A Reading Life (prt 12): An Impasse and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Image result for lucy psychiatric booth christmas

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

I must apologize, everyone. I have not been in the mood to read or write lately. I blame it on the recliner and cold weather. My cat may be in on this too.

Its been an arid month: no inspiration to read anything, no impetus to write. I had an existential crisis just today: How come I don’t feel like reading? What about my “A Reading Life” blog series?

It was just, “Meh.” I suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder when I lived in the north, but haven’t since I moved south. This is nowhere near as bad, but I have a feeling that people who do suffer with SAD during winter can relate. Where has all that passion gone?

Now I just sit in my recliner when I am not cleaning, exercising, playing, cooking, or doing churchy things. I read a devotional. I catch up on the news. I (gag) scroll through social media. I fall asleep with my cat on my lap, a cat who finds her way over to me whenever I am in a resting position.

This is not new for me just as I’m sure it inflicts other bibliophiles. You’re in between books. You pick up a book here or there and nothing really captures your heart. There are false starts and impassioned leafing through of pages. No titles catch your attention. You wonder why half the books on your “to read” pile are there in the first place.

Even the old love affair with book catalogues grows stale, and your eyes wander to other things. I started watching a lot more television. That’s always a bad sign.

I don’t know how it is for others, but for me, reading and writing go hand-in-hand. If I am reading a lot then I tend to write a lot. If my reading tarries, my writing dries up. The muses fall silent. The Television turns on, and it is a distraction.

I decided today that I must move on. I can’t stay in this malaise forever, and I need something to get out of this rut. We went to our local used-book store (a weekly routine), and I determined to find something to read.

Sure enough, I returned to that genre that has saved me on more than one occasion: long-form essays, usually in the tune of a memoir or travel narrative, which have appealed to me during times of melancholy. They are short so there is no serious commitment. They are not laborious, so they tend to be compelling and artistic. They inform, but are personal enough to get me out of myself–to move my sense of consciousness beyond my little world and into the larger world where life moves on.

Essays have always been an easy and quick escape in my reading repertoire. There are essays by Marilyn Robinson and Annie Dillard. There are anthologies, such as the annual The Greatest Essays publications. Several years ago I picked up This is New York by E. B. White, an essay that originally appeared in a travel magazine. That was SOME essay–an amazing tapestry of words and thoughts, and probably one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life.

It took me a while to find the right book. I perused travel, biographies, classics, mysteries, and the religious sections. I was tired, so I sat in a plastic lawn chair among the memoirs. I spotted an autobiography by Ephriam Tutt, Yankee Lawyer. I don’t know who Tutt is, but the inscription on the inside was to an “Uncle Harry” and dated Christmas day, 1943.

Parker Palmer’s Listen to Your Life was nearby, and it too had an inscription from Jen to Mitch: “Food for thought along your vocational journey.” It was dated January 25, 2002. Not quite Christmas day, but close.

I spotted some books I donated several months ago. I picked up several of them and saw my own notes throughout their pages. It is odd to see your handwriting in a book that is for sale, as if it was inscribed by some alien life force and is now staring back at you from across the galaxy. (If you go to the religion section and you find the print “The Library of J. V. LaGuardia”, wonder no more.)

And, back in the memoir section, I finally found a book worth reading. It is an essay just as I preferred, and published originally in Vanity Fair or some such magazine. It is by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist William Styron, Darkness Visible, about his bout with clinical depression. The subtitle (“A memoir of madness”) did not catch my attention so much as the writing did; and I didn’t get it because of my own lethargy. I got it because of its brevity and its well-written prose. It will do.

I realize now that my feelings of lassitude is not uncommon around this time of year. Many people get a little angst around the holidays. Charlie Brown bemoans of his own existential crisis to Lucy (psychiatric help for a nickel!) in the Christmas special my children and I watched earlier today.

But ’tis the season, and books will always find a way to speak into our lives. We will eventually move off the recliner and into worlds that words construct or conjure. It takes some time, and in only a few days that Christ Light will shine in the darkness of all our nights. And, eventually, this too shall pass.

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Although Seasonal Affective Disorder, depression affects many believers, “joy comes in the morning”

Winter-trees-without-leavesI’ve been writing articles on spiritual disciplines this month.  I intend to continue that series, but since the weatherman is insisting that this weekend will be cold and wet, I’d like to shift gears.  This article is for readers who struggle with seasonal affective disorder or mild depression during the winter months.

Over twelve years ago, I didn’t realize how widespread seasonal depression was in our state because, being from sunny Florida, I didn’t even know such a thing existed.

In the first year we moved, there was a snowstorm in Atlanta and my wife and I didn’t waste time in building snowmen, making snow angels, and tossing around a few snowballs for fun.  We took pictures of our snow-covered cars for family in Florida.  It was really fun.

The seasons changed, and I appreciated all that God had to offer in creation: from the Spring-time mating calls of birds to the autumnal change of the leaves.  But then, about the second or third year here, I started to feel differently in the winter time.

I believe it was in the dead winter of 2004-2005 when I went to a friend–a social worker who knew more about counseling than I–to tell her that I had feelings of isolation and depression that I had never felt before in my life.  She recommended a therapist, and I went with great results.

Spring came, and I recovered quite well from the whole ordeal.  Our first child turned one, and things moved right along.  Then, when winter hit again the following year, those same feelings erupted.  I became melancholy and lethargic; I gained weight.  Although my withdrawal wasn’t as severe as the previous winter, I definitely felt differently.

I noticed a pattern as the years passed.  Winter came and I would get severe mood swings.  Finally, when last year’s winter proved mild, I got scared: winter came, then springtime, but I never recovered.

I was burned out, and my family and friends noticed a difference.  My best friend of twenty years told me that I seemed depressed to him, and he mentioned on more than one occasion that I was always the life of the party, what had happened?

Although we ministers–and Christians in general–like to spiritualize things and blame either Satan, sin, or dysfunction for mood swings and illness, I acknowledged that I was no different than roughly 6% of the U.S. population that struggles with what many doctors call seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

SAD is not uncommon for people who face harsh winters or, in the least, winters in which very little sunlight is available.  It can be a symptom of mild depression on the one hand or, in severe cases, bipolar emotional disorder or chronic depression.  It often overlaps one of these conditions, though it can simply affect people who face too much stress in their lives, pastors not withstanding.

The more I acknowledged my own wrestling match with this illness, the more I opened up about it with folks at church.  Turns out I wasn’t alone: by the time March hit, I managed to gather a small support system of like-minded people who face depression in one way or another.

We inquire about each other’s health every so often.  We send encouraging texts and emails (especially on overcast days).  We share resources. (Just the other day, one sent me a e-devotional on depression.)

No Christian who struggles with depression or SAD is alone.  Though “sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5b).  God, though seemingly distant, is always present; and, I can bear witness to the fact that reaching out and getting help can make all the difference in the world.

If you struggle with a similar disorder, I encourage you to seek help, speak with a trusted counselor, doctor or therapist, and hang in there.

(Postscript:  While browsing Baptist sites this evening, I stumbled upon a recently published article concerning SAD at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Press website.  My only critique of the article is that the author does indeed spiritualize the issue, assuming that a re-dedication to Christ and more Bible study time might do the trick in combating SAD.  That may be fine and dandy, but additional help may be required!)