Dear Patti,

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt a heaviness of emotion as well as a dull emptiness and sadness come over me this time of year. It usually starts in October and lasts on and off throughout December. While everybody else is gearing up for fun and laughter during Halloween and family closeness and celebration during Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’m dreading the rest of the year.

It’s not like my family was too poor to enjoy traditions or that we always had a terrible time. I’ve never understood it. I’m now a grandmother at 67 and instead of feeling the joy and expectation of the holiday season I’m experiencing this familiar malaise that has negatively affected the quality of my whole life. Do you have any ideas why I’m like this?

  — Ellen

Dear Ellen,

There’s the possibility you’re suffering from a general depression that’s cyclic — a mood disorder that builds up repressed feelings such as grief, anger and fear and then is slowly released. Let’s look, however, at two other possibilities.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a depressive disorder that occurs during the winter months when days are short and dark. The actual causes aren’t known for sure, but some evidence points to a lack of sun during the winter months. Typical treatment for SAD is light therapy, which exposes the patient to intense levels of florescent or incandescent light that mimics sunlight.

Another possibility to consider is the anniversary effect (sometimes called the anniversary reaction), which is when one experiences depression, anxiety or negative emotions occurring on the anniversary of a significantly painful, historic experience such as the death of a loved one, a horrific accident or the divorce of one’s parents. If it turns out to be your situation, it’s a good idea to look at your anniversary reaction as an opportunity to once and for all work through your feelings about the traumatic experience. Even if the event happened long ago, perhaps your feelings haven’t been completely experienced and processed. Can you recall such an event that happened in your early life? 

Dear Patti,

I don’t think I have problems due to SAD, as my mood doesn’t seem to be related to the weather, sunny or stormy. I thought a great deal about my childhood and couldn’t think of anything deeply disturbing that had happened to me at this particular time of year. I was just about ready to give up searching for answers when a distant aunt who is 98 years old called me. I barely know her and she lives in a home back east. She’s my mother’s oldest sister and the only living member of their primary family. A cousin told her I was in search of answers and she decided it was time to break her promise to my mother and tell me the truth.

My aunt told me my mother had a psychotic breakdown after I was born, became suicidal and was admitted into a mental hospital when I was six months old. I would have been that old in October, this time of year. My aunt seemed very sad when she explained that since my dad had to work, I was sent from relative to relative until I was over a year old. No one kept me for very long. I’m very glad to know the truth, but it’s difficult to deal with the event head-on because I can’t remember any of it.  

  — Annie

Dear Annie,

It’s amazing how the body often remembers even when the mind forgets. I recommend seeking the counsel of a professional psychotherapist even though you don’t remember that time in your life.

There are many therapeutic techniques, including hypnosis, which can help you heal the feelings of the baby girl inside of you that lost her mother at a critical time in your life and was bounced around from family to family, not belonging anywhere.

If you suddenly, out the blue, start to cry or feel angry, it could very well be the feelings you felt long ago when you were a baby. It’s important — especially during this time of year — that you treat yourself with kindness, gentleness and empathy and understand what you’re trying to heal. 


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.