My life is coming apart, I’m depressed and I’ve been this way since this dumb pandemic started. I want to be happy, for my son who is 4 and needs me, but I can’t pull myself out of it, I just don’t know. I just had to tell someone and you seem like a nice person.
DEAR SAN DIEGO:
Right now, the sun is blazing, the air is crisp. I’m listening to the Carter family sing “Keep On the Sunny Side,” circa 1926, on a Zenith turntable. My aunt sent me these old records.
I don’t know if you like old songs on scratchy vinyl, but this is a good tune.
“Keep on the sunny side,
“Always on the sunny side,
“Keep on the sunny side of life…”
It just so happens that there is a lot of science to back up this sunshine business.
Earlier this summer my Aunt Eulah mailed me several Carter family records and a book when she heard I’d been mildly depressed. I was in the dumps because of something going on in my life which I will, for the purposes of privacy, refer to as an Unprecedented Global Pandemic Involving Every Single Human Being Alive.
My aunt’s old Carter family records were great. The book, not so much.
The book is a glorified science textbook. And I am not a science guy. Actually—and I mean no disrespect to Aunt Eulah—this book was about as fun to read as getting electrocuted by a kitchen appliance.
The book was all about the human brain. One of its main points was that being depressed is not caused by one specific event in life, nor by one specific system in the brain. Depression is caused by a traffic jam of things happening at once.
I don’t want to bore you, but imagine your brain is a map showing each U.S. airport. Now imagine that this map is covered in multicolored air-traffic routes across North America, arcing between airports.
The airports represent the command centers of your brain. Pittsburgh is your logic center. And over here is Atlanta, that’s your emotional center. Over there is New Jersey, that’s where the International Misery Center is located.
When there’s a breakdown at one airport, the whole map falls apart. If planes don’t make it to Pittsburgh on schedule, flights that are supposed to leave for Dallas will get screwed up. And before long, everyone winds up stuck in New Jersey.
What I’m getting at is that nothing stands alone. Not in your brain, and not in life. Everything in the universe is connected by one big domino-like chain. A butterfly flaps his wings in Seattle and sets off a tornado in New York.
The little things you do matter to your mental health. The letter you wrote to me matters. Your stress level matters. The amount of light shining through your windows.
It all matters. I can almost guarantee you that your life is not coming apart, it just needs a few tweaks. I’m not going to preach at you about seeking professional help. You’re a big girl, and you probably already know this.
But I will tell you that I know depression intimately. I grew up under its coal black cloud after my father’s suicide. Depression is what killed him. And then it spread to me.
I still remember the day after my father’s death. My aunt took me for a walk in the woods. We sat on a log. She looked me in the eyes and said, “Promise me you’ll get help if you ever feel depressed.”
I promised. And I’ve kept my promise. Throughout my life, I have needed lots of help. And I’m not embarrassed to admit it.
This pandemic has been a nightmare, nobody can blame you for being in the dumps. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of every three people in America is currently depressed.
Think about this next time you see a big group of people smiling at a wedding reception.
But getting back to sunlight. The interesting thing is, within my aunt’s boring, sterile, godawful, hard-to-read, 12-inch-thick, scientific book, I actually learned something. Neurologists are big on sunshine when it comes to depression.
I don’t want to bore you again, but it turns out that sunlight is incredible stuff. I know it sounds hokey, but apparently it’s true.
Only a few minutes of sun can help your neural pathways produce a flood of feel-good chemicals in the brain. Ultraviolet light on your skin allows your body to pump more vitamin D, which promotes serotonin production, which promotes singing along with James Brown on the radio. Or in some cases Three Dog Night.
Even the blueness of the sky can help your body feel better, stimulating photoreceptors in your brain that control your circadian rhythms and help you sleep like a champ.
Is sunlight the magic bullet? No. Still, this past summer, simply to please my aunt, I placed a lawn chair in my backyard and sat in open sunlight each day whether I felt like it or not.
Every few days, my aunt would email, asking, “Is the sun helping?”
God bless those who are blind enough to love us.
To be honest, I didn’t notice anything dramatic. But it does feel good to be outside. In fact, that’s where I am sitting now, writing to you. Thinking of you. Praying for you. And listening to the Carter family sing.
“Storm and cloud, will all pass away,
“The sun again will shine bright and clear,
“Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side…”
Which reminds me, send me your address. I have some records I want to send you.