The summer solstice is undoubtedly my favorite day of the year. The magic of the long, light day and the much shorter period of darkness is more powerful for me than you’d think, especially because I live an area that doesn’t have the extremes of much further north or south. However, I have clinical depression.
That may not seem to relate, but for me, light and darkness are not just metaphorical parts of my depression. I learned early on that the world looks darker–sort of twilight–when I am depressed, and that I’m much more likely to be depressed when it is dark.
My depression did not come on after a breakup or a death, although those have both been triggering factors for me as an adult. I was depressed as a very young child—the kind of depressed that children have no business being. I also learned to talk, read, and write very early, so it was even more jarring for people around me to see how sad I was, because I could communicate it so clearly.
As early as kindergarten, I routinely wished to not wake up in the morning. I didn’t have a plan to die, but most mornings the thought process was something like, “I wish I had died, but since I didn’t, I guess I should get up.” That continued well into my 30s.
In college, my roommates started having candlelight dinners because it made them feel fancy, and I panicked. I felt like I was losing my mind because I didn’t know why candlelight dinners were making me feel so bad; I just knew that I didn’t mind the candles as long as all the lights were on. That was the year I went on Prozac because my whole world had gone gray. This wasn’t just an expression; I actually couldn’t see in color as well as I used to. I became a psychology major that year and learned that major depression can, in fact, decrease your ability to see in color, which was one of the most validating facts I have ever experienced.
I love colors and light. I love to paint and knit, and my favorite part of both is choosing the colors I use. The walls of my house are covered with paintings, mosaics, photographs, posters, and textiles, mostly in bright colors. I am the kind of person who turns all the lights on even though I know it’s bad for the environment (and I love the environment). I wait eagerly for the longest day of the year and I treasure the days leading up to it.
The summer solstice is my favorite day of the year, but the day after is another story. There’s no noticeable difference from the previous day, of course, but I know that the days are starting to shrink, and that each day I’ll get less and less light. By the end of the summer, people are talking about how nice it will be to feel the crisp fall air, and I’m fighting panic at an earlier dusk.
I can’t explain what it feels like to start slipping into depression–-not being in the deep dark hole yet, but losing my balance on the edge, and knowing there’s no chance I won’t fall in. The all-encompassing grayness that starts in my peripheral vision and slowly takes over everything is terrifying and always ends in hopelessness.
When I’m not in the middle of it, I get so angry, but I don’t know what or who I’m angry at. Depression feels so evil and malignant that it’s hard not to believe it’s a personal attack. Many diseases make people want to fight for their lives. Depression makes you want to end it.
After years of therapy, medication, and misery, I was lucky. I found a medication that didn’t just take the edge off my depression like all the others had, but lifted me above it, at least most of the time. But the old triggers are still there at times.
I’m trying to look at things a little differently this year. I don’t know if I can avoid the slow panic that ramps up beginning at the end of June and colors the beautiful sunlit days with gray. If I’m lucky, it won’t be more than a couple of rough patches. If I’m not lucky, it will be excruciating, almost paralyzing, but I’ve learned by now that I will make it.
I’m working on making the day after the winter solstice my second favorite day of the year. It’s dark, it’s cold, and the days are short. But it’s the beginning of an upswing.
Bronwyn Harris is a veteran teacher from the Oakland Unified School District and the author of the upcoming book Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom. More information about the book can be found at bronwynharrisauthor.com