Springtime Sadness | Eric Harkreader

T.S. Eliot, one of Western civilization’s greatest contemporary poets, once began his famous ode The Wasteland with the line, “April is the cruelest month.” For Eliot, who famously struggled with depression and what he self-diagnosed as “abulia,” or lack of will, the promise of spring was much darker and more complicated than sheer joy at renewing warm weather: “Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring.”

The spring, it would seem, made Eliot long for the unapologetically darker, yet numbing and familiar periods when, “winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow.”

When I was in high school, I recall similar mixed feelings on the arrival of spring. Spring signaled the climax of my athletic and extracurricular commitments, when I’d ride a school bus two hours each afternoon to get precious time rowing with my team on the Allegheny River just upstream from Pittsburgh. I loved the hours spent on that water, honing my rowing technique to better harness strength built up in winter gyms to propel our four- or eight-man boats faster and farther. And yet, I distinctly remember the sensation, hidden just below the surface, that I was missing out. During the week, I couldn’t hang out with anyone outside of my small group of boat mates. And when other high schoolers spent their weekends prowling public parks and teen hangouts, I found myself in and between Holiday Inns followed by often-rainy race days spent on the water. As I’d fall asleep, I’d often wonder what I was missing out on and what else I could have done that day had I been a “part of it all”—one of the “Perfect People,” as a favorite song of the time termed it.

Later, on Penn State’s main campus, I recall a spring’s worth of hobbling around University Park on crutches because of an ankle I severely damaged in an ill-planned leap off of a concert wall. As I’d pass coeds sunning themselves on the sprawling lawn of Old Main and the nearby packs of Frisbee and football-tossing frat brothers, I’d feel again like life was passing me by—a feeling of isolation that I’d nearly forgotten because it had, as Eliot described it, lain dormant over the winter “feeding a little life with dried tubers.” With the rush of spring’s warmth comes the perspective of self-doubt and awakened loneliness.

Now I don’t mean to complain—I had plenty of good memories as well from the spring, and wouldn’t wish away the darkest moments even if I could—but I do resonate with the way springtime can bring on a curious and awkward down-and-out perspective. For a culture that has already equated springtime with sun and flowers, the crack of little league bats and barbeque season, to find anything but joy in April is seen as further proof of one’s self-imagined “other” status, apart from joyful living. But April is a month with highs and lows just like any other.

As I’ve struggled over the years to manage my own depressive tendencies, I’ve increasingly taken comfort in the cycle of my moods that are at least as strong as the seasons that alternately warm and chill our planet. For instance, when I experience the manic rush of the first warm-weather run and the sun begins to tease out the first hints of a tan, I try to remember that I will also face many days looking out the window at sunlight that seems to shine on everyone but me.

At 35, I am far from comfortable resting on my own accrued wisdom in this life, but I am fairly confident of one thing: Expectations can be dangerous. And to naively believe that my bad mood will melt with the snow is setting myself up for disappointment. And the data seems to bear this observation out. As a fellow Please Live volunteer once detailed in the Spring 2015 Newsletter, suicide rates have shown a noticeable spike in spring time at least as far back as the 1800s. This means that organizations such as Please Live need to play a stepped-up role in spreading the promise of community support and hope for the future.

I am proud to say that this grass-roots Central PA-based organization is doing its best to answer that call, hosting informational events and talks at area schools, churches and more. (For more information on Please Live, visit our About Us page or email event requests to support@pleaselive.org.) For those seeking support, Please Live has an extensive list of free publications and resources, and more urgent needs are urged to call toll free at (800) 273-TALK (8255).

For me, I know that this spring, like all the others, will surely hold some gray days as well. But I am encouraged by the knowledge that I won’t be struggling alone—no matter how lonely I might feel at times. And I also know that so many people depend upon me and my ability to manage my emotions. As the father of little girls, I am inspired by the knowledge that what I can learn now about this life will help more than just myself. Someday, I can love on them as they face their own Wastelands. And I am grateful that they, too, won’t have to do it alone.