There’s a hush that descends over the air in summer: the world goes quiet, the lushness of the trees cushion and contain every meandering sound, the cicadas’ song swarms the air, and the sky is still and cerulean blue, so at odds from the turbulence and movement that the other seasons’ inclemencies bring about.
It should be peaceful and quiet, and in many ways, it is. But that summer hush also offsets another kind of silence, a silence that paves the way for less lovely things to come slithering in. It is a deceitful hush, a hush that wears bright, garish clothes — but it is no less malevolent.
We peg winter as the bad guy: it can be bitter, it can be raw, it can be isolating. It only feels right, then, that SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is most often associated with this season. The long nights, the absence of sun, the increase in time spent indoors… it is enough to send even the most misery-averse person into episodes of deep melancholy.
And indeed: studies show that all the above can lead to episodes of mild depression, lasting months, and/or exacerbating the depression a person may already be dealing with. As the awareness concerning SAD has grown, so have the preventative measures taken in anticipation of winter, as well as efforts that aim to lessen its impact when it makes landfall. Light therapy, tinctures, aromatherapy, vitamin D and the like are just some of the hallowed remedies touted far and wide; and what is more, the national conversations that have swirled around them have contributed in a lessening of the stigma concerning SAD.
It feels almost inappropriate to be looking ahead at the summer beast when most people are not only just emerging from winter’s stronghold, but actively yearning for the warm embrace of the hotter months.
But after years of dealing with a different kind of SAD, I have found it much more trying to avoid it or to dismiss its effect on me — because as the stretches of snowstorms and inches of sleet and ice make it easy to forget, summer, just as easily, will be upon us again.
While my mental health invariably took a turn for the worse during the winter (and as an East Coast gal with additional years in Canada and Chicago under my belt, winter was inevitable), I was never able to relate to the notion of SAD: I have bipolar, after all, and feeling depressed is a constant that only varies slightly with mania and in conjunction with generalized anxiety and OCD. Additionally, winter carries a gloominess that, at the risk of sounding slightly theatrical, matches my state of mind most days.
The season facilitates a sort of indolence I don’t need to be sold on: staying indoors, cutting oneself from the world, layering oneself under blankets of clothes and partaking in solitary activities are encouraged, as is the general introspection that comes with it. And while those more outgoing of us might start to get restless after a while, my mental health has thanked the inclement weather more than once, because I didn’t need to come up with an excuse not to meet up with others — not when it was ready-made for me.
Summer, on the other hand, comes cloaked in a veneer of scintillating possibility, one that encourages happiness and openness, and I have never felt lonelier than in the dead middle of it.
Society has always had a soft spot for milder weather, and it isn’t hard to see why: just like extroversion that is, and has always been championed, so has the environment in which those propensities are made easier.
We correlate summer with the outdoors, with hedonistic fun, with long hours filled to the bursting brim with as much engagement with the world as we’re going to get for a very long time. But for those who suffer from social anxiety and/or agoraphobia, and who are regularly paralyzed by overwhelming situations, the prospect of enduring longer waking hours and the stressful expectations therein is not only taxing, it is downright nightmarish.
There’s a certain weighty distress that comes with the warmer weather, a certain optimism permeating every single thing, that makes your inner unrest look invariably worse by contrast, and thus, much more punishing. Even those of us most immune to the dreaded FOMO begin to feel deeply wrong, somehow, because nothing about the sunny skies makes us want to shed our soberness — on the contrary. We think that surely, we must be doing it wrong if we would rather be sheltered behind our heavy curtains and by our own leaden anguish, than out with an imagined group of jaunty friends, like everyone; and this only contributes to the feelings of worthlessness depression is just waiting to dole out on us.
If one is friendless, that friendlessness is put into sharp relief. There is no one to pull you out of the torpor when it hits you hard, nobody for whom it is worth it to endure the outside. But even those who do have friends are not exempt from the imprint summer SAD leaves on their social life. It’s that “lonely in the middle of the crowd” feeling that people who have mental illness know so well, a separation that is as invisible as it is powerful, a line in the sand that others can’t see, but that screams back at you: you are not like them, will never be like them.
I have spent the last few years dreading the onslaught of the sunnier months, have felt it like a slow inrush of tidal desperation. I have felt the contrast between the ugliness I carried inside me, and the jolliness that sprung into life every which way I looked. I have felt the maddening pressure of having to dress more lightly, and reveal more of this body I have wrestled with all my life. I have felt the barrage of noise and hustle and gregariousness accost me when all I wanted was silence, merciful silence. I have felt cornered in the aggressive whirlwind of engagements and social obligations and endless celebrations that occur under the slow-blinking eye of the sweltering heat, and felt stunned into inertia: because it paralyzes you, that heat, in a way even the cold does not. It presses down upon you, that seemingly tender caress, makes you wilt and perspire in your misery.
More and more research is supporting the fact that summer SAD is a legitimate condition, compounding the symptoms of depression for those who already have it, and acting as a momentary — but no less traumatizing — shroud over those who don’t.
Nonetheless, it is, despite the mounds of research substantiating its existence, still tricky to pinpoint and treat because most people can’t identify that it is present, let alone imagine that it does as much damage as that which occurs in winter: and even the numbers reinforce that impression. While it is estimated that between 5 and 10% of Americans encounter SAD annually, only about 1% of those are associated with the summer, according to experts like Dr. Norman Rosenthal who has pioneered the research on this phenomenon.
Recognizing this very peculiar strain of SAD in myself, separate from the usual throes of my mental illness, has been half the battle won.
I am not naive enough to expect the hype that comes with summer to die down anytime soon. It always been the best part of the year for many people, and this for a very long time. What is more: the seriousness of SAD and the steps taken in treating it have only recently bled into the mainstream, as opposed to knowledge on other types of mental healthconcerns.
So in the meantime, as the shades of the trees grow thicker, as the shadows on the ground grow long and deep, as the days stretch out more languidly into the next, I’ll keep an eye out, and I will be gentle when it eventually comes for me. I will bide time and tread water, until the leaves turn brown again and I can slink back to my cocoon of powder-grey skies, and my sheets of rain, and my blessed, windy days.
A. Martine is a trilingual writer, musician, artist, an Assistant Editor at Reckoning Press and a Managing Editor of The Nasiona. She might have been a kraken in a past life. Some of her fiction and nonfiction can be found or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Medium, Lamplight, TERSE. Journal, Metaphorosis, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Gone Lawn.