Blue Monday is apparently the day that most people feel is the most depressing of the year. This year, it fell on the day after the Super Blood Wolf Moon.
I don’t know who decides the date of Blue Monday, nor whether the choice is governed by genuine statistical analysis. Perhaps it’s just a marketing exercise intended to rattle the weary masses from their winter torpor and out onto the streets for January sales and a spot of lunchtime retail therapy. Most years, it falls in the third week of January, which actually makes a sort of sense: people have been with their friends and families over Christmas and New year, they get back to work for a few weeks, renewed and refreshed. Then just as the novelty is wearing off and the weather is getting bleaker, the feeling of drudgery sets in and Blue Monday strikes.
This year it struck on 21st January — the day after the moon passed through the shadow of the earth, causing a total lunar eclipse. I was struck by the odd alignment of the two events, the Wolf moon and Blue Monday. Super Blood Wolf Moon is definitely a headline writer’s dream, it sounds like the climax of a pagan festival. You can imagine Palaeolithic peoples thirty thousand years ago looking up at the same full moon, looming nearer than they had ever seen it, almost so you could reach out and touch it. As it gradually turned red, what would they have felt? Awe, fear, wonder, regret, perhaps a mixture of conflicting emotions all bundled together. Although we are finding out more about the astronomical knowledge of prehistoric peoples, the chances are that most people would not have known it was coming. Most likely the memory of it would haunt them for weeks after.
Nowadays, scientists can predict such events with great precision. The only random element is the weather, and whether the moon will be visible or skulking behind clouds. I must admit that despite my enthusiasm to see it, I overslept; but my wife set her own alarm clock for 4 am and took some beautiful photos of the reddening orb. The next day, I watched a profusion of photos on Instagram and social media. I felt a dim sense of the great astronomical cycles that shape the seasons and the phases of the moon, but the nearest I got to the superstitious awe felt by my ancestors was when we joked about whether it was a good or bad omen for Brexit.
I’m thinking about that moon today.
I had meant to buy doughnuts for the office on Blue Monday, but for some reason I forgot. Maybe that’s just as well. Many of my friends and work colleagues have been celebrating Dry (or damp) January, cutting back on drinking alcohol, going Vegan or vegetarian, and brandishing Fitbits and various iPhone Apps for fitter healthier lifestyles.
I got into the office later than usual, because I had an early meeting at the solicitors, and caught a train that got me in to work at around 11 am. As usual, deadlines loomed, so I immediately got to work, briefly explaining that my usual open-door policy in the office would be suspended because I had too much to get done. I waded through emails, rattled out one or two replies to our Moscow office, cranked out a draft feature article for the weekly newsletter, and then nipped out around 2 pm for the usual pre-fabricated meal, nowadays packaged in biodegradable paper rather than PET and polyethylene-based plastics. I had two meetings that afternoon, and I would head back home around 5.30 as usual.
Despite the ominous Blue Monday headlines in the newspapers, everyone seemed happy enough in our office.
As usual, people had their heads down; most were tapping on keyboards, or browsing the Internet for information; a few had spreadsheets open, looking for trends in the data they were studying for clues about the market; the sales team were hitting the button on their emails and having the odd disappointing chat with a person who by and large did not want to speak with them. There wasn’t that much discussion or banter. It was a good, productive group of people who would turn in good enough results over the year.
Business as usual.
But statistically, I knew, someone in the office was suffering. For Blue Monday, my daughter had put on a drama project in Birmingham called Out of the Blue. This was part of her theatre studies course at the university.
She had created a poster with the title of the piece in colourful looping letters – red, yellow, pink, black, blue — behind which lurked a white and grey script of pain and suffering: bipolar, crazy, bored, psycho, flaky, down, messy, tired, different, depressed…
Although the stigma of mental illness is less than it has been, it still exists. Naturally I felt proud of my daughter for tackling such a difficult topic for her drama degree. Although we did not talk about it in detail, I felt that she had chosen an interesting set of words to open up the topic, from clinical diagnostic words such as “bipolar” to dismissive words like “pyscho” and “flaky” to everyday feelings of being “bored” and “down”.
Some of those adjectives will apply to people who I’m working alongside, but almost certainly they will not admit their feelings to anyone they are working with. Even when they are unable to cope, they will most likely “throw a sickie” and come up with the excuse of ‘flu or stomach upset to get a respite. This is often because employees feel that their manager will not be understanding, but even with an enlightened employer, they may soldier on in pain rather than admit their condition or talk to colleagues to find an acceptable modus operandi.
One of the problems about mental illness is the terminology that is used to describe it. Mental and emotional states are complex, personal and changing, and the diagnostic labels applied to them can be felt as reductive and judgemental, whether they come from someone who is medically-qualified or from a friend or work colleague.
Many years ago, I suffered a bout of what I think of now as acute mental suffering. The triggers were multiple, and complex; I was going through a creative crisis, a close relative had tried to end their life and a long-term relationship had ended. Later on, abut slightly different circumstances, I wrote a book called Out of the Blue. I tried to to capture the sense of loss, and the way that mental turmoil can swoop unexpectedly, much as the Blood Red Wolf Moon would have done in prehistoric times, before we had devised the technology to predict it.
Although I took time off work, I am reluctant to use terms like “stress”, “depression” or “nervous breakdown” to describe my experience, because it did not feel like I was going through a mental “illness” as such. In many ways, I was feeling things more intensely but also more truthfully than usual. At the same time, I definitely needed some time out from the demands of work to get through this.
Nowadays, I feel it was a learning experience that has allowed me to to understand that any kind of “mental illness” is a deeply personal experience, and even one that may actually be rather difficult to empathise with. This is not meant to be unsympathetic. Empathy is extremely important in both coaching and counselling. But inaccurate empathy can feel like stereotyping. I am not a particularly private person, and I tend to be very open about my experiences, good and bad.
Many times after I had my bout of suffering, I felt horribly labelled when someone came up to me and volunteered too readily: “Oh don’t worry, I know exactly what it’s like”. This might be followed by the statement: “I’ve been there myself” but as often as not, I would be told: “My friend had exactly the same thing”.
The media has got much better at disseminating relevant statistics: one in four people will have a mental illness at some time in their life, for example. According to the website www.mentalhealth.org.uk mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain; 4-10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime, and 7.8% of people meet the criteria for diagnosis.
But we are a society that finds the third person more comfortable than the first person.
I don’t feel it was particularly helpful to look at myself and my experience of mental anguish as a statistic in this way. It feels as lacking in meaning as a “diagnosis”.
I felt like I had got in touch with a deep well of darkness in myself, and that I was connected with the kind of inarticulate experience that prehistoric man or woman might have felt when they looked at a Super Blood Wolf Moon. Of course, I cannot know what he or she felt; just as someone who tells me their friend has had the “same thing” as me has no way of knowing if that’s actually the case.
In his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes the extreme winter depression experienced by polar Eskimos, known as perlerorneq – which Lopez cites an anthropologist translating as “the weight of life”. Lopez describes vividly how this feeling of being sick of life manifests itself in moments of mad irresponsible and even self-harming behaviour, which is followed by a deeply compassionate response from the family of the sufferer.
I was very touched reading that account. There are many times I have felt like being able to unleash the howling wolf within. A society where that is meant by compassion rather than embarrassed looks and a turning down of the eyes seems to me to be one that is rather sane. I am not particularly advocating perlerorneq as a modus operandi for office communication, but I do feel we should do what we can to make it a more compassionate and inclusive place in which people can be themselves more fully.