hate summer. I hate it for the obvious reasons: heat, sweat, bugs. But mostly, I hate the constant sunshine. There’s too much pressure to go outside when it’s sunny, to wave at babies, to frolic. I feel this most intensely in New York City, where people say things all winter long like, “I just can’t wait for it to be summer again.” I can. I much prefer a coverage of clouds, Nina Simone records on repeat and to be alone with my thoughts.
I hate summer so much that a few years ago, I moved to Seattle for the weather. The Pacific Northwest city promised a consistent, atmospheric grayness — the perfect conditions for my frequent bouts of melancholy to thrive. You know that scene in Big Little Lies where Madeline says she loves her grudges? I feel that way about my ephemeral bursts of sadness. I am happier when I’m a little bit blue.
It sounds weird when you consider that Instagram mid-July is an endless feed of people celebrating summer, but I cannot be alone in my preference toward melancholia. It’s a Tumblr cliché, for one thing: loving thunderstorms, the feeling of a warm mug between two hands, sighing loudly. In fact, the recent American interest in Hygge strikes me as having a link to melancholy. Hygge is a tradition born from the need to cultivate joy in the simple things, most often associated with activities and decor to create a sense of cozy during long and harsh winters. Connecting the dots between Hygge and a culture (generally speaking) that wants to shelter itself from an increasingly harsh political climate is not particularly hard.
And besides, there’s an appealing element of coziness connected to it all, of burrowing deep into oneself, to snuggle up within the depths of your feelings.
To be clear, the melancholia I love is not the same as the minor depression I sometimes experience. When I’m depressed, it’s so much more than “feeling sad.” My emotions are flat, and I feel distant from the things that normally bring me joy. It’s not something I can simply “snap out of,” and I want to make it clear that I’m not conflating the two. When I’m in my ideal melancholic state, I’m very present in my feelings. I turn on music, I eat a piece of toast, I consider writing poems.
For a long time I thought my attachment to melancholia was just a symptom of being a sensitive artist; that only one such as I who keenly understands the human condition and is in tune with human suffering could find solace in a sad song or need a retreat from the sun’s unrelenting cheeriness. But in actuality, I think it is a way to help me deal with my stronger emotions. A way to bleed out the fear and anger and frustration that can at times, feel like it will swallow me up whole.
A School of Life video that dives into melancholy describes the feeling as, “a species of sadness that arises when we’re open to the fact that life is inherently difficult.”
“It doesn’t mean grim and miserable,” says the narrator. “It means grasping, without rage, the fact that the world is full of folly and greed; that it is rare to find inner peace; that it is hard to live comfortably with those we love; that it’s very unusual to have a career that’s both financially rewarding and morally uplifting; that many decent people have a very hard time. Often, sadness simply makes a lot of sense.”
It certainly does to me — but sometimes I worry if I enjoy it too much. Is it an act of hiding from something bigger or is it part of who I am? Should I fight against my urge to wallow? Why am I doing it all? I emailed with psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Diane Barth to dig deeper about my preference toward feeling melancholy.
“I like to think in terms of ‘feeling muscles,’” she wrote. “We build the strength to have a wide range of emotions by experiencing our feelings in tolerable amounts, gradually building the muscles to be able to manage whatever strong feelings come our way.”
For me, melancholia is an active emotional state — but it’s a simmer rather than a boil, grayscale instead of black and white. I’ve spent the past few years feeling so fucking mad all the time in a society that doesn’t accept anger (especially black, female anger) that this feels like an intentional release of the pressure valve that contains my rage and fury. Melancholia has become the way that I keep from blowing up or becoming completely numb.
And according to Barth, I’m not alone.
“I actually think [that] for many of us, something like this isn’t so much a matter of it being an escape from stronger emotions as it is a way of helping us process emotions we might have more trouble with.”
So while my attachment to melancholy may not be “bad,” it would be beneficial for me to push on those moments to discover what I might be avoiding, what to bring to therapy rather than what to soothe away with a Solange album. Barth suggested that “one of the ways one might gradually get to those feelings is to really try to put into words what the melancholy feels like — physically as well as emotionally (like even where it’s located in your body and what color it is!).”
Perhaps the healthy way to approach melancholy is with moderation, to give room to those other stronger feelings even when it means making room for pain. I can savor hazy-sad moments as treats, as emotional indulgences. And in the interest of fairness, I promise to take a page from Lana Del Ray’s book and look for the melancholy beauty in summer, too.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your emotions and don’t know where to begin, online therapy resources like Talkspace or NYC Well are a good place to begin. I’ve also found this guide to finding the right therapist helpful.
Illustrations by Juliana Vido.