Timothy Egan: Living through the darkest days and the longest nights

We need to be psychologically ready for three months of pure hell.

(Pat Wellenbach | AP photo) This Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007, photo shows a Christmas wreath decorated with lights at the end of a dock at sunset on Linekin Bay in East Boothbay, Maine. Wintertime can trigger true but transient depression in some people, a condition sometimes called Seasonal Affective Disorder. It's linked with lack of sunlight in winter and some scientists think affected people overproduce the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin. Research suggests it affects about 6 percent of the U.S. population and rates are higher in Scandinavia. But contrary to popular belief, suicides peak in springtime, not winter. No one has figured out why.

Every five years or so I try to return to land’s end, the continent’s edge, where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean — the final heave of the River of the West. I prefer to go during winter solstice, the long night of the soul in the Northern Hemisphere.

Off Cape Disappointment you look out at swells of 20 feet and struggle to walk in the face of a resolute rain and wind gusts that slap you silly. It’s exhilarating.

This year, the mouth of the Columbia serves up a metaphor for these awful times. No, not the shipwreck of the Peter Iredale, embedded offshore since 1906, just to the south of the mouth. The hollowed out skeleton of that four-masted steel bark seems too obvious a symbol of the United States in President Donald Trump’s final weeks.

The better metaphor is the story of the existential crisis that bedeviled Lewis and Clark’s ragged crew, just after they got their first glimpse of the Pacific in November 1805. They were facing an endless and desperate winter in a place they knew nothing about.

But first, they took a vote, on where to build their winter camp. In their crew, York, a slave, and Sacagawea, a Native woman and former slave, were both given a voice on this occasion. The decision was made to cross the Columbia and hunker down near what is now Astoria, Oregon.

That episode comes with plenty of asterisks. Upon his return, William Clark did not free the enslaved man who had been allowed a momentary vote in the wild. He was property, as before. “If any attempt is made by York to run off, or refuse to provorm his duty as a slave, I wish him sent to New Orleans and sold,” he wrote after the expedition had ended.

And Sacagawea, the only woman in the Corps of Discovery, the special U.S. Army unit led by Lewis and Clark, and the mother of an infant that she carried to the Pacific and back, was initially denied a chance to see the ocean until she insisted.

But as a lesson in our coming catastrophe — a season which could be “the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation” as Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said earlier this month — the winter of 1805 to 1806 is instructive.

The task of that mildewed crew was to stay alive and alert until the spring, when they planned to return. You can imagine the descent toward misery. The explorers recorded only a dozen days without rain.

As Clark wrote: “O! How disagreeable is our Situation dureing this dreadful weather.”

For his part, Meriwether Lewis appears to have suffered from bouts of severe depression throughout his life. Three years after completing the expedition he died at the age of 35, of gunshot wounds — what most historians agree was likely a suicide. “I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him,” Clark wrote after hearing the news.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the number of adults exhibiting symptoms of depression has tripled, and alcohol consumption has risen. We are prisoners of our homes and our minds, Zoom-fatigued, desperate for social contact. As a nation, we are diminished and exhausted, and millions remain out of work.

Further, it has been a long fall from that crude but egalitarian vote at the mouth of the Columbia to one that is among the nadirs of democracy, when 60% of Republican House members joined a court effort this month to negate the sovereign right of the people to elect their leaders. Vladimir Putin acknowledged Joe Biden’s victory before Mitch McConnell did.

It’s equally troubling that Biden won the popular vote by 7 million, but came within 43,000 votes of losing the election because of the anti-democratic relic of the Electoral College.

The Corps of Discovery made it back without losing a person (one man died during the westward half of the expedition). They fared well once they emerged from their long winter. We, on the other hand, face a brutal early spring. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that more than 500,000 Americans likely will have died from COVID-19 by the end of March.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has made similar grim assessments of what lies ahead; in November he predicted December would see “a surge superimposed upon” a surge, not unlike the waves of the Pacific, gray and unrelenting in the December dusk.

Still, we look to the spring, as did they. We rely on our ingenuity, as did they. Even as we mourn the dead, we cheer the first people to get a shot in the arm. “I feel like healing is coming,” said Sandra Lindsay, the Long Island nurse who had the distinction of becoming the first to be vaccinated on our shores, after getting her coronavirus inoculation.

We cling to the coming spring because it’s far better than thinking about tomorrow’s dreary sameness. We look forward to a new president and the return of the simple joy of human touch.

But before that, we need to be psychologically ready for three months of pure hell. How to get through it? Hibernation — taking a cue from our fellow warm-blooded mammals. Looking inward, discovering the nuance and overlooked dimensions of things long neglected. And a sliver of advice from words attributed to Irish writer Edna O’Brien — that winter is the real spring.

Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan, winner of the National Book Award for “The Worst Hard Time,” is a Seattle-based opinion writer for The New York Times.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.