Winter and grief came to me at the same time: the former in the shape of an early freeze in St. Petersburg, Russia; the latter, a series of emails announcing the early deaths of three classmates. In many ways, the winter and grief are similar. They are dark and heavy and shroud-like. I ache dully, ambiguously, in my bones and in my core. I am slow and tired. I sense an almost-numbness, an anesthesia that has worn off just enough to know I am hurting. I’ve taken to afternoon walks along the bank of the Neva River, indulging the indistinguishable throbs of icy wind-chill and drawn-out mourning. I feel naked, vulnerable. My hands, ungloved in the frigid air, resemble my bare heart exposed to tragedy. I am reminded of Warsan Shire’s verse: “where does it hurt?/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere.”
I do not take for granted this experience of emotional pain. I do not loathe its presence. The most pervasive misconception about depression is that it describes a marked sadness, a constancy of mourning. This is false. Rather, depression is a consuming apathy, an emptiness that aches hollowly in want of real sensation. The deficit of feeling is dehumanizing and automatizing.
I think this is why I, like many others who have struggled with depression, turned to self-harm. It’s not motivated by suicidal ideation, but by a desperate hunger to feel. Unable to access feeling in other ways, I attempted to substitute physical pain as a temporary validation of my inexplicable hurting, as an affirmation of my humanness and my existence. And it was dangerous, terrifying and wildly unsuccessful. Realizing this, I turned to therapy, where I began the task of coping with the depression and, ultimately, relearning what it is to feel and how to relate to my emotions. It was, and continues to be, a tremendous and arduous project, only part because the depression persists. My baseline relationship to emotion, even in the years Before Depression Era, was already fraught with complications — products of the larger cultural treatment of feeling and emotionality. Predominant among these complications are conflicting, gendered visions of sensitivity and the pervasive conflation of well-being with happiness.
Last winter, my aching hollowness gave way for the first time to a real sadness, a proportionate response to the coinciding circumstances of a devastating breakup and the loss of several friends and family members earlier in the year. It was, of course, awful. I hated the sadness: not empty and unbearably light, like apathy, but full and complete and substantive. But for those same reasons — the fullness and the completeness and the substance of feeling — I was elated. I was relieved. I felt human, alive. It seemed an incomparable privilege, to feel.
I by no means endorse the principle that there is nobility in suffering. Nor do I want to diminish the gravity of pain, emotional or physical. I am boundlessly grateful for those emotional and sensory experiences we categorize as positive: joy, comfort, pleasure, security, love, excitement, warmth.
But it is undoubtedly easier to acknowledge and accept these feelings than those along the opposite pole. At some uncertain point, these positive affective states were demoted in status to the new prescriptive normalcy. Happiness is the core promise of capitalist society, and the industries of wellness and self-help thrive on the principle that joy ought be the default state of humankind. Simultaneously, negative emotions have been demoted not only to the status of anathema, but pathology. Where pleasure and joy equal normalcy, we mistake negative emotions to be their antitheses.
In reality, negative and positive emotions constitute not dichotomies, but immutable pairings: love and grief, fervor and indignation, community and loneliness. They exist codependently, and we know them most often in relation to one another. We have been sold a set of false expectations for our own personal psychologies, and we fail to recognize what I am struggling to teach myself: Positive emotions are not simply normal, but profound; negative emotions not pathological, but invariably and remarkably human.
Winter is burdensome. It compounds our grief and exacerbates our pain, makes comfort and warmth feel scarce. It is the favorite season of negative feelings. Remember that these sensations, though aversive, warrant acknowledgement. Recognize the sensation of cold air in your lungs and know you are breathing, mourn the absence of members of your community and know you have loved. Ask yourself: Where does it hurt? Listen to the ache in your bones and the grief in your heart, and let it tell you: You are so human, so alive. It is an incomparable privilege to feel.
Caroline Posner is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .