Our Darkest Seasons: A Reflection on ‘Wintering’

Will this dark season of my life ever end and the next one begin? Will it ever stop snowing? Will the clouds above me ever clear?

These are questions you may be asking yourself amid the drastic changes due to COVID-19, personal tragedy, any number of losses or a mix of these. The darkest seasons of my life have lasted weeks, months and even years. I have experienced depression, sorrow and grief for so long that I doubted I would ever reach the other side. But I have learned that for better or worse, nothing lasts forever — not depression nor joy and certainly not happiness. In fact, one of the few guarantees in life is change. Seasons come and go in their time, not our own. The seasons care not for our clocks or calendars. No matter how much we try to claim control over ourselves and our stories, there is much we do not control. One of these things is the seasons of our lives.

We have had a relatively mild winter in northwest Ohio. Yet with just a few days of heavy snowfall, it feels like this winter is lingering. Many people will recognize the feelings of the winter blues. Commonly known as seasonal affective disorder, major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern is believed to be a response to decreased light, when serotonin is not working optimally. The prevalence varies with latitude, age and sex, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. More people experience this condition in the northern latitudes. Younger people are at higher risk, and women are more likely than men to experience major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.

Winter depression is more than a few days of sadness. It is a lingering mood change during the fall and winter months. We can practice self-care and keep a checklist of all the ways to resist those feelings of hopelessness and longing. But they may still come.

Wintering and the Power of Rest

At the beginning of February, my local library notified me that I could pick up my copy of “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times” by Katherine May. The timing could not have been better. February has always been my most difficult month, an occasion when the cold and frost seem to hang on well past their welcome. I believe in the beauty of the seasons, and I generally welcome them. There is a time for planting, a time for harvest, a time for celebration and a time for rest. Yet in the dark days of wintertime, I long for sunnier, happier times. This year, the isolation of winter is compounded by nearly a year of staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19. We miss our families, friends and colleagues. We miss human touch and the comfort of hugs. It leaves us wondering when the sun will return. 

May writes that wintering “is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can.” The author treks around the world to observe how people who live in colder climates exist and even thrive. If anyone is an expert at wintering, perhaps May will find them in the Arctic amid the beauty of the northern lights.

The Power of Retreat

A friend had recommended “Wintering” as the darkest days of winter approached, and I was enchanted by the idea of actively accepting sadness — those days in our lives when the darkness seems to envelope us. I had always thought of retreat as a negative outgrowth of depression. During our most difficult times, we tell ourselves that we should be reaching out to our loved ones instead of receding into our sorrow and grief. But what if we stopped telling ourselves what we should be doing, and accepted our own responses to our difficult days? 

Stigma, Guilt and Shame

We carry so much shame about our personal winters. Even as a mental health advocate who openly shares about my own bipolar diagnosis and long periods of depression, I still struggle with the shame of … what, being human? As a society, we have done so much harm to one another with the faulty thinking that we are not enough because we struggle, when to struggle is a fact of being human. 

I leave you with my favorite passage from the book: 

“… you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out. This may involve the breaking of a lifelong habit, one passed down carefully through generations: that of looking at other people’s misfortunes and feeling certain that they brought them upon themselves in a way that you never would. This isn’t just an unkind attitude. It does us harm, because it keeps us from learning that disasters do indeed happen and how we can adapt when they do. It stops us from reaching out to those who are suffering. And when our own disaster comes, it forces us into a humiliated retreat, as we try to blunt down mistakes that we never made in the first place or wrongheaded attitudes that we never held.” 

Katherine May, “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times”

May you find value in the dark days and give yourself permission to rest before rising.

Published by Alissa Paolella

Alissa Paolella is a writer, editor, photographer, social media manager, and marketing communications strategist with over 15 years of experience in the news media, advertising, and health care industries. They have overseen print and digital campaigns for small and large organizations and has served as a communications consultant for numerous nonprofits and universities. In their free time, Alissa enjoys trail-hiking with their camera and almost always has a book (or two) nearby.

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