By Alissa Nutting.
I am in an S & M relationship with Cleveland. I am Cleveland’s slave. For me the “S” of Cleveland’s sadism stands for “seasonal.” All winter long, I withstand what Cleveland wants me to withstand. It tests my boundaries. It pushes my limits. Sometimes it gives me pain, and once it relents, I know true pleasure within the space of pain’s absence. I am Cleveland’s seasonal masochist.
Coincidentally, I moved to Cleveland around the time 50 Shades of Gray was published in the U.S. Coincidentally, the book stole my nickname for both Cleveland’s long winter and the mood it often inspires in me: I call it The Gray. I am one of the millions who struggle with anxiety and depression, and The Gray and my depression are a total power couple. Like a figure-skating pair, silver blades flashing, they command across an icy landscape and join forces to engage in a highly skilled dance of graceful danger; if they perform well enough, their gold medal is me stumbling out of bed at noon to eat a block of cheese as if it were a granola bar, then immediately returning myself beneath the covers, placing them over my head to create a dark and hermetic cheese-breath cave in which I lie paralyzed for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, my depression and The Gray are frolicking. They are sitting together on a piano bench playing a zesty rendition of Chopsticks. They are getting matching tattoos. The more days of The Gray that strike in a row, the beefier The Gray becomes, sinking low to push my depression upwards.
I did not know it for certain before moving to Cleveland, but it turns out I am largely solar powered. During the gloomy winter, which can be as long as seven months here, I confess that I struggle. I become our hometown icon Superman stuck in a kryptonite-bedazzled cape. The air feels harder to breathe; all movement is difficult. I feel like I was dropped on a planet with a far heavier gravity.
In order to cope, I am told to spend as many hours as possible each day in sitting in front of a full-spectrum lamp, as though I am a high-grade marijuana plant, and I do; I have been given a prescription for light, have been told that it is critical I follow it. This becomes a routine in our household: if I rattle off a lengthy tirade of bitter sarcasm, my husband will gently suggest, “Hey—why don’t you go sit in front of your cheer-up lamp for a little bit?” While it seems to help me some, the lamp’s white-laser glow has an artificial feel to it. Imagine the taste of sunlight’s butter vs. the cheer-up light’s margarine. It also can’t be good for my paranoia. It is a bright lamp. A very bright lamp that creates a feeling of worried suspense in my subconscious—am I about to be on camera, impromptu, the subject of a caffeine intervention or a What Not to Wear segment? Am I about to have a dental or surgical procedure performed upon me against my will?
Besides its hollow and extreme brightness, I get upset that it is not 360 degrees; it does not cocoon me in its rays. The winter makes me want to be a reverse vampire and lie down for hours in a coffin of light. The closest I could likely come to that is a tanning bed—in the winter I stare longingly at every tanning salon I pass; their siren song would be completely irresistible had my mother not worked for a cancer hospital. At night I make myself fall asleep by picturing and counting advanced melanomas rather than sheep just to try to resist going to one. Were I to break down and enter such an establishment, I know I would spiral out of control in a matter of weeks, becoming a cocoa-butter-scented dragon with orange, leathery scales; I’d likely begin to use our monthly mortgage payment as a bribe the salon’s owner for the privilege of letting me staying overnight and grow crispy.
Of course, if I’m patient, nature will bring relief. Suddenly it will be spring, and there is sun. In the spring, The Grey and my depression begin fighting and are very on again/off again, for no matter how beautiful it is outside one day, The Grey could strike the very next. It will be seventy-five degrees on Tuesday and fifty degrees on Wednesday. Cleveland’s weather puts a blindfold over my eyes; I am sightless in the center of the room as Cleveland circles me holding a whip, and I have no idea of when the lashes will come.
But I’ve experienced nothing so beautiful as a Cleveland summer: the lush greenery blowing in the wind, the soothing bathwater temperature of nights on the porch. My mood lifts. There is always the anxious reminder of winter’s eventual return—I see it everywhere. In the clouds that are spread across the sky in a thin layer with fractured edges, like broken ice. In trips down to my basement when I have to pass the bulky winter coats that hang in stillness upon a clothing rack like headless ghosts. Yet I can take a deep breath and go outside, into the sunshine; when dusk falls, fireflies spin in the air like luminous molecules. It is so beautiful and otherworldly as to make me flush with near ecstasy, this delicious absence of grey cold, and in these moments that could not possibly be better, I find myself thanking winter for this gift of gratitude.