Surviving the Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul

As we come out of the long dark slog that is December and into the rapidly lengthening days of January, I can’t help but look back and be amazed at what I got done in December. December is, traditionally, a horror show of a time of year for me. For most of my life, I’ve been useless from mid-November to early January. When I lived in Alaska, this time lengthened from about October to mid-January. I was able to push through this in Alaska primarily by sleeping this entire time. And the summers with their four hours of dusk and twenty hours of daylight more than made up for it.

But being a college student in Alaska whose sum total of responsibilities is showing up for class vs. a working writer with a mortgage are very different, and this December the sheer amount of work I took on meant that I simply didn’t have time to check out for a season.

Last month was a month of deadlines. I’m writing eight blog posts a month from November to February for a freelancing client, and I wrote and distributed ten press releases for another client last month on top of that. I also started teaching a copywriting class – also from November to February – and I was astonished to learn that it takes me something like 20-30 hours a week just to prepare for classes.

The day I spent 12 hours sitting in front of my computer, preparing a PowerPoint presentation for a class, and then another five hours the next day working on class notes, I realized the brain fog was winning. I started to worry about hitting my deadlines. I started to dread them. I had a short story due for an anthology on the 31st of December, and was seriously considering backing out because it was just going to be impossible for me to make that deadline on top of all the others. Because in addition to all of this work, I also had a 40 hour a week day job, and was trying desperately to rewrite a fantasy novel and work on a proposal. I even thought about returning the substantial retainer from one of my clients and saying I just couldn’t meet my obligations.

Winter was winning.

By mid-November, I was already exhausted. Sleeping too much, living too grumpily, and totally unable to read or concentrate on anything without extreme effort. I’ve tried eating Vitamin D pills, but that never worked for me. So instead, with an understanding that a lot of people suffer this time of year from lack of light, I started sitting outside to work. The weather was still OK here in November. I found that the days I worked outside, in the sun, I could think more clearly. But just in case I thought it might be a fluke, well, there was the day when I was so busy at work with meetings that I didn’t get to go outside, and when I got home that night just the idea of heating up soup sounded exhausting.

I’d been putting off getting one of those “happy lamp” sunlamps for yonks. People in Alaska had them, but I always scoffed at them.  It was like admitting you couldn’t cut it. I mean, it’s just sunshine! Your brain should be smarter than to get all wonked up because of lack of light.

But the evidence had been mounting for many, many years. And I was just too stubborn to see it. It wasn’t until I was in danger of drowning in work, fearful and freaked out, that I finally did something.

The happy lamp at home in my office.
The happy lamp at home in my office.

I was going to wait for my next freelancing check to get a proper lamp – to get the ones I wanted was a little pricey. But it turned out my parents asked what I wanted for Christmas about the same time I was having my seasonal-related meltdown. They happily bought me a nice big sunlamp for my office at home and a small sunlamp for my desk at the day job.

To say these lamps changed my life isn’t actually an overstatement at all. On the way to a Christmas shindig with my partner, he turned to me and said, “I’m really happy you got those lamps. You have so much more energy now. You’re so happy. You’re not asleep all the time. And you’re not so grumpy anymore.”

I went from staring over the looming cliff of deadlines, then – completely fearful and frozen, unable to act – to taking action and meeting them. In the process, I also ended up being a much more pleasant person to be around for my partner, which is always nice. Nobody wants to hang around with a listless asshole.

Traditionally, I’ve been able to tame my depression with regular exercise. It helps burn off all that stuff that makes me anxious and gives me a just enough happy hormones to carry on. But when the sun went down, it always got harder to exercise. I got sluggish. Making food and getting out of bed were nearly insurmountable tasks. And even when I did exercise this time of year, if just didn’t move me the way it does during the summer. It barely made a dent in my lethargy.

I admit I’m astonished that it took me 32 years to buy a fucking sunlamp, but then, I’ve always been suspicious of what I think of as “hippie” cures. It just seemed too easy. Maybe I just needed to take more Vitamin D? Maybe I should exercise more? Maybe I’m just depressed for emotional reasons and my life ACTUALLY sucks!

But in fact, I was depressed because my brain wasn’t getting something it needed. In my case, I’m lucky, and it was something simple like buying a couple of sunlamps (I had to get off the Pill many years ago because it was actually causing a similar sort of depression, which was even more greatly magnified during the winter. The time I thought most seriously about killing myself was during a particularly bleak Nov-December while I was on the Pill).

This is all to say that life is a lot better than it’s been any winter previously. I’m meeting my deadlines. I’m working very hard. I’m getting out of bed on time. And I’m writing fiction again in earnest (though I will be writing it even more earnestly once I clear off some of these outstanding obligations – my teaching job and one of my freelancing gigs are up at the end of February, which should help clear my plate).

I’m hoping that in the future, I’ll spend a lot fewer seasons mucking about lethargically in the long dark teatime of the soul.  It’s not exactly the world’s most fun place to be.  I like this sunny one better.

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