how the seasons teach us about our feelings and all they mean.

  1. Winter is not a curse.

A lot of good things are happening to the earth and to us, when we are “depressed”  In winter. An obvious, if underappreciated fact, is the land has a forced rest from being cultivated, giving soil time to regenerate its nutrients and moisture to be ready for the next planting season so that we can have food to eat. Being fallow is good (Isaiah 55). Your depression might be a time for generating something new.

The ground recuperates its moisture content through the melting of the snow.  Seeds get ready to sprout. (Psalm 147).  You may have a seed that’s been trying to sprout since childhood.

You may be moving into a new season. That is often depressing, but good. The Creator built mercy into winter, too. We can rely on that love (Job 38.22). We often need to keep reframing our sense of our situation when we feel God is not in the bleakness.

  1. Winter is part of our growth process

Even though the seasons change every year, many of us still feel winter like a slap in the face every time. Then when we move to Cabo San Lucas to escape it, we miss it and complain that it is too hot. We’re like that.

We talk about the stages of our faith development (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water) because we want to learn to move with natural elements that sin and death have made feel like enemies. The changing seasons are another set of unchanging realities that can teach love and truth. Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter each show us God in unique ways, over and over, until we learn to move with them instead of resisting or dominating. The changing seasons demonstrate how God’s care never changes, despite our changing seasons of life (Malachi 3). Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 3).

  1. Winter will end. 

I can hardly wait until this winter is over, I admit it. Winter is often a challenge for me. (But then it rains a lot in May. Summer can get humid. And Fall is full of allergens). The Christian life can often be characterized by a time of waiting.  Waiting is good.

We exist in this broken world, in broken bodies, longing for the time when the earth and our bodies will be remade (Romans 8).  We are waiting for the “winter” of our sinful, painful existence to come to an end, and for the glorious “spring” of the resurrection.  We comfort ourselves when we suffer with the promise that the age to come is not that far off. The day is coming when Christ will return and create a new heavens and new earth, where pain, sickness, death, or tears will no longer kill us.  We have hope for a new beginning.

This hope and period of waiting defines the Christian life (Romans 5).  Christians are waiters.  So we can  get through the few months of bummer-weather that we have to go through each year.

If you swallow the “spiritual pill” I just offered, will you be guaranteed a happy winter? Will changing your mind bring all your painful feelings to an immediate end?  Maybe. But not inevitably.

In the bleak midwinter — waiting for the thaw that never seems certain, trying to see single-digit temperatures as a growth opportunity, fighting off the strong sense that it is all an example of how we are cursed — Jesus comes to bring us hope.

Thank God I am not in charge of the seasons, or responsible for saving myself from them! I think Christina Rosetti ended her poem very well and I need to keep singing it throughout every bleak day:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

Leave a Reply