One of the best works of fiction I have ever read about depression was Perfume by Patrick Suskind. It’s a terrifying book about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man who murders women and captures their scent. (How am I possibly going to tie this tangent of an introduction into seasonal depression? Keep reading!)
There is a chapter about Jean-Baptiste retreating into a cave for five years where he wallows in his filth, entertaining himself with fantasies of opening bottles of perfume containing the scents of the most beautiful young girls he has ever seen in his life. Then one day, he realizes that he has absolutely no scent, he smells of nothing, and it horrifies him so much that he runs out of the cave and decides he wants to reconnect with the world and people.
I had quite a similar crisis on Sunday morning when I was halfway through binging a Netflix series, wearing my dressing gown, and I looked at the clock on my laptop and saw that it was 11 AM…and it slowly dawned on me that I hadn’t had a conversation with another human being since Friday afternoon. Also, sadly, unlike Jean-Baptise Grenouille, I do have a scent, and my own self-motivated expulsion from my winter cave meant I had to run to the bathroom for a shower before I could re-join society.
I suppose this is my roundabout way of saying, I’ve lived in hot countries since I graduated, and I had completely forgotten how difficult I find winter. I am used to being an energetic, silly person who can go for 16 hours without even needing a nap. Now, I have to have a 45-minute argument with myself every morning (starting at 5 AM) in order to put a toe out of bed. Then the rest of the morning, the whining inner child (the same one who wants me to buy things I don’t need) compares everything I am doing rather unfavorably to bed. “This coffee wasn’t worth getting out of bed for,” “I am going to the gym, but I’ll be thinking of bed the entire time,” “bed bed bed bed bed bed bed.”
English winters are hard to cope with in a personality-altering way — the sun goes down at 4 PM, and then the werewolves get released. You only venture outside for milk or the occasional pint with friends, otherwise you hibernate, your thoughts turn inwards, you’re cold and grumpy and just want to read and be in bed. It’s important to stay happy and productive during this time and not succumb to depression and lethargy. Here are some of the things I’ve found to be incredibly useful and make the most of the long winter nights.
1. Having a dog
In our home we have a large German wirehaired pointed called Otto and he needs walking at least twice a day. It means that on days when it’s cold and we are working from home, exercise in the cold air before the sun goes down becomes absolutely essential. Again, this is forcing us to leave the comfort of a warm house and go outside for some activity. I make this as pleasant as possible by listening to music or an audiobook and dressing very warmly. I can leave the house in the grumpiest of moods and feel happy and well balanced after 10 minutes of vigorous walking. It’s a natural anti-depressant, and I love spending time bonding with Otto.
2. Having a sauna
I have always loved saunas and hammams, and after living in Paris and hanging out with my Moroccan friend, I think it’s a really enjoyable activity. I only saw the significance of the sauna after the winter blues set in. I really, really missed the sun and sunlight, and I was delighted when I found the small Turkish sauna in my local public pool in the Midlands. Something about sitting in rooms of varying temperatures tricked my brain into thinking I had just been on holiday. I sleep better the following night and don’t struggle to get out of bed. It’s stopped me from busting out my emergency credit card and booking myself an emergency mini break — and admission is only $7, so it costs about the same as a trip to the pub.
American readers, especially near New York, should visit the Russian Banya in Tribeca. It was built in the basement of a tenement building in the late 1800s, and the oldest part of the Banya, a stone sauna with a furnace burning away for 120 years, is only bearable for longer than 30 seconds if you chuck buckets of cold water on your head (or get a friend to do it). Entry is about $50, but totally worth it when you feel chilly and grumpy and need to reheat your bones, in my opinion.
3. Cultivating my mind
I can’t deny that winter just makes me a little less social and a little bit more introspective, but I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. Instead of socializing as much, I prefer to read, listen to podcasts, and reconnect with my friends who live in other countries. Communication becomes somewhat disjointed and delayed, and conversations seem to transcend time and geography. My body is less active in winter, but my brain becomes a little sponge. I want to learn about Russian artists and Greek mythology; I want to get inside the brain of a stalker or experience the black death in Italy in the 1300s from the perspective of 20 young aristocrats running around Florence being hedonists. When the sun comes out again, I’ll do gardening, cycle, go out dancing at festivals — but for now, I’ll live inside my head for a bit and enjoy my own company (in moderation, of course).
4. Work on my relationships with others
When you are stuck in the house with people you love, you all argue a bit, or a lot, and that’s okay. Everyone has issues that they can avoid all year long by leaving the house, going for a walk, going to work, and generally keeping the peace. Winter is a mandatory live-in family/couples/co-workers/roommates therapy session, and all of the issues you’ve been tiptoeing around rise up in your throat like kombucha yeast.
“I do more around the house than you.”
“That’s true, but you also take your anxiety out on me and that’s not fair, you need to learn to self-soothe.”
“Your boyfriend is over at the house way too often, you guys need to hang out at his more often because I’m starting to feel slightly uncomfortable.”
“You do not pull your weight, you never buy milk, you need to fold that basket of laundry and put it away.”
Yes…yes get it all off your chest, it’s fine, people need each other and the people who you live with love you even after a little fight. You feel better? I feel better, too! Let’s fold the laundry together and watch Mrs. Maisel. I love you.
5. Working on emotional issues
There are some problems that need a little bit more than a fight to work out of your system. This has been the first winter I’ve decided to visit a therapist, and it’s been excellent. I still had some abandonment/self-esteem issues floating around in my system after my breakup, and I was lucky enough to find a brilliant female therapist who has helped me rediscover my self-worth. The biggest breakthrough has been that I am no longer such a people-pleaser and I have learned to stand up for myself and fight back if someone tries to mistreat me. For the price of a manicure, it’s a wonderful skill I’ve been given and well worth the time and the money.
As a North African, Scandinavian Eskimo, I love the cold, but by god it makes me behave strangely sometimes. I can’t wait to bust out my sandals and jumpsuits in a few months, and watch my arms tan. Until then, I shall make the most of mandatory hibernation and try to be a more compassionate person, even when the heating has been turned down from 4.5 to 3 in order to save money — house meeting, anyone?
Phoebe Prentice-Terry is a writer, art dealer, and survivor of David Cameron’s various experiments in human misery. She likes Gin and Tonics, French skincare products, and is most proud of her collection of Wolford bodysuits.
Image via Unsplash