The Huffington Post headline proclaims, “Autumn Anxiety Is Real, And Treatable.” Huh? I never knew that the onset of shorter days could trigger a definable anxiety disorder. Until Lev died, I never paid much attention to the length of days, the hours of sunlight. Unlike most parts of the country, in South Texas fall holds the promise of a break in the heat, when we can enjoy being outside for exercise and sports, gardening and entertaining. Even on the shortest day of the year, we will have more than 10 hours of daylight.
However, if I am honest with myself, I will have to admit that fall has been a major source of stress for me as a widow. While the short days play a role, I don’t think my anxiety has biological or neurological roots. I don’t think I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where light therapy might help. During the long daylight hours of summer, I feel free to go to restaurants, malls and theaters in the evening without worrying about dark streets and parking lots. I dread the end of Daylight Savings Time, when nightfall will arrive before 6 p.m. That period from November 1 to December 21, the Winter Solstice, is the most difficult period of the year for me. I feel trapped at home by the darkness. My sense of aloneness increases. For friends who no longer drive at night, the feeling of isolation can be even greater.
Fall is also when stores and catalogues remind us that the Holidays are just around the corner.
THE HOLIDAYS. That season from Thanksgiving through Christmas to New Year’s. Genevieve Davis Ginsburg described the feeling in Widow to Widow:
“Holidays test the spirit. They are double-bind days: You want to be part of the festivities and at the same time pull the blankets up over your head until it all goes away. For the newly widowed, the days from Thanksgiving until New Year’s could easily be turned in for scrap…. Nothing works and everything hurts. Participating in the holiday dinner of former friends is a lonely affair…. The fact is we really don’t want to be part of someone else’s tradition.”
In those early years of widowhood, even the remote possibility that I might be alone on a day when everyone in the world seemed to be with family caused major anxiety that set in weeks, even months in advance and was alleviated only when the children’s plans were finalized and I knew where I would be. I became more and more dependent on my children’s plans for the holidays, and I hated it. I felt like I had lost my job as mom, and my unhappiness rubbed off on them. Each year we were all stressed as Thanksgiving and Christmas drew closer.
Finally, two years ago, acting on my daughter’s suggestion, I had the whole family around my Thanksgiving table again. I spent weeks planning the menu and days setting the table, grocery-shopping and cooking. I loved every minute. Knowing the plans so far in advance and being in charge again changed my outlook on the holidays completely. I approached Christmas with a joy I had not felt since 2008.
I still struggle to be thankful for what I have, instead of wishing for a past that cannot be. But each fall is better. I know to watch for sinkholes. I am more proactive, less dependent on my family to plan my holidays. I have finally learned how to celebrate without Lev, to find joy in my anticipation of the future as well as in my memories of the past.
Photo: By Curtis Mac Newton, stocksnap.io