A Mind of Winter: Chronicling Seasonal Darkness

Book review: The Light in the Dark, by Horatio Clare (Amazon / Book Depository)

The struggle is intensifying. It is like being sealed into a grey snowball which keeps gathering defeats. However much I wash, I seem to smell of dirty winter trains and exhaust… Winter is a miser at the moment, giving nothing but bills. The result is inarticulacy… The words and the lightness will not come… I write everything down first, and work through it carefully and slowly, so that I will not be left gulping in silence.

British author and lecturer Horatio Clare suffers from seasonal affective disorder. SAD, as it’s abbreviated, sets in alongside winter’s dark days and is a not uncommon form of depression: the American Academy of Family Physicians reports that 4-6% of people suffer from it, and another 10-20% may to a mild degree. Its symptoms include many all too familiar to those of us in wintery climates – fatigue, (over)eating for comfort, oversleeping, lack of interest in very much.

But the emotional effects of those symptoms are more sinister. Especially in locales where natural light isn’t abundant, a unique kind of gloom and various accompanying ideas of doom take hold and it’s hard to shake them. One problem or dark thought compounds and brings another, and it doesn’t take long before a person feels life spiraling into a psychologically unsound place, with aspects of home, family, and work all horribly affected.

It was nothing inexplicable: depression brings fear, entrapment, fault and failure wherever you look.

Living in Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, England, Clare faces the dreary specter of a bleak British winter every year. He notes that part of the problem is losing sight of small things that bring happiness, solace, even joy regardless of the season. Things like his family, or appreciating nature – as a seasoned travel and nature writer, this seems a particularly tough point for him. He observes wistfully (but beautifully) things like, “Beware that glaze which creeps over the inner eye, blinding you to the brightness of moss in rain.”

But in 2017 he approached winter’s onset differently, deciding to keep a journal chronicling the course and content of the winter days and observing his feelings and impressions. Not a bad idea – a little introspection can sometimes work wonders, and just keeping your pen moving with purpose is meaningful.

It is not fair to blame the winter, but it does set the stage so well, with its clamped-down rains, its settled and introverted darkness, its mean ration of light, its repetitions.

The result of this exercise is an impressionistic, heartfelt, and at times aching glimpse of everyday life in the shadow of depression, at least for part of the year. He chronicles minutiae – his children’s comings and goings, descriptions of work and trying to explain how things feel different during this time, family interactions, the faults in the house that become pronounced in wintertime. And bigger emotional troubles, like the guilt he feels for burdening his wife with his emotional upset and additional responsibilities during this time.

But, interestingly, he doesn’t penetrate too deeply or revealingly in his exploration of these emotions and accompanying psychological turmoil. Whether this was too private or too painful, I’m not sure. It can seem a drawback, but by the end I appreciated his approach, which focuses more on the impressionistic. His writing shines this way, and I could see how the book took shape from loose journaling. And it still hits quite heavily even with the glossy literary veneer he applies to avoid plumbing the depths of depression.

The negative, like an egg hatching, produces a kind of dark thing which sits in my mouth, spitting out gloom whenever it can. I try not to speak.

Clare’s prose can be incandescent. For writing set almost entirely in the shortened, cold and oppressive days of winter, it brims with warmth and underlying promise, perhaps even when he doesn’t think so. I found it immensely comforting, both in accompanying him on his “journey” through a troublesome time and the inherent sense of understanding and unity that brings, and because his writing takes unexpected directions and was often pure delight to read. His prose is lyrical, intelligent, and incorporates observational nature writing that’s brilliantly perceptive and realistic.

Not to mention his handling of simple truths and realities that nevertheless become hazy and slippery to grasp when mental illness has a hold: “Depression, seasonal and otherwise, turns all this upside down: the past is a guilty place, the future a hanging threat, the present a humiliation.”

If you look on the dimmer side of anything you are lost. When Uncle Chris turned the car over, his mother transformed the event into a triumph of luck.
‘Nobody was hurt,’ Jenny said, ‘that’s what I’m telling myself, and thank goodness.’
I hope I am becoming better at thanking goodness.

As inspiring and, maybe strangely, comforting as I found most of the book, I wish a final scene had been mostly omitted. Clare visits a psychiatric nurse who assures him he’s not bipolar, which was a lingering fear throughout his journaling. She recommends a vitamin regimen. On the way home, elated, Clare calls his wife to tell her, “I’m not mad!” I understand his relief at not being diagnosed with serious mental illness, but it was framed insensitively for those who are, or who love someone who has received such a diagnosis.

I try not to fault something like this because not every story can be every thing for every person – that’s impractical and leads to everyone being afraid to express opinions and tell their experience. But this could’ve been handled more sensitively. It seemed to painfully underscore what a tough diagnosis bipolar disorder is.

Plus, I’m wary of anything emphasizing vitamins and dietary supplements over medical treatment/therapy because people take that information the wrong way. Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but so I felt. It seemed like potentially undoing a lot of good that he’d done with this book otherwise. (And you know who else recommends vitamins instead of treating mental illness? Scientologists. If you ever find yourself in agreement with Scientology doctrine, perhaps reconsider.)

Beyond the windows the light holds promises, hints of hope. The silver birches sing light back to the sun.

Aside from this last-minute quibble, it’s a lovely book. It’s personal but not intensely so – I think that might’ve had the potential to be painful for readers and upsetting for the author. Instead it shows the slow, steady progression of days that are mentally trying, sometimes with setbacks, but always focused on both the inward and outward journey through it. It seems to softly remind at every opportunity that lighter, brighter days are coming. Literally and figuratively.

“The Russian proverb goes, ‘Life is not a walk across an open field,’ I said. “But it is sometimes.”
My mother, hugely smiling, repeated, “It is sometimes!”

The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal
by Horatio Clare
published
 2018 by Elliott and Thompson Limited

Amazon / Book Depository

33 thoughts on “A Mind of Winter: Chronicling Seasonal Darkness

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  1. This seems like a great book! As someone with major depression that gets muuuch worse during the winter, this seems like it would be a very relatable ready for me — although perhaps better left until spring or summer so that I don’t slip further into a negative mindset.

    I will say to your last point that although I agree (particularly with the statement regarding bipolar disorder, which does seem extremely insensitive), I do think there is weight in mentioning vitamins as treatment — but only as a *supplement* to other treatments where necessary. For instance, I have a therapist and I’m on antidepressants. Both of these are wildly important to keeping my depression at a bearable level, but using vitamins in the winter does give me a significant energy boost. The problem definitely lies in suggesting them as a sole treatment, which it sounds like was the case here. Just an additional thought. 🙂

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    1. I know, vitamins are beneficial in a lot of ways for many issues and in no way was I suggesting otherwise. But I don’t like the suggestion that they can be the answer to treating any serious mental issue. If that’s really what a nurse recommended to him after telling him he’s not actually depressed, well, ok, but maybe don’t share it since others still are faced with strong stigmas and are looking for any excuse to avoid proper treatment, medication, etc., because unfortunately that happens. I’ve known too many people who cling to solutions like that and I found the way it was mentioned here to be very careless.

      I hope you give the book a try, but yes, if it seems triggering wait til spring!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds so interesting! I have SAD and it is such a bitch. But, ugh, I cringed at the ‘I’m not mad’ line, you’d think that suffering from mental illness would make a person more sensitive to others who are dealing with similar or worse diagnoses, but obviously that isn’t always the case. And I definitely get where you’re coming from with the comment about vitamins – obviously they’re a very worthwhile supplement to other kinds of treatment, but I think it’s similar to the whole ‘just do yoga!’ thing that some people say to others suffering from depression. Yoga and vitamins are not a cure-all.

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    1. It was so cringeworthy…I mean, I get it, when you’re stressfully preoccupied with the idea of having such an illness and get the news that you don’t, of course you feel relief, but maybe don’t rub it in for anyone else who does get that diagnosis. And it upset me a lot about the vitamins..maybe I’m sensitive because I’m coming off a recent doctor’s visit where she prescribed me vitamin D and “going outside more” for what I was trying to tell her felt wrong. Yeah, some f’ing vitamin D, thanks. I was so frustrated and defeated. But some people DO really want to hear that, a friend of my husband’s has mentioned not wanting to live and takes any vitamin that Google recommends for depression but refuses to see a doctor because of the stigma of medication. What the hell? It just seemed like such a touchy area where a lot of people have troubled and shaky beliefs that I don’t know why he’d even include it. And I’m sorry you’re going through SAD too. I hope you’re coping well and doing enough yoga 😂 But seriously. Winter’s almost halfway over, right?

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      1. It is so wild to me that the stigma against medication has persisted this long, and when that stigma is enforced by medical professionals it’s so disheartening. I mean, obviously meds aren’t a one-size-fits-all answer, but personally they have helped me so much with anxiety and cannot IMAGINE switching to vitamins of all things as an alternative. Ugh, I’m sorry you had that experience at the doctor recently. ‘Just go outside!!’ is SO dismissive and reductive. If you thought your issue could be solved by vitamin D you wouldn’t have needed to waste your time with the doctor in the first place. Argh.

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      2. I know! That this stigma still exists is maddening. There’s no stigma or hesitation in prescribing medication/therapy for a heart condition, physical injury, etc., why for mental issues? I’ve come to not be surprised (just disappointed) that people still allow that stigma to exist but when medical professionals enforce it I’m floored. And of course you’re right, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but reductive is exactly the word for it when your symptoms and concerns are dismissed and prescribed exercise and vitamins instead (which I had a teensy-tiny uncomfortable feeling might have happened in his case in this book.) Btw funny you mentioned yoga, my doctor’s first response was get exercise, and I was like “I do 40 minutes minimum a day, next?” And if I’m asking for help managing anxiety and am an overworked freelancer trapped at my desk in the middle of a city for too long every day, don’t you think I’d “get outside” and take walks in the countryside to alleviate anxiety and stress if I could? Ugh!!! It just makes you feel more hopeless/helpless! Sorry to bitch about it, I guess the quick casualness of how it was addressed here just touched a nerve with me. I’m glad you were able to find the solution that works for you, that’s SO important and makes such a massive difference in taking care of yourself!

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      3. Oh yes that is absolutely the other side of this, that ‘go outside,’ ‘do yoga,’ etc is just plain impossible for a lot of people working 9-5 jobs, and I guess a certain amount of classism also comes into play here because obviously the people with the most free time to pursue these alternatives have the means to do so, but then what about the rest of us? I mean, obviously this is systematic and I have no clue how we can change societal attitudes about treatment overnight, but I so desperately wish it were possible. Also, I can imagine that the stigma is even worse in Europe…? Because obviously with Big Pharma over here medication has become a lot more normalized (for better and for worse), but while I never had to go to the doctor in Italy, based on my other experiences with Italian bureaucracy I can only imagine how frustrating it would have been. Rant away, I also find this infuriating!!

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      4. That’s such a good point, there’s definitely an element of classism to it. I just hate that attitude that some problems are solved so easily with a change of attitude and some exercise. Of course you should avoid unnecessary medicating if there are better workable alternatives but when that’s not the case, who cares? Even for non-mental problems. It’s hard as a work-at-home-freelancer when you have to overwork to be able to cover slow periods and unpaid time off (including for useless doctor’s appointments), sick days, etc. Taking a half day for self-care or extra days to get over a cold with flower extract or whatever they want to prescribe isn’t so easy (yes, I was actually “prescribed” some kind of herbal bullshit drops and a pack of vitamin C after I went to the doctor with a bad lingering cold instead of decongestants and something for aches. Vitamin C is fine preventively but I was so annoyed as I’d missed so much work by then, and even more so since medicines are subsidized and thus cheap, whereas herbal or most vitamin things aren’t and cost a fortune!) It depends on the doctor though, I’ve found some good ones for specific problems but others will twist themselves into knots to avoid prescribing medication. Of course it’s not ok in the US where some overprescribe including for conditions that don’t need it, but the flip side is having issues get needlessly, near out-of-control worse because they weren’t aggressively knocked out immediately (that happened to me too). And this is completely anecdotal, I’ve done exactly zero research on it. But my experience is that they have some old-fashioned sensibilities. The refusal to help with anxiety/depression and telling me to go outside more floored me (I work at home which she also identified as the problem, so I assume no one working in offices gets depressed, right?) I’ve gotten the feeling more than once that they’re not listening. Meanwhile there are serious problems with people drinking excessively…self-medicate much? Ugh! Rant over, thank you for listening!!

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      5. What’s so frustrating I think is that most of the time doctor visits for mental health are a VERY LAST RESORT, and taking time out of your schedule to go to the appointment just to hear ‘try going outside’ feels so crushing because OF COURSE that option has been thoroughly considered by now!!! I can’t believe you were actually prescribed Vitamin C for a cold, why not just prescribe a gallon of orange juice from the grocery store?! Vitamins and herbs certainly have their place and especially as preventative measures, as you said, but again, if it’s bad enough that you’re actually taking time off work to go to the doctor you’re well past that point. Even as just anecdotal evidence I’m not surprised to hear that the aversion toward medication is stronger in Europe than America. I’m sorry this has been such a struggle for you lately and I really hope you’re able to get the treatment you need, though it sucks that you’re having to jump through so many hoops and deal with so much backward-thinking in order to get there.

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      6. Oh thank you. It’s not the end of the world, just frustrating and I’m out of patience for it. And I really did lol at prescribing a gallon of orange juice…they’re so into anything “natural”, “organic”, etc. as if it’s magic compared to medicine that they’re not far from doing that, I’m sure. It drives me crazy.

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  3. I don’t think I’ve read about a memoir of seasonal affective disorder before. It must be terribly frustrating/challenging to deal with for the person going through it and his family. I’m glad this was well done apart from the insensitive bit at the end.

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  4. Lovely review! The subject struck home a bit as I was diagnosed with a very mild form of this when I was in the 7th grade. We were assigned to a base where the local school was brand new and instituted a number of experimental concepts. One was the elimination of windows throughout, except in the home economics section. Apparently, I developed a host of issues, included a severe neck twitch and high anxiety. I wasn’t treated medically but was dispatched to the home ec department every day for an hour. Thankfully, we were gone in a year. But, I noticed as an adult that I was definitely impacted by sustained days where the sun didn’t shine. It was more than “the blues” so I’ve always been careful to pay attention until one year I ended up being successfully treated for clinical depression (lots of other contributing factors, including being stuck in an interior office for the first time in my career). Every home I’ve lived in as an adult has light soaring throughout with dramatic window displays. The first thing I do when the sun comes up each morning is open the blinds everywhere. It’s no accident and I know this syndrome is real.

    I appreciate your sensitivity to the author’s jubilation at not being diagnosed as bipolar and the vitamin prescription. While I may have missed his excitement over the lack of diagnosis being insensitive (I’d like to think I would not have), that vitamin remedy put me on alert. I’m a big advocate of attacking medical issues with lifestyle changes but when treating mental health issues, vitamin therapy alone is a big red flag for me. The brain is a very complicated organ and needs to be respected like your heart and kidneys would be.

    Thanks for featuring this book! I’ve not seen any that so beautifully deals with the topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I suspected it might hit home for many readers, I think even for many who aren’t diagnosed with a form of depression, there are still significant emotional and mental changes related to lack of light and dreary seasons. That experimental school you described sounds like the most terrible idea! I’m guessing the lack of windows was supposed to help students focus without exterior distractions/daydreaming potential? But come on…I had a few classes in college in basement rooms and it felt very difficult to concentrate there, actually. Just kind of stark and bleak. I’m glad that you were able to eventually get treatment for depression successfully…it can be a long, tough road to the right treatment, but knowing certain triggers and making the right changes for yourself is so crucial!

      Maybe I’m being oversensitive about it, I just was bothered by “I’m not mad!” and some details like that. Like I wrote, it seemed to underscore what a weighty, serious diagnosis bipolar is for the people who DO get it and that felt insensitive to me. But as I hope I explained, I understand that every story can’t be every thing to every person, and this is his story and experience and it was a relief to him that he wasn’t diagnosed with something more serious. But I was rubbed the wrong way by a nurse saying you’re not depressed, just take these vitamins and supplements. I’m not a doctor or professional in any way, but…didn’t I just read a book about your depression? Anyway. You put it so well, the brain needs to be treated like every other organ that we employ a range of treatment possibilities with and vitamins alone can’t solve every problem. There’s already so much stigma that anything even remotely skirting around that idea seems decidedly unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst. Thanks for elucidating it so well!

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      1. I was sort of kicking myself for NOT reacting the same way as you. When I was diagnosed with clinical depression I was shouting it out to everyone that would listen as I seemed to be the last person anyone thought could be depressed. I wanted to tear down the stigma attached to it. They also saw me get well after about ten months (I responded extremely well to the medication) and I openly discussed it at work. It’s discussed more openly these days but back then, no one talked about it. I was shocked at how many people opened up to me when I revealed my condition.

        Yeah, I think a psychotic was on the board of that school without windows. Yes, it was meant to eliminate, not reduce, outside distractions. They also experimented with team teaching. We’d have one teacher for English literature, another for grammar, etc. Sometimes we’d have a general class size of 60 people and then break up into two groups with a partition separating us. We also had self study sections in each subject where you could wander off and pursue something in more depth. The lack of structure was a nightmare for me because it was my introduction to high school and way too much change. I never had problems adapting to new schools except this one.

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      2. I think it’s admirable that you were so open about it. Just treating it like something that’s not a big deal, getting treatment and talking about it openly like so many people want to discuss every other little health issue down to their hangnail, can go far in breaking down stigmas, including ones like “this person seems so happy so they CAN’T be depressed.” As if there are never nuances and complexities.

        That school makes me nervous just reading your description…60 people in a class?! And with a partition separating you must’ve had to hear absolutely everything. That would have stressed me out something awful, on top of the lack of structure. Who ever thought giving new high schoolers a loose structure was a good idea, anyway? It sounds like you weren’t there for very long, thank goodness!

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  5. Lovely review. I suffer mild symptoms of SAD most years, this year has been tough but now improving. Light therapy can be very effective, as well as exercise. I’ve had a light box for a few years, plus an alarm clock which simulates sunrise and that helps too. I only noticed my SAD symptoms after I stopped cycling. It sounds like this writer suffers more deeply than I do, but manages to make something beautiful from it. Those extracts are lovely. I expect I would like this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I forgot about the light boxes, a friend in Germany swore by those! The winters in Berlin were also long and gray and bleak. I’m sorry that it’s been a tough year for you but glad to hear it’s improving…we’re more than halfway through winter, right? Sunnier days are coming!

      I think you might like it too, it’s very gentle and can be quite relatable, and the writing is lovely.

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  6. I just love the title, it nails the book I suppose… at least based on your review.

    Funnily enough, winter has always been my favorite season. I like how everything is quiet but at the same time everything is resurrecting itself. Like people love spring but there’s no spring without winter and winter does all the work. Hmm but I should read this, it’s interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like a lot about winter too! The lack of light is tough but I don’t think I’ve ever felt the seasonal depression that he describes, it was interesting to hear how extreme the emotional changes were for him, though. Very intense.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I really enjoyed all the discussion in the comments section on this one! And I’m glad you noted the author’s poor handling of his lack if a bipolar diagnosis. I can’t blame him for being glad that wasn’t his diagnosis, but at the point he had time to edit his reaction, I really think he should have.

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