I’m Starting to Weather the Midwinter Bleakness

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by Brianna Albers |

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Every 28 days or so, I convince myself that I’m dying.

If you’ve read my column before, you’ll know that I have a complicated relationship with death, which is to say I see it everywhere. Years ago, when I first started writing for SMA News Today, I thought I had brain cancer. Just last week, a cursory email regarding skin cancer sent me into an anxious tailspin. As a hypochondriac, my brain is primed to see minor illnesses as life-threatening or fatal, which is what makes life with SMA so fun.

It’s no surprise, then, that menstruation wreaks havoc on my illness anxiety. Halfway through the month, I start getting tired. But it’s not your run-of-the-mill, garden-variety exhaustion — it’s a bone-deep fatigue that swaddles me in self-pity. I become not a person but a shadow, a sliver of my true self.

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Around this time, I resign myself to feeling down in the dumps. Mood swings happen! I’ll bounce back eventually. So, I settle in with my survival kit — a Notion page full of self-care and coping mechanisms.

And then I realize I’m ovulating.

The cycle strikes again

I’ve written previously about my period and its awe-inspiring ability to take me off guard. You’d think that after 13 years of this, I would expect it. But I don’t. I never do. Every month, I’m shocked by my sudden decline. Every month, I’m relieved to realize that I’m not, in fact, dying. Every month, the cycle starts anew.

A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that this cycle also plays out on a yearly basis. Every year, around mid-February, I get suddenly, inexplicably sad. Sometimes it’s triggered by an external event; sometimes it’s a symptom of seasonal affective disorder. Most times, it comes out of nowhere, thoroughly blindsiding me.

I’ve struggled with this “seasonal mood swing” for decades. Some of the darkest periods of my life occurred during the winter, from middle school to a major depressive episode during college. The sadness is to be expected — I hate the cold, so it’s only natural that I would despise the unending bleakness of Minnesota winters — but it’s the hopelessness that knocks me off guard.

When I’m ovulating, I worry that I’ll always be tired, hormonal, and fighting the currents of my undesirable emotions.

When I’m “wintering,” I worry that I’ll never see the sun again. To take a page from fellow columnist Sherry Toh, Taylor Swift puts it perfectly: “I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still tryin’ to find it.”

The black hole of despair

As The School of Life observes, “some of our most despairing moods are caused by failures of the imagination. We are not merely ‘sad’; we cannot picture any better life than the agonised one we currently have.”

“Despair” is the perfect descriptor. It’s not just hopelessness — it’s frustration, grief, and the niggling fear that nothing in my life will ever change for the better. I am, in every sense of the word, stuck. And it doesn’t take long for that stuckness to bleed into other areas of my life.

I forget who I am.

I forget what I love, and why.

I forget everything that isn’t constriction.

The thing about the cycle is that I feel responsible. When my body gets tired, I wonder if my SMA is finally catching up to me. When my brain gets dull, I wonder what’s wrong with me. Am I broken? Is that why none of my coping mechanisms are working?

‘It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day’

Then I wake up with a whole new brain.

That is, admittedly, a bad metaphor, but it’s the only description I can think of. It’s like a switch is flipped. The world outside my window is just as dreary as it was yesterday, but that doesn’t matter, because something in me has changed. Finally, I remember who I am.

Of course, it’s still mid-February. Winter isn’t over yet. I can expect, at the very least, a couple more of these episodes before the snow starts to thaw. But my eyes have been opened. The cycle no longer takes me by surprise.

The newness won’t last. It never does. But that doesn’t stop me from soaking it in, precious as the midwinter sun.

Thanks for reading! You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, subscribe to my newsletter, or support me on Ko-fi.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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