Millennium Park. Evening rush hour, just before sunset. Grumpy commuters dodge meandering tourists in a rush from Here to There; tourists chug water from plastic bottles, fumble with cameras, bob their heads like pigeons to take in the sights. They gape up at their reflections in the silver “Bean,” shuffling heedlessly backwards to distort their reflections.
I’ve found a shady spot on the grass between tidy rows of flowering trees. Nearby, colorful beds of tulips ripple in the cooling breeze, the flowers bobbing their heavy heads. Summer has arrived and Chicago is awake again, collectively elated as the memory of a drab, harsh and erratic winter fades. I am awake, too. A bit dazed, perhaps, from months of psychic colorlessness and chaos, but clear-headed and content, at the helm of a well-ordered mind, calm in the aftermath of a wretched depression brought on (I am told) by winter’s thinner light and shorter days.
My mother tells me that, even as a kid, I turned grumpy and lethargic around my birthday in late November. As a teenager I turned sullen and irritable, habitually sleeping through homeroom. When I went away to college in Chicago, I took incompletes almost every winter term. As an adult, winter brings in hopelessness, mood swings and obsessive suicidal thoughts like detritus on an incoming tide.
Wintertime depression is the most common form of what psychiatrists—perhaps in an attempt at humor—term Seasonal Affective Disorder, or “SAD.” First described in the 1980s, seasonal depression is usually diagnosed as “Major Depressive Disorder with a seasonal pattern.” Its symptoms—hopelessness, anxiety, sleep and eating problems, social withdrawal and difficulty concentrating—are identical to those of major depressive disorder; the difference is that people who suffer from seasonal depression feel better in the spring, summer and early autumn.
Predictably, SAD is more common farther away from the equator, where the seasons (and light changes) are more dramatic. SAD may affect almost ten percent of adults living in New Hampshire, and only 1.4 percent of adults living in Florida. Though most people don’t get slammed with full-on depression every winter, ten to twenty percent of Americans experience milder symptoms of the winter blues, such as irritability, overeating and difficulty waking up in the morning. Chicago’s latitude is 41.85 degrees north, less than a degree latitude (or seventy miles) south of Nashua, New Hampshire. This means that Chicagoans can expect a lot of SAD, especially during the winter months when there are fewer sunny days.
The disorder may be related to changes in the brain chemical melatonin, which helps regulate our internal “biological clock.” Replacing sunlight with artificial light—by sitting in front of a specialized, full-spectrum “light box” every morning—makes many people feel better in less than a week. For me, “light therapy” never seemed to make much of a difference.
Here’s the weird thing about depression that waxes and wanes, coming and going with the cycling seasons: my sense of self changes under the psychic siege. What was possible becomes seemingly impossible; what was exciting becomes drab and banal. What was important loses its potency; a generalized sense of meaninglessness gives rise to existential disorientation. My emotional life can become unbearably dark, psychic storms howling in my head. At its worst, my brain seems to shut down: I can stare into space with a head full of static, sometimes for hours at a stretch.
But it’s summertime, and the weather is warm, though a breeze raises goosebumps on my bare arms. Petals flutter down from the trees like gentle confetti, disappearing into the lawn or alighting on my hair. Sunlight pools, dazzling, in the twists and hollows of the sculpture crowning the Pritzker Pavilion. Dusk cools the air, and I emerge from my grove, seeking the lingering sunlight.
Millennium Park isn’t so well-manicured in the wake of a winter storm; snow hides the clean concrete paths; wind rips bare branches from tree trunks. In the summer the foul weather gives way to warmth and light; nature becomes more docile, more readily managed and maintained, more easily subjugated to human notions of beauty, harmony and utility. In much the same way, my consciousness, my personality, struggles to endure a neurobiology gone haywire.
I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be alive. But the experience is bittersweet, because with summer comes the implicit promise of autumn.