harvest moon

The autumnal equinox was accompanied by a gorgeous big full moon this weekend. And it was breathtaking.

For the first time since 1991, the full moon shed light on the beginning of fall—the Northern Hemisphere’s autumnal equinox, which officially began last Wednesday at 11:13 pm ET.

How do I know this? National Geographic, that’s how.

The autumnal equinox signals the beginning of the official season of “hunkering down” for people like me. We are preparing for the great annual hibernation. Or, in my case, what I find more apt is referring to myself in a Jeckyl and Hyde sort of way: Winter Rachel and Summer Rachel. Because in many ways I really do have a split personality when it comes to the seasons…when it comes to my energy levels and sense of optimism and ability to communicate, that is.

It’s certainly not that I don’t appreciate the idea of autumn. I recognize that fall is a beautiful and splendid month for many reasons, but the fact that it clears the way for more darkness and shorter days has always made it hard for me to enjoy. Thankfully each year, as the terror and hopelessness from past experiences have become less sharp, faded around the edges, autumn’s seasonal cues have begun to adopt new meanings. This is good.

As many of you know, I have a bit of an obsession with the sun and the number of hours of daylight we get at different times of the year. This is because I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I think that most people living in our latitude or farther north experience some degree of SAD symptoms at some point during the winter.*

But in my case, it has significantly impacted my life, off and on, for nearly 35 years. And the symptoms became much more severe in my first year of college. They became scary severe. I was so desperate at times for some relief from my anxiety that I would run straight up Mount Royal (a pretty big hill in Montreal) in an effort to achieve some ability to breathe. I would feel so hopeless and lifeless that I thought of catching a cab to the airport and catching the very first flight I could find. Anywhere. Every night.

I was one of the very first people to try out light treatment as therapy for depression in Canada (1988.) That is a pretty great story, and I will share it with you soon. In the meantime, I wish I could find a way to effectively explain to people who have never experienced it just how dramatically my body is impacted by the dwindling light.

Thankfully, the depression which used to seize me throughout the entire winter is now quite manageable, for a number of reasons. But I am still affected in some way most days: I get symptoms like chills, headaches and extreme lethargy (the kind of lethargy which prevents you from even pushing a button on a remote because you just don’t care enough about watching anything to move your finger to touch the shiny box already in your hand.) I often can’t help but fall asleep in late afternoon and though I might wake up for supper, I will often just go right to bed afterwards. It would be one thing if all of this sleep actually gave me energy. But it does nothing except disorient me and make me feel like I am missing a lot of life.

I sometimes cry and cry. For hours. So when that happens, instead of freaking out like I used to, I just wait it out.

And the next day I usually feel better.

I know that right now many of you are screaming at your computers that I should move to this place or that because I would feel great all year round and would never have to struggle this way. But I LOVE it here. I truly love living in Minnesota, even in the winter. If winter were just six weeks shorter, it would be perfect. But where in life do we really experience perfection? Should we expect perfection? As I learned in my mindfulness class: “Nothing is as it should be and everything is exactly as it is.”

Hopefully you won’t think me a complete masochist when I say that living with and through these strong changing seasons each year has created space and opportunity for incredible spiritual and emotional growth in my life.

Plus, I have lived other places–spent a whole winter in the Bahamas and three years in Victoria BC–and it doesn’t necessarily alleviate the issue with the light changes. Even though it was warmer in SC when we were there last Christmas, for example, the days were still shorter than normal and the slant of the light was just different. I feel it like a chill that goes through your bones. After the solstice on December 21st, the days will start to lengthen, and it will get better from there.

And the euphoria I feel in spring? It is indescribable.

“C’est la vie!” This is my lot in life. Everyone has something and it really is ok. Because the joy created by my life in Minnesota far outweighs the difficulties.

So, what do I do to get through the next 83 days (not that I’m counting!?)

Here’s just some of what’s in my winter survival toolkit:

1. Lots of Vitamin D3!!!

2. Light therapy

3. Diet changes and other supplements

4. Adjusting my schedule/lifestyle to work for my energy levels

5. Dressing warm and getting outside

6. Pre-planned activities and time with friends that bring me joy

7. Being ok with just being…being sad, being angry, being nothing

I have heard from so many people over the years who also struggle with seasonal changes, even if much less severely. So, over the next few weeks I thought I’d share more of what I’ve discovered about each of the tools listed above.

Before I leave you, I’ve got one more fact from National Geographic to share:

On the Northern Hemisphere’s autumnal equinox day, a person at the North Pole would see the sun skimming across the horizon, signaling the start of six months of darkness.

Some people watch horror flicks; I just read things like this. Shudder. Big shudder.

By the way…

* I have completed exactly zero years of medical school. The opinions on my blog, therefore, are based on my personal experience and not on any kind of professional expertise. Please consult with a doctor right away if you are experiencing depression and/or anxiety that is negatively impacting your ability to function.