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January Blues

I’m in a funk.

I’m sure it’s related to the long holiday cycle (in which I participate fully, but reluctantly) followed by the letdown of being forced back to real life. Who knows? At this point, everything just seems grim, a feeling so familiar to me that it almost instantly evokes memories of my childhood. I can remember being depressed when I was as young as 7, when I carried around a nameless weight and hopelessness that kept me unmotivated and lethargic. My mother also suffered from depression, dramatically withdrawing from us when she was blue. Whether my feelings were learned or inherited, I’ve always had that part of her in me.

At 66, though, I know a lot more about my depression than I knew when I was a teenager or even in my 30s or 40s. And one thing I’m certain of is that it’s a lot like having a bad cold. As much as I want it to go away, I can’t will it out of my life any easier than I can stop a sore throat from turning into a bad cough. Sure, I can consume more Vitamin C or Echinacea, but by the time I think of that, it’s usually too late. Same with depression. I’m a firm believer that the Prozac I take every morning keeps me from the huge, open-ended slides into despair that I used to experience, but I am who I am regardless.

It’s just so much easier to do what’s right in front of us than to think about what we need in the long run.

Still, in the same way that washing my hands frequently, drinking lots of water, and getting plenty of sleep can help me ward off cold germs, I also know that there are self-care steps I can follow to stay a little further away from this current state of mind. It’s just that, during the holidays, it’s as hard to remember that I need some quiet, alone time as it is to remind myself to wash my hands.

The point of all of this is not that I brought this on myself, though I know I played a part. The real lesson is that I forgot the value of taking care of myself for the last couple of months, favoring getting things done and looking after other people’s needs more than my own. It’s easy to ignore self-care when work is stressful, Christmas lights have to be hung, and turkeys need to be roasted. It all just seemed de rigueur at the time and I think I figured I’d be able to make up for it in the long run. And surely I will.

In these early days of January, though, when it’s gray and dreary, I feel as if I’m starting everything all over again. My writing has taken a back seat to the demands of the job I worked at this fall. I have been running only sporadically between work obligations and huge meals, and I've gained five pounds. I can barely remember how amazing it is to spend a few long hours on the couch reading and recharging.

Even at this advanced and experienced age, I can pretty much guarantee this won’t be the last time I find myself in this situation. It’s just so much easier to do what’s right in front of us than to think about what we need in the long run. Plus, I wince at the thought of being “self-indulgent,” which is how it feels if I purposely favor my own needs over that of the group. Looking back, that must have been how I perceived my mother when she was down in the dumps. In retrospect, I think she was probably trying to take care of herself in the only way she knew how in those days.

Fortunately, I get it that my state of mind is more complex than a simple promise to pay closer attention to what I need. Like most people, my mental health is a complex mix of genetics, experiences, and self-concept. Still, I’m thinking I could have softened the January landing with just a bit more attention to what I know I need to stay on better terms with myself. Sometimes it’s not any more than a couple of afternoons on my own schedule, but I think it’s really about paying attention to my own voice more regularly. As it is, I have a tendency to figure I’ve got all the time in the world to attend to my own needs. As I get older, I’m pretty sure that isn’t true.

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