Getting through winter blues

It’s not just me, right?

I was scared to admit it except to close friends, but a classmate (I’m taking an on-line writing class) today confessed to feeling seasonal depression, which gave me permission to admit to related feelings. 

There have been signs everywhere: lack of motivation to finish my Christmas cards, lack of desire to exercise (hmm, this one is so persistent it feels more like a way of life rather than a symptom), lack of excitement at the prospect of a free day (because I knew I would waste it wallowing in blah).

With me it’s seasonal. I get this way every winter after I finish an intense work season. A recent google search about burn-out symptoms shed light on my seemingly inexplicable need to hide in a cocoon: “When burned out, you have a tendency to isolate yourself in an attempt to preserve what energy you have left.”

The weather is a possibility, though I am south enough to not have to deal with snow squalls every three days. But still, I miss the sun.

Sleep deprivation is definitely a culprit. Though I don’t stay up late working or cleaning nor am I being kept up by an infant. I just watch too much t.v. (= husband bonding time; I’m really working on my marriage).

And then, I often wake up before the alarm goes off. And then I start to think too much.

Like how I’ve lost my wedding ring. (I don’t even want to think about it.) In Japan. Three years ago.

Like how I’ve already entered the beginning stages of empty nest.

Like how I canceled plans to go swimming and chose, in its place, to have leftover birthday cake and ice cream.

Small problems loom very large at 4 in the morning.

Small tasks feel very onerous when you have the winter blues.

And so until the little groundhog makes his appearance on Wednesday, I think that I need to keep my (self) expectations low, and shrink that to-do list to a manageable one or two items a day (the whole don’t-set-yourself-up-for-failure approach). Since energy begets energy, I  need to do what I least feel like doing to get through this.

Yesterday I mimicked Fred’s soccer drills on my own, and found that not only did I enjoy them, they are good for my thighs!

Today I am trying out a new salmon recipe.

Two weeks ago, I booked us a cruise to the tropics (yes!).

So I’ll stick on a smile and make myself move until the day comes when all of this becomes effortless. Hopefully, that will be soon, and I will learn to love even winter. 

Do you get seasonal blues? Do you feel burned out (regardless of the season)? How do you cope?

Free to be Happy

Max and Fred, our first week in the U.S. two years ago

A childhood trauma had hardwired my brain to fear and expect loss. Though the experience is long behind me, a couple of years ago I began to realize that I was not completely free of its grip. 

My happiest moment was July 4, 2008, when we moved to the U.S. after having spent 8 years overseas. Of course, I was also happy the day I married Max and the day I gave birth to Fred. Somehow, though, moving home had a different momentous feeling…perhaps because I wasn’t gaining something as much as I was reclaiming something that had felt lost. Yes, I had made the choice to experience Japan but, after a few years, I had desperately wanted to come back. The U.S., for all of its problems, is the place that felt most intimate to me, the place where all my dreams of “happily ever after” took place. And so that ability to return, with a husband who was willing to sacrifice his home for mine, is something I will never take for granted.

But as grateful as I was to finally have “everything” that I had wanted, I never felt truly happy and at peace…because I couldn’t allow myself to. For the first three years of our marriage (until Fred was born), I had feared constantly the day I would lose Max. And now that I am a parent, I fear the unspeakable. My anxiety over having the rug pulled out from under me, of losing everything that I have worked and waited for, made me go through life waiting for something to happen rather than savoring what was right in front of me. I remember sitting at a cafe the first week we were in North Carolina, looking out the window into a sea of green that I had thirsted for after almost a decade in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, and I started to cry. This is where I wanted to be, and yet I feared being punished for being too happy. 

A few weeks ago I wrote about my frustrations being on auto pilot, of not feeling motivated to get through the daily obligations of life. Your supportive comments led me to a deep self-reflection and further conversations with Max and a close friend, all of which led me to the following conclusion: Time will pass regardless of how I spend it, and so I’d might as well spend it happily. I know this sounds trite and cliched to most people, and yet for me it was never at all obvious. I had known no other way to live except with anxiety and in fear of loss, and to let go of that need to prepare for the worst is easier said than done.

But this time, I feel that I have done it – that is, I am determined to try and change. Because I have hit rock bottom, and I am sick and tired of worrying. I see Fred growing right in front of me and growing with so much joy, and I’d hate to look back and realize that half that time I was worrying about things that may or may not happen instead of relishing the little boy who was becoming a man right before my eyes.

So this weekend I began shifting my attitude. On Friday Max and I took the morning off to chaperone a field trip at Fred’s school and then enjoyed an outdoor cafe afterward instead of returning to work. On Saturday, I finally mustered enough positive energy to clean out the boxes from our family room/office, to make way for a brighter and happier space. I also tried a new citrus body scrub and painted my toenails. Small, trivial indulgences to most people that I have rarely allowed for myself.

And then the other evening, in the rarest of rare moments, I invited Fred to come along on a bike ride with me. We rode along together through our neighborhood, up and down hills, laughing and taking in the sights of our beautiful small town. As I pumped my legs to make it up the hills, I felt the new will that told my body to keep pushing despite how hard it felt, and when the bike glided down, I decided to let my body go – not thinking about going too fast or falling or crashing – and to just enjoy the ride…light, effortless, and free.

Sigh…The Torture of being on Auto Pilot

It’s been that kind of week. I wake up from a nap to realize it’s almost the weekend.

I am amazed at how little I got accomplished this week. As I am writing, I am imagining you, my fellow readers and bloggers and parents, zooming around contributing to family life and society. I see you (if even just in my mind) making lunch for your kids, nursing babies, changing diapers, running errands, shopping for groceries, going to your workplace if you work outside the home, battling traffic, writing your blog posts, planning and cooking dinner, sorting out bills, scrubbing the toilets, coaching Little League, exercising, holding conversations, making plans, feeding the needy, reading to the blind. Etc. Whatever it is you are doing, you are moving, with deliberation and spirit.

Even more, I am imagining my 6 year old, at school, practicing rhythm in Thursday’s music class, sweating from tag at recess, rotating from art center to computer center, reading silently and then in his guided reading group, marching in a single file from one activity to the next.

To me, the world has always been non-stop and more often than I would like to admit, I have been an immobile bystander. Is it depression kicking in again? Fatigue? Humidity? Is it just me?

My client work was quiet this week – about an hour’s worth of work a day, really. That leaves me with the kind of time that most adults would die for. But I’ve squandered it away. Not organizing my paperwork. Not cleaning the house. Not planning the future. Not exercising. Not even reading for fun.

I’m tired and I feel unmotivated. I feel like I’m coming down with something but I don’t really have any “real” symptoms like a fever. So I sit at my computer, waiting for the urge to do something meaningful to hit me and beating myself up when it doesn’t. I feel incredibly guilty because I am middle-aged (as much as I hate to admit that), and time is limited as it is without my intentionally wasting my precious remaining hours of life. And next thing I know, it’s time to pick Fred up from school.

At a quarter to six, Fred is still buzzing with energy. We used to pick him up from his after school program at 3:30. And then 4:00. And then 5:00. And then 5:30. Because trying to get him to leave is like prying a child away from the amusement park. He can’t get enough of his school and his buddies.  We finally leave when the teachers kick us out. And he is a bundle of energy even when he gets home. After a talkative dinner, he wants to bike, ride his scooter and play basketball outside. It will then take another hour and a half to settle him into bed, because he’ll want to read and write and fly his paper airplanes.

The gene came from his father’s side, that’s for sure. I’m convinced that there are two kinds of people: action-driven folks and thought-driven folks. I tried explaining this theory to Max the other day, having sized him up as a person of action. “You see,” I told him, “you move; you don’t think,” before realizing it had come out the wrong way. What I meant was that he doesn’t live inside his head. He does and he moves and he doesn’t let thoughts and guilt paralyze him. I have always admired those people and I wonder if I can ever become one of them.

Maybe a to-do list could help, giving myself some kind of direction each day. Or maybe I could try a walk outside or an extra hour of sleep each night. Whatever it is, I hope it is not depression, and I hope that next week will be a better week.

Recovering from Depression during Motherhood

I think I’m getting out of my funk now, finally. I go through this maybe once or twice a year, often at the end of an intense work season. It’s a good thing because I’ve got taxes on the horizon, a few more work deadlines, a mortgage refinance application and, oh yeah, a child to take care of.

But it’s not the way it used to be and hopefully it never will be again. Despite research that says that survivors of depression are more likely to get hit with repeated bouts, everything has been pretty tame since I licked my depression in my late 20s. In fact, I even managed to survive the first year of motherhood, and isolated in a Japanese suburb no less. I think I suffered from the same depressive episodes that many new mothers do, but it did not get much worse than that.

But there are days still. There are days when I can’t play with Fred. There are days – my God, so many days – when I think, if Max didn’t work from home with me, where would we be. On those days I am filled with shame, because I think – no, know in my bones, I am convinced – that I am not a real mother. I am beside myself with guilt because on those days I put my needs – the need to stay in bed, the need to stay silent – before those of my child. And I am convinced that I am less of a mother because if it weren’t for my husband, I would not be able to mother. If it weren’t for these depressive tendencies, I might be able to have a second child.

Don’t get me wrong; for the most part I do great. I co-run a business that, if I don’t put my all into, we would simply not survive financially. Despite my occasional drops in mood our child is healthy, happy and well-adjusted (and so far appears to take after his non-neurotic father). Most of my friends would probably be shocked to know that I had ever been depressed. But my slips in mood will be seen in other lower-priority and less visible areas, like the house. You will see my mood in the bed that doesn’t get made, in the papers that don’t get thrown out, in the sink tops that don’t get wiped. And you will see it in the pajamas that stay on and in the emails that don’t get returned soon enough. It is a matter of feeling overwhelmed not by demands but by emotions…emotions that have no logic if this is part of your make-up. Because I am the happiest I have ever been in my life: I have a loving husband, a healthy son, a wonderful network of friends, financial stability and, I believe, self-acceptance. But if I think this for too long, this too will add to my guilt because now I will begin to feel like an ingrate. 

But for those of us who experienced depression early on, and experienced it hard, I wonder if it ever truly, completely and thoroughly goes away. Does it sneak up on us and tease us to come back? Does it pay quick visits, staying for just a day or two, hanging out with our hormones? Does it threaten to plant its seeds in our children? I am not sure. But I now know at least one thing that I didn’t know back then: it is okay to tell others and it is okay to ask for help.