Fighting the Mental Frost

How to dress to walk the dog.

How to dress to walk the dog, or: reasons to get a cat.

It is stupid cold outside: a breathtaking -11°F. For the lucky uninitiated, at this frigidity, nose hairs freeze and stiffen as you breathe in. You don’t dare cry outdoors, even if you’re late for work and your car door is frozen shut. Lettuce leaves freeze in the time it takes to walk from the grocery to your car.

I grew up in a dry land close to the sun where buying snow boots is more wishful thinking than preparedness. I am not blessed with the fortitude of Northern peoples to withstand six months of cold, dark hell. I don’t think many of them are blessed with it either; I know many pale skinned Northerners who struggle with Winter’s long, cold reign. I remember my first northern winter and thinking, “This is why these people drink so much.” (It also could have been because it was my freshman year in college, but I digress.) By February, the darkness and chill seep into my bones and despair sets in. It will not end for another 6-8 weeks and I begin to be mentally unwell.

As being constantly drunk for 6 weeks is not an option, I have found other ways of coping. My favorites are cheap and effective. Of course, I forget to do them and end up huddled against the radiator, eating mashed potatoes and weeping. But, when I remember to do them, they help.

Avoid the Idiot Box

I watch very little TV and few movies- 2-3 hours a week, at most. Empirical data from myself and children convinced me that television is bad for humans. Children’s behavior and attitudes are never better after watching TV; they are usually worse. If I consume more than 3 hours of TV within a couple of days, I am noticeably more anxious and unhappy. It makes my sleep less restful. Most TV is crap anyway. (Whatever show I currently love is excepted, of course.)

Escapism has its place in a northern winter, but TV for TV’s sake is a poor escape. It puts a mind in stasis. There have been times when I can’t even remember what I watched. When I turn the box off, my mind reverts to the same stressed, pent up state it was in before, except with a liberal sprinkling of anxiety on top.

Find other escapes if TV affects you negatively. Listen to podcasts/music/audiobooks. Go to bed. Talk to someone. Practice a hobby. Sort the socks. Do something besides sit in front of the TV/Hulu/Netflix.

Fill’er up with Happy

Jon Snow, you need a week in SoCal.

Jon Snow, you make me cold.

Last winter, I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire, the first book in the Game of Thrones series. What a terrible decision- so much cold, and snow, and blood, and bloody snow. I could handle the gore; it was the snow, or Snow, that got me. I put it down until April.
In the depths of the winter that has already come, I seek out pleasing, diversions- silly British TV shows (watched in small doses,) audiobooks by comedians, or engrossing fiction or biographies in which winter is not a character and children don’t die.

Eat Live Things

When the snow flies, I am drawn to rich, fatty, carbohydrates and wine. However, when I haven’t felt the sun 3428573788_4f85b63636in months and winter’s cold fingers are tightening around my chest, I feel better when I eat some raw foods. The problem is that raw foods, like me in February, are always cold, and I only want warm things. Salad is nearly impossible to make desirable this time of year. Even the salty charms of feta cheese cannot draw me to a bowl of chilled vegetable. Bacon must be enlisted in a 1:1 ratio to lettuce to tempt me at all.

In winter, I try to serve something raw at each dinner: sugar snap peas, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, jicama, even fruit. I serve green leaves like a supplement, not a side dish. Everyone gets a pinch of fresh spinach leaves next to their vitamins, no matter what else is for dinner.

The easiest way to dose my family with raw veg in the winter is to juice them (the veg, not the family.) I always forget to do this until late winter when we all start getting sick. Children love to use the juicer and will suck down a carrot/orange/romaine blend without complaint. It tastes like sweet life in the bitterness of March.

Take Some Vitamin D

Because I haven’t made any of my own since October and will not do so again until April.

Let the Sunshine In

In the frigid north, it is colder when the sun is out. Clouds blanket the city, holding warmth in, but blue skies strip away warmth. When I can find a window with the sun streaming in, I stand there with the golden light filling my eyes, even for a minute. It’s better than nothing.

Sweat & Exercise

I can almost see your eyes rolling. I know; it’s a bit of a bummer. Pulling on spandex pants after a cold Christmas does not seem likely to

Simmons: He knows what's up.

Simmons: Good for what ails you…depending on what ails you.

improve one’s mood. Avoid the full-length mirrors and do it anyway. Or just do it in your house and wear your PJ. Who cares? Getting the blood moving reminds me that I am alive, even if the weather outside is deadly.

Winter is what got me started working out seriously. One February at 11:30 pm, I was paying a crew of men a revolting hourly sum to melt the 1’ ice dams off my roof. I was running out of money and there was still one damn dam to go. Stressed, worried by the water dripping down my inside walls, and a little furious at the whole situation, I decided to wear myself out doing mountain climbers- just to calm down. Gasping for breath and lying on the floor 4 minutes later, I was exhausted, but my mental state was much better, and I was a little bit hooked.

Now, I run for my mental health as much as for my physical health. There is something about the combination of rhythmic movement, sweat, a half an hour without someone yelling, “Mom!”, and the endorphins, that raise my mood more than anything else. Oh, the sweet endorphins. Sometimes, I run just for the endorphins. Being a user of these chemicals, I know that I need to run for 28 minutes to get a good hit, and I feel them hit my bloodstream. They are effective, legal, and free.

Exercise is also one of the only times I am actually warm during the winter. At the moment, I am writing this with a down comforter over my head and shoulders, and a space heater aimed at me. I walk around my house in shoes, sweater, hat, and sometimes a scarf for months at a time. Getting hot and sweaty, whether through exercise or sauna, feels so good during the cold months- bringing blood to the surface and opening pores that otherwise won’t open again until May. Even if you don’t want to P90X (and I’m right there with you,) getting in a steam room will give you the same glow without all the burpees. It’s a small wonder that the Finns love their saunas. Although, I am not game for the jump in a frozen lake afterward- madness.

You go first. I'll take pictures.

You go first. I’ll take pictures.

Warmth in Numbers

February/March is a social dead time. Holidays are over; the spring event season has yet to begin, and no one is thinking of barbeques or cocktail parties. People are hunkered down, waiting for Spring. If I can get myself invited to or arrange social gatherings with beloved and stimulating people, my heart warms and life is good.

Medicinal Grooves

When struggling with seasonal depression, I medicate with music. I choose it like a prescription drug- in accordance with what I need and what it can provide. It’s most effective when I can turn it up, close my eyes, and give it my full attention- so, when small people are asleep. This time of year, I take a lot of Haydn, early to mid Beethoven, Mumford and Sons, Cake, and occasional Metallica, AC/DC, Pink, and Randy Travis. I must be careful with those last ones; it’s easy to build up a tolerance and they quickly lose their effectiveness.

Bring Me [to] a Shrubbery!

I always forget this one and must be reminded of it by friends. In my city, we have a wonderful conservatory full of tropical trees, plants and lots of loamy smelling humidity. It is a relief to the skin and the senses to go in there and smell the plants, the damp earth, and see living horticulture. I will fill out a comment card the next time I go. I’ll suggest that they put deck chairs out in sunny spots and people can rent them by the hour and take the air and light for their health.
If you have access to an indoor greenspace- zoos, greenhouses, conservatories, go. Your skin and your mood will thank you.4308992311_e8bf512eed

That’s my arsenal. On occasion, it must all be employed at once to meet my mental health needs. I’m sure I’d be a good candidate for a light therapy lamp, but I haven’t looked into it. How do you cope with the cold, dark, icy white horror that is a Northern winter? I need all the help I can get… as long as it’s cheap and easy, or you’re paying.

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I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends.

I had a terrible morning with the children. The youngest is sick and cried. The eldest threw a full bore tantrum. The middle child, typically, said not a word and got ready for school. After dropping the older two at school, I came home and cried into a dishtowel for ten minutes. I was at a loss; I didn’t know how I should have handled the tantrum.  I was sure I was a terrible mother; no one knows how bad it really gets around here except me. My nerves were shot; a tornado of chaos and banshees knocked me over, and I had no idea why or what to do about it.

3609775194_df351a29b9Out of frustration and a touch of desperation, I posted something about the bad morning and feeling inept. I wasn’t fishing for compliments or platitudes; it was just something I had to say somewhere.  Within minutes, my phone rang. It was my friends, a couple I’ve known for years, asking if I was okay and what was going on. The concern expressed in their words and the act of calling comforted me greatly. They gave me a couple things to try. Mostly, they listened and confirmed that parenting is hard. It is hard for everyone, but lots of other people get through it and so will I, and so will they.

I had forgotten what a powerful support it is to have someone show concern and listen, especially someone who is walking a similar path. When I was a newish parent, I was lucky to be part of a wonderful program through our public school system, ECFE. It is a program designed to support and help families navigate the baffling early years of parenting.

We met once a week for one hour with children, and then one without- the kids exploring their world, the parents exploring theirs. This group of wonderful, average, every day women saved my bacon. We saved each other’s bacon. Each week, we’d share our joys and bring our concerns to the group in uncommonly open, kind, and honest conversation. Everything was game: kids who wouldn’t stay in bed, kids who’d only eat cheese, disagreements with partners, divorce, illness, infidelity, our own weakness and frustrations. It may be the healthiest thing I did for myself and my young family.

We all need those places to unload, commiserate, re-direct, tell the truth, hear the truth, and offer support. This job is completely bananas. Almost any yahoo can make a baby and that’s where the easy part ends. Billions of people have raised children under all kinds of conditions, difficulties, and advantages. It is hard every time. If parents care about their children at all, it is hard. It’s the most intense challenge I will ever face.

I want to be the mother each of my children needs, but there are three of them, one of me, and I have my own soul trying to be the person she needs to be. Dealing with myself is hard enough, much less trying to be good for three children. Children come with their personalities, temperaments, weaknesses, and strengths intact and active. Grown humans must teach them how to make the most of what they’ve got. My children’s proclivities, talents, and issues may be widely disparate from my own, but it is still my job and I don’t get a pass because I feel ill suited to it. At some point, we all fall short of expectation, but we don’t get to quit.  Decent parenting (I’m not talking stellar, just decent) is utterly vital to the health of society and individuals.  So we pick ourselves up, open up a bottle of wine when the kids go to bed, and do the best we can.

A compatriots make difficulties easier to bear.

Compatriots make difficulties easier to bear.

Except sometimes, we can’t pick ourselves up quickly. Quickly is important, because the battle doesn’t stop because we’ve fallen down. Today I was overwhelmed. I no longer have that group of pre-school moms to lean on, strategize with, and encourage. My friends picked up the phone and were the support that I needed. I am so grateful. They may not even realize what it meant to me to have them reach out and pull me up. They patched me up and sent me back into the fray, reminded that I was not alone and that any parent worth her salt feels inadequate at times.

Let's go for coffee, I mean, cheap therapy.

Let’s go for coffee, I mean, cheap therapy.

I will look for places to do the same for others, when they hit a rough spot. It increases goodness and we all need help eventually. Ask for help when you need it, and be there when others need you. Both sides of the equation make this hard and vital job of raising people easier, kinder, and less harrowing. Be kind to each other. Kids, be kind to your old moms and dads. We’re actually working hard at this, even if it doesn’t look like it.

Six Year-Olds, 29 Years Later

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I went for a walk with a soul I met in kindergarten, my first friend who was not also my cousin. My mom joked that we became close because we were the only two minority, less than upper-class students in the class. I can’t corroborate that because the only division I noticed at the time was that we were all brown from a high desert summer except Catherine, who glowed with an ivory pallor and crown of blond plaits that I found mesmerizing. I had never seen someone that fair.

Keeping touch with childhood friends makes me think like an old woman- seeing the full length of my life, feeling the stretch of years as one event. Our shared experiences took place when we were shorter and had smoother cheeks, but it hardly matters. We are shaped by the sum of our experiences, not just the recent additions.

il_fullxfull.132528183Friends from youth are as much a part of my life as those who currently inhabit it. No matter where we are in life, our interactions with people follow a pattern. We come into each other’s lives, walk along side for a time, and then continue on our individual paths.

After kindergarten, my friend and I went separate ways until 6th grade, when we were once again at school together and our paths ran parallel until high school graduation. We now live on opposite ends of the country, but are digitally reconnected. While separated geographically and politically, she is a woman who’s decency and solid mind I admire greatly.

I can only think of one person I wish I had never met, whose interactions were onerous and pedagogically fallow. The upper classman concertmaster who dressed down 11 year-old me in front of the rest of our combined 6-12th grade violin section- I could have done without that arrogant ass. The only thing I learned from him was that some people are just jerks and that grudges can be carried easily for decades. Even the violist in my most dysfunctional chamber ensemble ever was diverting enough to make for good stories. (He threw a telephone receiver in a fit of anger- the big clunky kind that used to be attached to walls- over a spat about tuning his 3rd.)

I appreciate people who come into my life. I admire them for what they’ve accomplished, or skills they’ve mastered that I have not. I esteem their strengths, especially when I am aware of some of their weaknesses. If people approach me honestly, I will respond in kind.

20121217-163827I cannot imagine being any other way. It would be exhausting to try to impress people, or to put up facades and keep distance. I’m too lazy for that. Here I am, a 6 year-old, a 16 year-old, a nearly 36 year old- adding years and people one by one, filling my memory with the richness of walking with my 6 year-old friend, 29 years later, toting her son, unpacking our families, careers, and ideas. For all the distance of space and years, knowing her is part of my whole.

Maybe my nostalgia is syrupy. Maybe it’s easy to feel like people are wonderful as I sit here, alone, in my house. Maybe I get caught in waves of emotion. Eh, so what? There are worse things than liking people easily.

The illustrations are all by Joan Walsh Anglund, a favorite from my childhood. Her website is here.