Monday, April 4, 2016

Even "Good" Weather Can Be Toxic to the Depressed





I'm struggling today.

To be perfectly truthful I've been struggling a lot, off and on this winter and early spring. I have heard from a lot of friends in similar situations who have also struggled this winter. I am certain this has a great deal to do with the weather; at least, it does if you live in our area of North America. I know a lot of people out there likely can't comprehend how the mildest winter (in Toronto) in many, many years could possibly have a negative effect on anyone. Let me try to explain it, at least as I feel it.


My depression keeps me in a more or less constant state of struggling to find peace and balance; meaningfulness in my daily activities; order and structure and consistency among the chaos. It's difficult enough to find these things in situations where I have at least some semblance of control; when things are absolutely beyond my control – such as the weather – I have to rely on expected patterns to emerge and remain relatively constant. As I get stronger (it's not yet been two years since I sought help) the bumps and hiccoughs in life become ever smoother, in part because these, too, eventually form a pattern of recurrence that I can refer to when I am feeling anxious. But no matter how strong I eventually do get, my life's story has made me keenly aware that the best I can do is keep my depression in "remission" for as long as possible and that it's vitally important to stay on top of any dips that last just a bit too long.


How this is impacted by the weather (for me, at least) is actually quite simple. Even in Toronto, where locals know the lines between seasons are anything but crisp and well-defined, a winter like we've just had is exceptionally unusual. I've read that the El NiƱo effect this year was the strongest ever recorded. It might be easy for many people to look at the mild temperatures we had and be thankful we didn't get down to the extended record lows of just one year ago. But my depression won't let me take that attitude. I can't see the long periods of warmth as a blessing of any kind; rather, I have spent huge chunks of the past winter waiting for the other shoe to drop. Winter never really hit – not in any meaningful, Canadian way – and that made it impossible for me to get on any kind of a mental schedule. On top of that, every time we had a prolonged period of spring-like weather, it was inevitably followed by a drop in temperature and a series of dismal days that, had they occurred in a natural pattern, would have been tolerable. But they didn't...and they weren't. It felt like the whole winter was one long February. It felt like I was on a leash and every time I was able to see some progress being made, something yanked on the other end of it and pulled me back toward darkness. You see, when you're depressed a succession of good days is not what you notice, but rather a series of what feel like crushing blows. And this winter, for all its good days for many people, had a very long series of crushing blows.


Today in Toronto we woke up to a big dumping of snow overnight. And it's April the 4th. Do we often get one last dumping in Toronto in April? Yes, we do. But then it ordinarily follows a winter of normal weather patterns. If we're not going to have snow for Christmas; if I can have my shorts on in my home (with the heater off) for much of February and March; if we can hear red-winged blackbirds before St. Patrick's Day; well, then a snowfall in April is just a slap in the face. No thank you, Mother Nature. Bring winter on time, or just skip it altogether. Ain't nobody got time for that, indeed.

I did manage to keep my streak alive by going out first thing this morning and driving Sarah to the subway, which was a good idea since I've had zero interest in going back out into the world since I got back home. At least that very small pressure was removed.


My Nature Bright 10,000-lux lamp
Many of you reading this post have known me long enough to realize that complaining about winter weather is very unusual for me. I love snow. I prefer cold days to hot. Last February when Toronto broke records for consecutive days of frigid temperatures, I was in my glory because it was sunny, sunny, sunny all the time. It was just about the easiest February I have ever had. I far prefer weather I can anticipate, but especially if it comes with brilliant sunshine. I have a light therapy lamp which I make use of regularly and it is a huge help with my Seasonal Affective Disorder. I am supposed to use it for 30 minutes every day; I realized back in January that I hadn't been doing so and I really noticed a difference once I got back on track. If you are in the same situation as me, I can't recommend highly enough that you go out and get one of these lamps for yourself. If you click on the photo on the right, it will take you to the amazon.ca page for this item.

It's not all been about the weather for me, of course. There have been a trilogy of court cases in the past couple of months that have come to very disappointing conclusions. There is the ongoing debacle of the GOP race in the States, impossible to escape even in Canada. There was the sudden re-insertion of the Ford family in the daily news cycle. There was the struggle to find an accommodation with the Zoo that would allow me to Volunteer through the winter months. There has been an ongoing trial with an amphetamine to see if it will help combat my lifelong ADHD. All of these have been, of course, major factors in the tough slogging I've found this year so far. But the weather yo-yo has been far and away the biggest culprit, borne out by the fact that so many others I know are finding this to be a very difficult year and virtually all of them have faced none of the other things I mentioned in this paragraph.

However.

Even after having written all of that – which I hope helped to shed some sort of light on my own situation – I want to make this clear: this post, cathartic as it may be, was not created for me. I hope those of you who are struggling right now and have been following my own amazing progress with my depression and anxiety will read this and understand that it's not a perfect recovery. That there are going to be struggles that will make you wonder if you're slipping back into despair.

You're not.

If you are feeling out of sorts right now and you have no real mitigating factor you can pin it on – illness, family woes, job loss, etc. – don't assume the worst. Consider outside factors that might not be on your radar, Think about when you had your worst days this year and see if you can remember (or look up) what the weather was doing those days.

It's been easy for me to post about all of my obvious successes over the past 24 months. Those are fun to read about and even more fun to write about. But I also consider today a "success", ironically. I am struggling. Scuffling hard. And I have felt more than once like going to bed, pulling the covers over my head, and sleeping this day away. I've felt like pouring myself a tumbler full of whisky and getting lost in it. I've felt like throwing up my hands and allowing the hopelessness and despair to wash over me. But I've battled through it, because I am very much aware that that is precisely what depression wants you to do. It is a liar and a bastard. And it's a tenacious opponent. And struggling is still one hell of a lot better than not struggling, which I have spent several years doing. Or not doing, I suppose. If you're feeling the same way: keep at it. Remember to breathe, Find some light and sit in it. Read more posts like this one. Write a post like this one, even if you show it to nobody. And if you can't do any of those things, please remember this:

It's not your fault.

Friday, April 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – April Story


Jupiter (L) and Venus during an enrichment session


Dora. Or maybe Vera. Hmm. 
One of the biomes at the Toronto Zoo is the "Tundra". The path through it – known as the "Tundra Trek" – is probably about a kilometre or so long as it meanders past animals of the far north of our country and offers insights into the lodgings and medicines and overall lifestyles of the hardy aboriginals (the Inuit) who co-inhabit this harsh habitat with those animals; It's quite a nice little stroll even now, but it has recently become sadly quite lacking in quantity (if not quality) of the animals on display. As you begin the "Trek" counter-clockwise from next to the Tundra zip line ride, you first encounter the domain of the Arctic wolves. For the better part of 15 years this area was populated by a rather large pack; as age took its toll they began to die off until there was one solitary male left named Loki. At that time, Loki was "retired" down to the Canadian Domain and we brought up a young triumverate of Chinook (male) and Dora and Vera (females who, I believe, are sisters) in the hopes that they will breed and begin their own large pack. For now there are just the three, but they are quite spry and lively and really very beautiful.


Juno showing a stick what's what
At the next stop on your tour you will find what is easily the signature animal of the tundra: the polar bear. At the moment the huge enclosure houses four bears: Aurora and Nikita, twin sisters who came to the Zoo as orphans 15 years ago; Inukshuk, who also arrived as an orphan but two years after the girls; and Juno, the newest creation of the Inukshuk-Aurora pairing, who was born on November 11 of last year (hence her name). Juno has two full brothers – Hudson and Humphrey – who are now living it up in a gorgeous exhibit called "The Journey to Churchill" at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Juno is the first female polar bear cub at the Toronto Zoo since her mom and aunt arrived in early 2001. She is every bit as full of life as her two older siblings and, after a slow start, has nearly caught up to them in size and agility. She's pretty adorable, all in all.

But from there the pickings become rather slim.We have one snowy owl who has been on his own for quite some time now. There is one caribou left from the herd that was formerly split up to populate both the Tundra and Eurasia walkthroughs. There is nothing where the snow geese used to be and the geese themselves have been moved to a location farther along the trail. They now inhabit the last exhibit before you reach the end. The exhibit that used to display the Arctic foxes. Because we have none left, at the moment. And that makes me quite sad.


Cody
When I first started at the Zoo there were two Arctic foxes, one male and one female. The male (pictured here) was Cody; I don't recall the female's name but she wasn't around for long after I came on board. Some time in late 2013, we acquired two very young females to be companions for Cody, but he had already begun a steep decline himself and passed away that winter. The girls – Jupiter and Venus – occupied the exhibit together for a while after that, but you might notice something a bit "off" about the photo at the top of this page. I took that shot in late July of 2014 when both girls should have been the cookie-brown that Jupiter is displaying; for some reason, Venus never molted to the point where she fully changed colour that spring. Arctic foxes are not at the top of their food chain, so they need to rely somewhat on camouflage for protection against predators. In the winter they are the whitest white you will ever see, matching the snow-covered environment around them. When the snow melts in the brief Arctic summer, the foxes change to a brown-and-white combination (heavy on the brown) to blend in with the sedge and shrub coverage of the landscape. Wolves don't need to use this trick, so they just shed their thick winter coat but remain white all year round. So by the thickest heat of a Toronto summer, both Venus and Jupiter should have had very little white fur remaining. The fact that Venus still had most of hers was cause for concern. However, it makes for a pretty incredible (and rare) photo: two Arctic foxes, side-by-side, coloured completely differently from each other. That's the main reason I chose this photo for the 2016 calendar, even though neither girl is still with us. Something is amiss in that exhibit, it seems, and I can't get a clear answer as to what that is. It's possible it hasn't even been figured out yet. One thing seems certain, though: it's doubtful we'll see any more of this adorable species on our Tundra Trek until we can be sure they'll not suffer the same fate as the last three (at least).


The day I captured the image of Jupiter and Venus and that red ball was during "Zookeeper Week" and the foxes were receiving a special enrichment session that particular day. The ball was full of crickets! There were also several of the chirping bugs scattered about the tall grass of the exhibit and I managed to take some other really cute photos of the girls. Here is the "Bonus Material" for April. I hope you enjoy it!!


S-T-R-E-E-E-E-T-C-H!! Venus is awake!


Jupiter does a target session


Venus hears a cricket....


....and POUNCES!!


Listening for more snacks


Venus attentively watching her keeper leave


I hope that, in the near future, the Tundra Trek becomes a fulfilling and worthwhile walk again. When it was full of life – wolves, bears, owls, caribous, geese, foxes – it was just about my favourite place to hang out in the whole Zoo. In the meantime, I am exceedingly grateful I happened to be there with friends on the day these two gorgeous creatures got some special treats. I will always treasure these photos. 


Tune in again next month for some Fun with Flightless Feathered Friends! 
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