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  Opinion   Columnists  14 Nov 2021  Shreya Sen-Handley | Season’s affect and the comfort of darkness

Shreya Sen-Handley | Season’s affect and the comfort of darkness

Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the award-winning Memoirs of My Body, short story collection Strange: Stories, and a forthcoming book of travel misadventures Handle With Care
Published : Nov 14, 2021, 2:42 pm IST
Updated : Nov 14, 2021, 2:42 pm IST

In this first month of winter, in the colder reaches of the world, the nights draw near, and the days are hauntingly short

About three per cent of the UK, five per cent of the US, and 12 per cent of Finland, to name just a few, suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder in the winter! (AFP Representational Image)
 About three per cent of the UK, five per cent of the US, and 12 per cent of Finland, to name just a few, suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder in the winter! (AFP Representational Image)

Hello darkness, my old friend;

I’ve come to talk with you again.

But not really out of choice — at this time of the year, you’re impossible to avoid!

“When it is misty in the evenings, it seems to me that the rain is falling through my heart and causing it to crumble into ruins,” Gustave Flaubert complained in November. In this first month of winter, in the colder reaches of the world, the nights draw near, and the days are hauntingly short. The frost bites, the strong winds chill, and the frigid rain gnaws at our hearts. Consequently, our spirits drop several rungs down the satisfaction ladder to despondent and morose. But we aren’t just stymied spiritually, we’re medically SADdened.

About three per cent of the UK, five per cent of the US, and 12 per cent of Finland, to name just a few, suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder in the winter! The sunshine-deprivation leads to inadequate Vitamin D production in our bodies, and other biochemical imbalances. This doesn’t only get us down, it can become a debilitating condition — inducing a lethargy that can make one housebound, even though, ironically, spending time outside is an important antidote.

Whilst clearly a scourge of colder climes, certain communities in these parts are more impacted than others. Those with more confined lifestyles, like the elderly, or women in traditional setups. Or people with darker skin!

Humanity adapted to colder, darker northern conditions by evolving into lighter-skinned, lighter-eyed individuals. Their light skin helped them process additional Vitamin D from limited sunshine, and their light eyes, letting in more natural light, suppressed the melatonin that can make us sluggish in the winter. Over thousands of years, they became better equipped to beat winter blues than their darker counterparts: black and Asian communities, for example.

Asian women in the West are hence doubly affected. Because these expatriate communities find limited career opportunities and are also more often traditional, their womenfolk are frequently homemakers, and housebound as a result. In the winter, this daily confinement combined with sunshine-deprivation deepens their depression.

An Asian woman myself, and housebound, though for entirely different reasons (partly due to the pandemic, and partly by choice; as an independent writer), I feel winter clutch at my mind as the year grinds to a halt. Hope wanes, like Charles Dickens’ own: “The light was all withdrawn; the shining church turned cold and dark; the stream forgot to smile; the birds were silent; and the gloom of winter dwelt on everything.”

For me, fortunately, winter’s grip has loosened over time. Whether because of my acclimatisation to the dark and cold over twenty years in Britain, or that comfortable numbness that comes with getting old, I couldn’t tell you. Yet, despite the pandemic wreaking havoc in all our lives, even mine, winter’s grim embrace has affected me less in the last two years. It could also be that once I discovered my autism, as I did last year, my life-long struggle to fit society’s prescribed mould was finally over. And with that came a contentment that’s stopped this seasonal murk from swamping my soul.

As darkness descends this time, it’s reassuringly womb-like. There is in it even a hint of adventure, like in the “load shedding” of our Kolkata childhood. Those were occasions for games in the dark; shadow puppetry, storytelling, even hide-and-seek, if not already wilted by the heat. Epileptic since the age of seven, my intermittent blackouts felt like the flick of a light switch, with sharp, sometimes dangerous, occasionally dreamy, descents into darkness. Darkness engulfed me too in my first marriage; dragged into it sometimes by my abusive husband, at others, I would seek its refuge. So, if darkness hasn’t been a steadfast friend, a constant companion it’s certainly been. For many, these last two years have been very dark indeed, with this winter heralding another wave of the virus, and many more tragedies. Europe is once again at this pandemic’s epicentre with half-a-million more deaths predicted this winter. India, with a searing Covid summer behind it, and 461,000 deaths in total, is about to succumb to its third surge.

It’s hard to see past the losses we’ve endured, or the ensuing grief, loneliness, and anxiety. Hard to peer into the unrelenting darkness and spot the faint light breaking in. But like mortality, there’s one other certainty — that the seasons will shift, light rekindle, and hope spring eternal in the human heart.

Our many spectacular celebrations in this dreariest part of the year — Diwali, Durga Puja, Hanukkah, Halloween, Bonfire Night and Christmas — were designed by our ancestors to light up our lives in the depths of winter. Bringing folk together for warmth and comfort, festivals were fashioned to remind us to persevere with our good intentions.

Yet, brighter still is the world’s luminous beauty, if we could only train our psyches to see past the gloom. The red-and-gold glory of autumn leaves on the paths we plough through on Halloween, the snow gilding homes as surely as tinsel on Christmas evenings, and the freshly-washed gleam of a new year’s morning, is living proof, at the earth’s darkest hour, that “wild music is still abroad”. Everything that’s sustained us since time immemorial will do so again, if, instead of fighting our world’s natural rhythms, we went with the flow.

This darkness then has a purpose — to remind us of the hope we need nurture, and the radiant goodwill we must stoke.

So, hello darkness. Welcome back, old friend.

Tags: seasonal affective disorder