December Dementors: Some Musings on Seasonal Depression
Depression and Harry Potter: a timeless duo. The death of Jo’s mother made its mark on her writing sensibilities and thus on the entire Potter series. The Dementors act as a physical symbol of depression; they suck away happy thoughts and one’s soul, leaving the victim in a state “worse than death.”
Depression and me: another timeless duo! The first time I was hit with mental illness was when I was 13. It was November and I suddenly had no energy or emotion. I didn’t go to school for weeks, and I made excuses not to hang out with my friends. I missed the only Bat Mitzvah I was ever invited to because I was too sad to get out of bed. My report card at the end of the school year boasted 33 absent days thanks to my plummet in mental health (I was somehow allowed to graduate to the next grade, but they did stick me in a tedious remedial math class). This first experience with depression was certainly not my last. My mental health declined again during my senior year of high school and again when I was a junior in college. But there was something particularly sad about the first time, and I think it’s because I was so young. The previous year, I had been full of joy when the winter season arrived, and I didn’t understand why that joy had suddenly been shut off.
Seasonal depression affects many, including me. It even has a cool scientific name: seasonal affective disorder, or SAD (an appropriate acronym.) The physical numbness that comes with the cold often spreads to the mind, and longer nights bring more darkness. One of the fandom’s favorite movie quotes is one made by Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:
Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.
This line – punctuated by some wandless extinguishing and reigniting of candles – is beautiful in theory, but what if one doesn’t know how to turn on the light, or is unable to want to try? Harry’s first Christmas at Hogwarts is how the holiday season is meant to be experienced: The castle hums with holiday joy, the Great Hall is fully stocked with golden lights and feasts, and for the first time, Harry is surrounded by friends. But for some, December feels more like it does in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Ron is gone and Harry and Hermione are cold and directionless. When the holiday season feels like that, it’s hard to be cheered by omnipresent Christmas music or twinkly lights draped over front yards. And when it takes all your energy to climb out of bed, it’s not easy to feel inspired by friends and peers posting on Facebook about holiday joy and gratitude.
For me, seasonal depression has always felt different from my other mental health dips, clinically known as major depressive disorder. Although my first episode of major depression happened in the month of November, the other times spanned multiple seasons indiscriminately. These occasions of MDD seem to happen once every four years and are characterized by losing track of time, forgetting to eat and thus losing weight, and the sting of having to request assignment extensions from professors. Seasonal depression, on the other hand, greets me every winter, every year. Unlike with my MDD, my SAD does not render me dysfunctional; it just puts me perpetually down in the dumps. Maybe it’s the cold weather paired with the explosion of holiday cheer around me, which tends to make my own mood feel comparatively bleaker. Hauling myself out of bed to go be social with friends often alleviates the December woes; I find that I feel less rotten when I don’t isolate myself.
This is not a cheery holiday article. But for anyone reading who finds it relevant, please know that you are not the only one who suffers at the hands of seasonal Dementors. Muggles don’t have the Patronus Charm, but we do have therapy, medication, and/or support from loved ones. Hopefully, you have a combination that works for you. For those affected by SAD, there are even lamps that are specially designed to imitate sunlight, so that’s kind of like a Patronus, right?