“The Season of Our Joy” and Seasonal Affective Disorder

27 10 2009

Often, in this blog, I try to share the hope and comfort that Judaism provides for me. Today, though, there will be none of that. I am writing about Sukkot, which is just behind us, because, for me, it is the harbinger of a season of despair.

I dread Sukkot during most years. In addition to whatever else might cause my depression, it has a strong seasonal component. Like clockwork, the darkness inevitably falls during Sukkot. I stand up to daven Maariv on that first night, declaring that Sukkot is “זמן שמחתינו,” the season of our joy, and it’s like a slap in the face, a direct taunt from God or our tradition: “It’s supposed to be the time of happiness, but you can feel none of it!” [Insert evil throaty laugh here.]

Year in and year out, as the days shorten and my life seems to crumble around me in a heap, I force my lips to bitterly spit out “זמן שמחתינו.” I cringe whenever I hear a well-meaning person, citing Deuteronomy 16:14, declare the important mitzvah, or commandment, to be happy during the holiday of Sukkot:

יג חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים:  בְּאָסְפְּךָ–מִגָּרְנְךָ, וּמִיִּקְבֶךָ. 13 Thou shalt keep the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that thou hast gathered in from thy threshing-floor and from thy winepress.
יד וְשָׂמַחְתָּ, בְּחַגֶּךָ:  אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ, וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ. 14 And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates.

Most years, the Sukkot liturgy is like salt in my wounds. It feels like Judaism is making my depression worse, not better. It’s kicking me when I’m already down, not lending an arm to help me back up.

The culmination of Sukkot with Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, where we dance with the Torah, is possibly the worst part of it. It’s still the season of our joy, but we’re supposed to not only intone it during services, but dance about it, and about the Torah, which tells us to be happy. There are many divrei Torah floating about questioning how we can be commanded to feel something: to be happy, to love, etc. Perhaps I will write something about that, one day. Today, though, is about how the contrast between Jewish tradition and my real life is sometimes incredibly painful. There is something simply soul-rending about declaring happiness while being embraced by overshadowing darkness.

I didn’t actually feel depressed during Sukkot this year. I thought that I might have, somehow, escaped Seasonal Affective Disorder this year. Silly me! It hit a week later. And, oh boy, did it hit hard. It knocked the wind right out of me and I’m still very much on the floor, desperately gasping for breath.

It’s much easier, in so many ways, to use this blog as a vehicle to write about hope when I am actually feeling some or to write about the darkness when it’s past. (It’s a little hard to imagine it when it’s past, but luckily, I have written enough things from the well of sadness that I can refer to them when I’ve forgotten just how bad it can be.) The hardest thing, I think, is to write about the soul-deadening depression when it’s actually wrapped around my head, muffling the world around me, sapping me of energy, desire, motivation, and any smidgen of belief in myself.

When it’s not shut down completely, my mind races around in circles, trying to find a way out, trying to distinguish truth from lie, fact from fiction.

I can’t do this. I just can’t live my life. I wasn’t made for this world. Maybe if I die, I can get a do-ever. With a new personality or a different life or some of each. I screw up everything I attempt to do. Nobody likes me. I have no friends. I will never be able to just get up in the morning and go about my day. It will be a struggle forever, every morning anew. God, I can’t believe how I mess everything up. Why can’t I move? Why can’t I go to bed? Why am I watching television? Why don’t I just turn out the light? Why can’t I fall asleep? Why can’t I just cook meals for the week on Sunday, like everyone says I should? Why did I buy and eat a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s? I don’t understand anything. I hate my life. I miss myself–the self that doesn’t have these thoughts. Everybody thinks I’m lazy. Lazy and a failure. Who’s going to want to date a psycho like me? I’ll be alone forever. I need to like myself first. I hate myself! How can I like myself when I can’t do anything? I just can’t do it. Not at all. Not even a tiny bit. If I could just get up on time tomorrow morning, everything would be alright. If I could just get some exercise, everything would be alright. If I could just make myself some dinner, everything would be alright. I can’t move. I want to die. I want to lie here until something, until anything, in my life changes. Now. Change now! If I was a better person, it wouldn’t be this way. I’ll be like this forever. Or maybe just every October-December. That’s not acceptable. I can’t be this way every fall. It will kill me. Or I will kill myself. It amounts to the same thing. Well, if I can just wait it out until December, it will get better. How much damage can I do between now and late December? Oh, God. I can do so much damage.

I don’t know if writing these things out will help me, or you, or some other person that you forward this to. I’ve been through this enough times, and I know myself well enough, to know that this is at least 95% depression and no more than 5% me. I know this because, thank God, there have been many times, especially over the past five years, when I have not been depressed at all, and the internal monologue has been different. There were days–heck, there were days in September–when I woke up, hit snooze once, got out of bed, took a shower, and set about my day, excited and happy and sure that I was doing what made me most fulfilled in the world. I wish I could have bottled that and sprinkled some onto my pillow this month. I never like the mornings. I probably never will. But there are times when I just do stuff and don’t have to have an internal battle to get things done. There are days–months, seasons–when I don’t think, “Fuck it, another day. מודה אני, my foot!”

Unfortunately, knowing that isn’t enough to stop feeling depressed, though. Would that it were! And I don’t really want to wait until late December for the fog to lift.

Aside: It’s a little odd that my depression always seems to lift in late December. That is when the days start lengthening, but they are awfully short then! It might be that the superficial commercial cheer of Christmas helps me, somehow. (I’ve missed it when I’ve been in Israel then, although when I’m in the US, I miss the cheer of all of the Jewish holidays that permeate the malls in Israel.)

When I was thinking of the confluence of “זמן שמחתינו” and soul-deadening SAD, I was wondering if this is what depressed Christians feel around Christmas time. JOY! abounds on the airwaves then. Even if I’m depressed, I don’t feel bad hearing that, the way I do intoning “זמן שמחתינו.” I sort of feel happier hearing all the Christmas cheer if I want to let it affect me and neutral towards it if I don’t want to. I would think that if I felt any connection to Christmas at all, that I would feel worse feeling sad, if I already felt sad. [Wow. That is not a great sentence. Depression brain, anyone?] Somehow, it’s my very deep connection to Sukkot, and my desire for it to be what God declares it to be, that makes me feel so terrible about feeling depressed over Sukkot. Does that make any sense at all?

I hope to write more soon about what I’m going to do instead of simply waiting for Christmas to come and dry up all my tears.


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11 responses

26 10 2009
lynnjshepard

This post got my attention and I have to respond. I’m a Christian minister with SAD. Usually at this time of year I start to get that sinking feeling, and it doesn’t usually lift until Ground Hog Day, when I feel hopeful that Spring will come again. This year is different. I’m not sure why. It may be because I started using my sunbox light proactively before fall even started, when we had a long stretch of rainy days. It might also be because I got my bicycle fixed, and have been getting out and riding as many sunny days as I can, and even rode in the rain once. I’m also fantasizing about a trip to a tropical oasis as soon after Christmas as I can manage it. I can really relate to feeling out of sink with the mood of the holidays. In my tradition, some folks are starting to acknowledge that not everyone feels happy at Christmas, and Blue Christmas services are growing in popularity. I hosted one the year my marriage ended. I was amazed at how many other people seemed to respond to the idea and showed up. Maybe a blue Sukkot could catch on?!

28 10 2009
Marci

I wrote a few responses and all of them felt wrong. Seeing what you’re going through resonates with me. I keep telling myself that the feelings I have aren’t me, they’re a product of depression and they don’t represent my reality, but they feel so overwhelming.

Thanks for sharing this. It makes me feel less alone.

29 10 2009
leah

Huh. This post kinda blows my mind a little. I relate especially to the Sukkot part this year–I had such a miserable week (death in the family, etc.) and could not imagine dealing with ST, so I didn’t….

That’s not the mind-blowing part, though. The mind-blowing part is the idea of knowing (even vaguely) when the depression is going to hit (and when it will let up). You have written eloquently about it and I get the burden of knowing of impending doom for sure. But it just seems amazing to me to think of having a limited window of that sense of impending doom, rather than never knowing when the darkness will next appear and envelop…always having to be somewhat on the lookout…and then never knowing if there’s a way out of the black hole or if I’m going to be stuck this time forever.

I do not mean this comment in an insensitive “oh, you don’t get how much worse things are for me” way. Not at all. I’m kinda wondering how we can learn from each others’ experiences to improve our own. Still working on that part though. Now just expressing the mind-blowing-ness.

30 10 2009
The Editor

Lynn, thank you for reading and thanks for your comment. That is very interesting and a good idea for me to copy!

Marci, I’m glad that this is helping you. As it turns out, it’s also helping me. Win-win!

Leah, thank you for your comment. And would that it were that way! It’s more like, “I will get depressed every fall no matter what (with a few notable exceptions that I can’t explain, except maybe by remembering that I got a lot of sunlight and exercise in those falls), and I may also get depressed, randomly, at other times of year.” It’s just much harder to keep it at bay and to slog out of it in the fall.

I lived, for a long time, with the sense that it could strike at any time and that I had no idea when it would begin or end. In the past five years or so, I’ve felt more confident that it wouldn’t hit randomly, but in response to specific things, like major changes in my life (good and bad) or loss (major or minor). I’ve also felt, increasingly, like it would never be forever. I mean, I’ve been not-depressed enough that I’m always confident that I will be not-depressed again. Okay, that’s a lie–when I am very depressed, I am not sure how I will get un-depressed, but the fact is, that over eleven or twelve years of dealing with this, it’s never lasted forever. On the other hand, I’ve also been depressed enough to know that even when I’m not-depressed, I can always get depressed again. That fear of suddenly and irrationally being incapacitated and losing my abilities to think, focus, and be productive held me back from doing the things that I wanted to do in my life for a long time, and maybe it still does.

1 11 2009
leah

Well, that’s less mind-blowing, then. That’s just like how I know that certain dates/anniversaries of other things are going to be dangerous in that depending on how well I’m able to deal with the memories, they could be touch points for downwards spirals, where otherwise I just never know. Hmm.

As for the “forever” part…yeah, sure. I think to me it’s not about real “forever,” it’s about it being worth fighting if it’s always where I end up. Which might as well make it forever. That is not well articulated, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.

22 11 2009
Ayelet

Have you tried using a light box?

22 11 2009
The Editor

Yes, but my life is not currently set up to use it the way that it should be used–sit under it, reading the paper in the morning, while I eat my breakfast. I think it’s supposed to be reflect off of a surface that’s 12″-18″ away from one’s face. I have it set up over my bed, and it goes off in the morning, but I mostly turn it off (too early! don’t want to get up!) and even when I leave it on, it’s more than 18″ from my face and not reflecting off anything into my eyes.

Exercise and other things also help, but nothing helps if I don’t use it the way it’s meant to be used! (Alas.)

24 11 2009
Ayelet

My light box is on a night table at the head of my bed, a little more than a foot away. For 15-30 minutes every morning, after the radio alarm goes off, I lie in front of the box, either reading a book/magazine or holding a piece of paper so that the light reflects into my face. It makes a world of difference to my mood.

However, winter is still the dark night of my soul. It saps my faith and drains the joy from my practice. I find myself becoming more and more lax in my observance of halacha. Right now that’s particularly dangerous as I’m dating a man who isn’t shomer shabbat and is subtly trying to persuade me against 100% shmira.

That said, 15 minutes of daily exercise also makes a big difference to my mood, and more would probably be even better. Were it not for my wretched knees, I’d try to fit more exercise into my schedule.

7 12 2009
Interlude «

[…] promised you, last time, that I would tell you what I am doing instead of “waiting around for Christmas to dry up all […]

10 03 2010
Link: “Purim and the New Psychology of Happiness” «

[…] in quotes because I’m not sure it’s possible. Likewise, I have difficulty with the times of the year that Judaism specifically tells us to be happy. The post, however, is interesting and […]

8 08 2011
For these things I weep: Tisha B’Av thoughts «

[…] as Sukkot and Simchat Torah are difficult holidays for me, because they so often proclaim the “season of our joy” just as my Seasonal […]

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