Breaking SAD

Twenty years ago, I went through a period of depression. As I recall, it lasted about three years, and it lifted when I moved on from the job I had at the time. Twenty years ago, but I’m aware that it is still there, lurking at the edges, a vial of acid which will seep into my consciousness. My world will become viscous: the path beneath my feet a ploughed field prone to flooding, the air above and around me an over-heated swimming pool, every task a sisyphean struggle slopping through syrup.

I need to pay attention to times when I might be curdling again.

I’ve discovered that I’m particularly prone when the clocks change. Not just at the end of October, as you’d expect when the days are shortening in the northern hemisphere; it happens at the end of March too. During much of April, November and December I’d really rather stay under my duvet and read and watch films. Or yes, do the clichéd box sets thing too, as long as they’re not about drugs, killing, violence, patriarchy, or the royal family… which pretty much leaves US and Danish politics.

I don’t know whether you’d call it Seasonal Affective Disorder. Given that it’s triggered by the change in diurnal pattern, it could well be. Others I’ve spoken to struggle with January, or February. It’s different for different people.

Pseudoscience tells us that the most depressing day of the year is Blue Monday. This is the third Monday of January… or possibly the second, or the fourth, or the Monday of the last full week. There is a calculation based on weather conditions, debt, time since Christmas, time since failing our new year’s resolutions, and so on. Its inventor said he wanted “to inspire people to take action and make bold decisions”, but there is a world of difference between being self-aware and following the herd, however well-intentioned the bellwether. If I may… Be self-aware! Know yourself!

I’ve developed some strategies whenever I notice a tendency to curdle: being kind to myself; seeing friends; heeding the call of the sun to get outside; taking time to prepare food, and eating healthily; making the house nice, aka doing the housework! Basic self-care.

This last autumn, though, I did something different. I embraced it.

I’d been spending a lot of time developing ideas for art projects, making contacts, applying for grants, and so on and so forth. By the time I’d submitted an Arts Council application, I’d had enough. No more. There were still plenty of things I could be doing. They were good things to do. I ignored them. I did the work I needed to do for others, and that was it. I didn’t get round to writing many Christmas cards, and certainly no-one got a circular letter – sorry! All the art/community/environment talks/socials/viewings I had in my diary stayed there, and I stayed at home.

I stopped expecting too much, or indeed anything of myself. I found it difficult to read, so I gave myself permission instead to watch those box sets. (I thoroughly recommend Madam Secretary.)

Looking back from the perspective of a lightening January, I discovered it had been a time to mulch, to process my life, reflect on it deep down in my unconscious, let those wellsprings of wisdom put things into perspective, show me what gives life and what drains it, and to prioritise. If you like, to separate the curds and the whey.

Specifically, it put art into perspective for me. Last year I started trying to make my practice into a career, and it became a burden, the antithesis of what I needed art to be. For me, it is a way of processing the world, and help me keep on keeping on. My need is ‘just’ to play and create, and not care where it goes or anyone else is interested. I’m most often caught up and unaware of the passing time when I’m mucking around with IT. So more of that, like playing with coding to make art, which I’ve wanted to do for a while; and like making websites, especially for interesting projects and people doing good things in the world, which conveniently also happens to be my main income stream.

Now here’s a thing. Both the curds and the whey are useful. A couple of weeks ago, I made paneer cheese for the first time. It involves boiling whole milk, adding a bit of lemon juice, waiting for it to curdle, then squeezing out all the whey from the curds. You get not very much cheese and quite a lot of whey. Some recipes in this wasteful world suggest you can discard the whey. Other people tell me it’s full of protein, and suggest you can use it to make bread, or boil rice, or soak beans, or add to smoothies, or make cheese sauce, or make vinaigrette, or or or.

Last November and December I didn’t achieve much as the world understands achievement. My economic activity and productivity were low-to-minimal. I had little to shout about on social media, and little interest in any public window display.

I tried not to mind much, although I’m not sure I achieved that either! The rat ‘fun race’ is just as insidious as the mainstream rat race. For all my surface mind and my deep unconscious know that my true value is not related to my activity and output, I have plenty of irrational shadow-Clare besides, a-knocking and a-crooning away in here.

What I noticed, though, is that I minded less this time. In letting go a little, giving myself permission to stop expecting too much, and deliberately embracing that down-time, I weakened that shadow a smidgen. Just a tiny bit. Maybe enough that it will become gradually easier to let go in the next moment, and the moment after that. I hope.

There are times for everything under the sun. Times for sleeping, times for waking, times for planting, times for reaping, times for getting stuff done, times for taking a step back. Whether we are outdoors-y types or spend the whole day under electric lights, the seasons affect us. We need to observe them to keep healthy, as we need sleep and dreams during the night. My guess is that many of us would benefit from a time of hibernation, a time of curdling.

I’m aware that I exist in a privileged place. I am dependant-free and freelance, so I am able to let go for a while. I have this choice, whereas others may not. Nothing lasts for ever, so in the future I may not either. The choice then may instead be how to react to my particular situation, however intractable and persistent, in the hope that I find it is gradually transfigured. For others, I can only repeat… Be self-aware! Know yourself and your own choices!!!!

In the meantime, the clocks are changing next weekend, and there may be box sets. See you at the end of April.

Epilogue – Springwatch