January is the perfect season for Seasonal Affective Disorder to kick in. Every year I brace for it, knowing that the first week of January will feel like a shiny blank page just waiting to be filled with all of my hopes and dreams. By the second week my hopes and dreams taunt me like a second-grader sticking their tongue out, reminding me of my inadequacies.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is triggered by the change of season, and is present during the winter months. For most, SAD starts and ends around the same time, and is recognized by its depressive symptoms, including lack of energy, low mood, withdrawal from others, loss of interest in things that once brought joy, and crying frequently or feeling like you need to cry but can’t. Researchers believe that the lack of light during the winter months contributes to SAD, which is likely why we get hit during these cold and dark days of the year.
I have suffered from SAD every year since I was about thirteen. As a teen, I didn’t understand why I felt so melancholy and tired all the time, but the loneliness and depression always settled in around mid-January, and left just as the spring crocus would start to bloom. It was something I learned to expect and live with, but I always wondered if there was something that would help to lift my mood during these months.
Five years ago, I left the GTA and moved to Guelph, the city in which I now live. I didn’t know anyone and was trying to find my place in this strange, green, and somewhat hippy town. We moved here in September, and by January my new city felt like a wasteland of nothingness - there wasn’t a lot to do, and I had nobody to do things with anyways.
One weekend, my husband and I decided to find a family-friendly destination nearby, and a quick Google search turned up the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory. I hadn’t ever been to Cambridge, and didn’t realize that we lived only twenty minutes away. We packed up our stuff and headed out in the cold wintery day to the Conservatory, not really knowing what to expect beyond butterflies.
Our first visit was a revelation of sorts. We walked through the doors of the conservatory and felt like we were transported to a tropical paradise. The temperature was warm and humid, our winter boots felt clunky, and we were thankful we had dressed in layers. We walked through the gardens while magical butterflies - thousands of them - flew around our heads, landing on tropical plants, and sometimes even on us. The air felt different somehow - lighter, cleaner, and I felt lighter too. There were tropical birds too, and their songs were like a balm to my winter parched soul.
There were lots of hands-on activities around, and being the experiential learner that I am, I got right in with the six and eight-year-olds, holding stick bugs, touching the papery wings of dead butterflies, digging my hands into a bowl full of mealworms. I was in heaven.
The following week after our first visit to the Conservatory I felt oddly reinvigorated and energized. I mentioned my lighter mood to my husband, and he said he felt it too. A couple of weekends later we returned, and this time we became members. We started bringing family members with us - and they drank the kool-aid too. We all felt calmer, more at peace with the butterflies.
It’s been five years since my first introduction to the tropical paradise that remains a short twenty minutes away. We continue to purchase annual passes each year, and we continue to feel re-energized after each visit, especially in the winter months. We can’t afford a tropical vacation for our family of five, and we likely never will - so for us we find our vacation in the fabricated environment of the butterfly conservatory.
Now that we know what to expect, we plan for our visits more thoroughly. My kids love to pack sandals and shorts, and we’ll drive through snow storms to our paradise, beach bag slung over our shoulders upon arrival.
We change into our tropical clothes in the bathrooms, our sunglasses perched on our heads, our kids’ flip flops flapping as they run through the doors of conservatory. We are home in the heat and tropics of the butterfly conservatory, and while thick snow covers the glass dome above us, we forget for a moment where we are - and our spirits feel freer for it.
Note: Just because Seasonal Affective Disorder is short-term doesn’t mean it’s not serious, and anyone who is feeling like they are struggling during the winter months should consult with their doctor. There’s no shame in SAD, and you may be surprised by just how many people experience depression over the winter months, especially in a climate like Canada.