For one or two months out of the year, always during the final winter weeks, I fall into a depression of varying intensity. Though it took me years to figure out what was happening, I now understand seasonal depression and have found tools for coping, sometimes without medication.

At some point in January or February, I will usually hit a wall. I get really, really tired. I lose interest in things that normally interest me. I'm irritable, impatient and uncomfortable. I want to stay in bed all day, though often I can't sleep. I want to eat every granule of sugar in a five-mile radius. I crave substances to make me "feel better."

My days are tainted with a vague sense of desperation and my life seems meaningless, tireless, relentless. I alternate between feeling totally numb and totally raw, which manifests in apathy, or rage.

I used to think this was real, and it is, I suppose, to an extent. I mean, it's "real" in the sense that it's happening, but it's not "real" in the sense that it is rooted in reality.

Rather, it is seasonal depression, and I've had it my whole life.

I used to just think I was "moody." I used to think I just "got depressed" sometimes. But after years of this cycle, I began to realize that my "bottom" always came in the late winter months. Late in January or early February, the black started creeping into my brain and life. I didn't invite it in, but I've learned ways to deal with it while it's here.

Though my depression is now seasonal and I am able to manage it with the following methods, there were times in my life when treatment centers, intensive therapy and/or medication were necessary for my own safety.

But first, let me make one thing very clear: Though my depression is now seasonal and I am able to manage it with the following methods, there were times in my life when treatment centers, intensive therapy and/or medication were necessary for my own safety. Depression is a serious and potentially deadly condition and if you need help, go get it. I am not talking about extreme, persistent depression. I am talking about the relatively common experience of feeling depressed or "blue" for a couple months out of the year.

OK, so here's what I do:

First, I expect it. I know it's coming, so I prepare for it. I fortify myself physically, mentally and emotionally through diet, exercise and a general focus on my health.

woman exercising lunging

Exercise lifts moods. I find that if I engage in a consistent, non-negotiable exercise routine at least four times a week, my general outlook stays at a manageable level. Though I can't count the number of times I've walked into the gym thinking, "Wow I really don't want to do this," I have never once walked out of that gym thinking, "Wow I really wish I hadn't done that."

I feel good after I exercise. Period. So during those months when "feeling good" is scarce, I take action to ensure mood-lifting activities.

Speaking of "feeling good," you know what makes me not feel good? Eating bad food. I will never understand the relationship between depression and craving carbohydrates, but wow, it's strong. Particularly baffling is the fact that though I'm sure that croissant is going to "help," I just feel worse after I eat it. As the weight comes on, I feel even more hopeless and the cycle begins: Eat to feel better, gain weight, exercise less, eat worse because I don't care anymore, feel more awful, eat to feel better... and on and on it goes.

healthy saladSo I put myself on a strict healthy-eating regimen. Well, not that strict. I just make sure I'm not in that terrible eating cycle mentioned above. I know when I'm not eating well. So I eat well.

I remember it will pass. For the past few years, my dark feelings fade as quickly as they arrived. When days are long and cold and I'm feeling "that feeling," I remind myself that this will pass. It happens every year, and it goes away every year. Soon I will enjoy California summers: Sunshine and beaches and pool trips and camping. It's right around the corner. Though "positive self-talk" never made a dent in my depressed psyche before (when I was powerless in the depths of depression), when combined with eating well and exercising, it actually makes quite a difference.

aromatherapy candlesI take it easy on myself. I don't overbook my life. I hang out with close friends. I build fires in the evenings with my family and focus on the things that make me feel whole and secure. Maybe I'll take a bath every single night. I watch myself carefully and make sure I don't let my mind spiral into darkness. If I'm heading in that direction, I force myself to get up and exercise, or do something with myself, probably out of the house.

When I do these things, I find I'm able to survive my seasonal depression. In fact, last year I remember noticing February came and went and I was still chugging along, doing just fine.

And I always remember help is there when I need it, in the form of therapy or medication or more intense treatment, but I've been down those roads before, and if it's at all possible, I want to keep myself "well" without major interventions or interruptions in my life.

It's empowering, and I've paid a high price to get to this place, where I'm well and free enough to stay "OK" even when I'm not quite "OK."

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