I don’t remember exactly when I realized that something was indeed wrong, but it must have been sometime just after my thirteenth birthday. A few months prior, my father and I had arrived in Toronto from our small university town in India. I had little idea as to what awaited me, although I had visited Canada before and had some limited experience with harsh Himalayan winters. My parents had lived abroad and traveled widely both before and after I was born, so I expected my culture shock would be limited. I spoke English perfectly, was reasonably outgoing and academically oriented, and we all assumed that adjusting to our new urban Canadian setting would be no problem for me.
I remember the days getting shorter and shorter, and somehow limits to my freedom that didn’t exist before were put in place because of the weather. I found myself far more devoted to the local public library and the elusive worlds of YA fantasy novels than to actual social realms. I terminated my efforts at making friends in school, plagued by ethnic divisions that didn’t make sense to me. My parents and I were unlike any other Indian families around; other than academic prowess, I was not expected to conform to any idea of diligence or obedience often commonplace in the homes of my South Asian peers. This was odd for everyone in my suburban Toronto Catholic high school: I wasn’t white enough for white kids, but also not brown enough for the South Asians.
“Culture shock,” as they called it, gripped me in a way perhaps a bit outside of its conventional use and definition. I simultaneously experienced an unprecedented loss of freedom, spiritually, mentally, and physically, at the advent of winter, while my own “kind” was entirely alien to me. I sometimes wish I had known Janelle Monae back then, that her art could have reached me through some anachronistic portal to tell me that everything was going to be just fine. I no longer knew what my tribe was.
I did eventually end up making some great friends in those years, and my fleeting moments of happiness in winters are attributable to them. I was told by friends and non-friends alike that this would soon pass. The weather would change, and as average temperatures increased globally, so would my spirit become emboldened. My chronic sadness, I assumed, was caused by nothing other than my own indolence during winter. I thought if I got out enough and lived my life as I had during other seasons, I would do just fine. Just as culture shock had left me, eventually, so would the winter blues.
Being a bookish young teenager without much of an outlet elsewhere, I saw my diminishing mental health during winters as a call to explore my own imagination and to indulge my creative side. Winter became a depressing yet romanticized escape for me in a way I was never told was actually quite unhealthy. For years, I found myself stifling tears and sobs in public transit, in university lectures, and then finally at my workplace. “I have winter depression,” I found myself muttering under my breath. “It will pass soon enough.”
I had always been resistant to the idea of medicating this problem, not only because of the stigma surrounding mental health, but because even my doctor said something akin to the fact that this was only a phase that would pass. Just like culture shock, and just like the weather. So, year after year, I simply came to expect the sadness, the tears, the feeling that everything was so bleak, the thought of suicide. At least there is a way out of this. At least, if things get bad enough, I can always pursue that option. At least this was something I could still control. The idea of self-inflicted eternal oblivion was one that arose every time I felt, well, under the weather.
Then this year came. It turns out, constantly thinking of eternal escape from one’s daily routine isn’t exactly top-notch for either one’s productivity or one’s desire to, indeed, keep existing. I had experienced various bouts of depression all right, during university and even high school, but that was all relegated to the category of seasonal blues that I would eventually escape – like a momentary prick of the needle that just happened to last a bit over four months every year. But this year, as May and then June rolled in, I didn’t find myself feeling considerably better. I was actually more depressed. The more I got out, the more I went for walks around High Park, the more coffee dates I didn’t flake out on in favour of Netflix, the worse I felt.
Then one day, a dear friend told me, hey, maybe you aren’t supposed to be on the brink of tears two or three times every day for no reason.
That was a smart reckoning.
I was officially diagnosed with clinical depression – you know, the type that exists all year round. I was put on medication, and I am still on it, and that’s that.
I remember in the late summer months, after my medication had kicked in, it felt as if I had woken up with a new lease on life. I felt amazed by simple things like being productive, not sleeping till noon, and not being tired for no reason. It wasn’t an immediate process — I still had very, very bad days — but on the whole, it felt like the parts of me that had been frozen in the Canadian winters for years on end were being gently thawed by some benevolent universal spirit. I don’t mean to give drug companies undeserved praise, as there is much that needs to be corrected in our approach to holistic mental health. But I do not believe I could have coped without pharmaceutical intervention, and there is nothing wrong with that.
I still see winter as a time for solemn contemplation and a slower pace in life – I would not have it any other way. Winter has come again, and I have braced myself for it. Soon I hope to experience some contentment, if not outright joy, in the practice of cultivating the sanctuary of my inner world, in the romanticized sense I had originally intended — but without any thought of self-inflicted eternal oblivion to the sound of Thom Yorke’s “Analyse.”