October is unpacking her bags, filling up the dark corners of my mind. She is wily; she smiles with knowing eyes and bared teeth, as she knows she is right on time. She makes herself at home, walking over victories and bright memories and turning them to dust beneath her feet. She tucks sharp, intrusive thoughts into hidden nooks and settles words that bite like vicious rats into their daytime cages. She crowds the space with self-doubt and unhappy history until there is no room left for the light to wind through. Seratonin maintains its feeble protest at the edges, still present because it has no choice, but rightfully intimidated.
I hate October.
I used to think it was because it marked the death of my father, now sixteen years gone. It bleeds into winter, and the death anniversaries of my grandmother and my great-uncle. Our family is small, and the loss of those 3 people in a two-year span felt like a cleaver. We didn’t do holidays together anymore. My mother held hard feelings about the other family members around her perception of how much they cared; she was wrong, but the bridges had already burnt. I maintained contact with everyone; certainly no one had asked or intended, but I felt the pressure as the only thing keeping our family together at all. Now, I am keenly aware of that feeling in its new form after the losses of my father-in-law, my son, and my wife. I have almost no contact with my in-laws, and none of the wherewithal to try to span that chasm.
I remember being afraid last year of what the dark winter would bring. I had been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder at some point, but I’m not sure I recognized it as such until last year. I would tremble on the way home and cry in the driveway, the baby sleeping in the back, at the thought of facing another night. It was less that it was another night alone, and more the unrelenting darkness.
The first winter after Hawthorne had been so full of things to do – pack, move, find an apartment and a job, transition our whole lives to a new chapter. Seasonal symptoms were masked or obliterated by raw grief. I didn’t have the time, mental space, or energy to even think about anything else. I was still in therapy, and trying to find a therapist in my new state to move to. I had no local friends yet, and the first Covid vaccines had just been released for those at the highest risk, so most of my family was still hibernating. October’s manifestation had been silenced that year.
I was anticipating it to be rough last year; bad, but not as bad as it was. I functioned; I took care of Lucy, I went to work. I made plans with people, had standing dates for dinner, and tried. The exhaustion felt different; it felt false and unearned. I felt robotic, and after I had gotten Lucy to sleep, could feel myself power down. I would put the TV on and tell myself I was invested in the show, pull the blanket up to my chin, and sleep. Most nights I wanted to stay there, not having the energy to get myself to bed, but the fear of withdrawal from not taking my antidepressants eventually pushed me to my room.
One night in February, I called a help line. I wasn’t thinking of hurting myself; I already hurt enough. I did not want to kill myself, but the intrusive thoughts of simply not wanting to be alive anymore terrified me. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this way; the last time I had, I’d gone to a peer mental health respite house. So that’s who I called.
Just that connection, to a landline phone hundreds of miles away, tethered me back. Two things had just happened: I had called out for help in my weakest moment, and the call had been answered with love and compassion. At 11 PM on a February night, the first flicker of dawn shone gray through the deep and the dark.
For the holiday season, I had gifted myself a solo writing retreat in a cabin in New Hampshire. That trip came less than two weeks after that phone call, and those two actions are definitely in the top 5 best things I have ever done for myself. That was when the light began to come back. The skies didn’t fully clear for another month, but hope began to grow in the frost-hard ground.
This past week was a harsh reminder of last winter. I’d had flickers of worry over the spring and summer that this was going to be bad again, but I felt bolstered by the work I had done. I had spent five months waitlisted and am now working with a therapist who is incredibly well-suited for my needs. I have a network of friends and family, local and not-so-local. I have lists upon lists – self-care ideas, people to call, things I’m looking forward to. I’m making a tangible toolbox with these handwritten lists, colorful stones, pretty happy stickers, and my action plan, updated and yes, colorful.
I have the tools, the supports, the plans to get through this upcoming winter as healthy as possible. I know who I can call when I’m sad, when I’m scared. I will be OK; it’s just that getting there is going to suuuuuuuck.
I don’t want to hate October. I’m not generally a pumpkin spice latte fanatic, but if not for the darkness, I’m much more L.M. Montgomery – I’m so glad to live in a world where there are Octobers. I like football, and apple picking, and fall fests and leaf peeping and all the beautiful benefits of living in New England in autumn. I try to fill my days with them, soaking as much sun in as I can before the light changes to gold, before the evening arrives earlier and earlier.
The clocks will change soon. I’ll reset the three in the kitchen, the last I have that don’t update themselves. I’ll change the batteries in the closet lights so I can see my clothes without waking the little one who occasionally stumbles in for 2 AM snuggles. I’ll turn the heat on, weed the garden one last time for winter, and trim back the branches that have started to block the way to the trash bins. I’ll get Lucy a new heavy coat and new boots, and pack up my sundresses. Garland of leaves will be hung, costumes finished, birthday plans made. I will stand outside and stretch my arms out and lift my face to the thinning light, trying to warm myself like the cormorants on the rocks.
Spring will come, with its tulips and its birdsong. October will last exactly thirty-one days, and the following months at their prescribed intervals. Even in winter, the sun rises.
I would have made a terrible Alaskan.