How quickly one forgets! That’s probably a merciful feature built into the human mind – a natural survival instinct – so one forgets how bad it can get. Three days ago spring announced itself in the Cowichan Valley with a clarion call of sunshine at 15 degrees Celsius. Sitting inside in the protection of my home, I could still feel the ultraviolet and sensible heat penetrating my windows, and the accompanying wave of weariness that is a hallmark of my body’s reaction to ultraviolet radiation.
It’s hard to describe chronic fatigue to the uninitiated. You might subscribe that feeling you get from a full day of pleasant exertion in the garden, or a frantic weekend of spring cleaning before the family arrives for a holiday, that feeling of gently aching muscles and nodding sleepiness: an almost smug acknowledgement of a job well done. Chronic fatigue is nothing like that.
There is no feeling of achievement, no feeling of accomplishment within one’s body. There is only the awareness that you had something – energy – and it was taken away. It is hard not to mourn the loss. Like anyone else, you still have that garden to keep up with, that spring cleaning to do, that frantic preparation for the anticipated arrival of a loved one’s visit. What you have, though, is nothing. No self-exhortation, no appeal on high for strength, can bring that essential life force back into your body to animate your flesh. You are decimated, laid low, and there’s no congratulatory victory of a job well done to console you. There’s nothing.
Nothing looks wrong with you. Nobody sees any reason why this terrible defect has arisen in you. No one understands why – with the slightest strength or character of will – you could not forcefully animate your body off the horizontal surface it seems to have melted upon, in a Dali-esque protest at the three-dimensional nature of life. You long, you wish, you rail, but nothing you can do can revive something that is fundamentally “not there” in your body. Energy.
As I glanced outside on Monday at what so many long for – the return of spring – I felt that mysterious quality zapping the very energy from my body. I felt not the approaching season of sun, growth, fun, and socialization. I saw limits creeping in, hiding from the sun of my youth, longings to finish projects passed on for another year, a garden springing into bloom and making hay without me, and me, hiding like some vampirish invalid from the excesses of light and heat.
Strange how soon I can forget what it feels like, when spring arrives, and the realization that once again, life is going to change, until the cooler weather comes back – until the rains come.
Depression was my first port of call – rather strange to understand for those who have been anticipating the return of the sun. How strange to be tossed so low by the very thing that brings so much joy. Surely it’s not my body, but just my mind that is playing this dirty trick on me. It doesn’t take much longer to feel totally drained, devoid of life, to realize that this is a very real, physical phenomenon, and it has begun.
The advantage of those well-worn neural paths of depression is that for a moment, you see an out. You see “not being” as a perfectly natural alternative to the coming struggle. There are no great thoughts of self-violence. I’m too tired already for that. But my brain convinces me of a little fantasy in which I go to sleep and don’t wake up until its raining again.
The world shrinks in, at its most expansive season, and I see that life is going to shrink with it. After two days of exhaustion, I begin to make a new plan. I plan to contract, to shrink with it. This is not giving in or giving up. This is modifying my life to fit the energy available. Projects I’ve had on the shelf for too long need to be gently set sail once and for all, and let go. The list of demands on my time – work, volunteer, and otherwise – that never left that much for me anyway, must also be pared away.
With gentle deliberation, and a care for me that I never gave myself (having somehow not earned it) I begin to make new plans this year. I contract, withdraw, and – being kinder to myself than I can ever remember being – I go to ground, to the cool, underground caves, to wait the return of the rains. At that time, I can rise back up into the world and take my place again, but until then, I will lie in darkness, and wait.