Dear Dr. Karpel:
Last year my husband and I moved to a beautiful retirement paradise in Mexico. We’re from a big city in the northern U.S. I don’t miss the cold weather, the crowds, or the traffic. Throughout my life, I’ve had bouts of depression and the cold, cloudy winters up north didn’t help. We moved here right before Thanksgiving last year and we immediately met lots of people from our part of the world and found many activities to join. I felt great until this summer. It’s not the heat that’s the problem. I even like it this hot. But many of our new friends left in May and won’t be back until November. Also, many of our activities have taken a break for these hotter months. Since June I’ve begun to slide into my old pattern of depression. It used to occur in the winters up north, now it seems that summer is the time for it here. I’m relieved when it rains, so I have an excuse to stay in bed all day. My husband is worried. He’s seen me like this before many times. I feel like something must be wrong with me to get depressed in a paradise like this. Please help.
Signed, Depressed in Paradise
Let me just start by saying that depression can happen anywhere you are. You need to stop putting yourself down for feeling this way in “paradise.” It just adds to your depression. To paraphrase a well-known television personality, Mr. Rogers, “Sometimes when people EXPECT you to be happy that’s when it’s the hardest to be happy.” It would be good for you to feel better wherever you happen to be, but it’s also important for you to get rid of the pressure to feel especially good because of where you are. It doesn’t help and it’s not realistic.
Sir Richard Burton (not the actor who first made Puerto Vallarta known to Americans, but the 16th Century explorer) is said to have stated, “If you travel long enough and far enough, you will eventually meet yourself.” In other words, according to the old adage, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Yes, a move to a warm, sunny climate can help with the depression that comes from Seasonal Affective Disorder, brought on by a cold, cloudy environment. And, yes, a move to a retirement community with an easier lifestyle and lots of activities, can help to stave off depression, as well. However, when you come down to it, happiness and depression both occur because of the things that you say to yourself about your environment and about yourself. No matter where you go, your habits of thought come with you. You seem to be in a habit of depressive thinking and, in this particular case, you may be saying something like this to yourself: “It’s terrible now that so many of my friends have left for the summer. There’s nothing for me to do now. I can’t stand it. AND there must be something terribly wrong with me to feel depressed in a beautiful place like this.” Such self-talk will most certainly lead to feelings of depression. Rather, you might try saying to yourself: “It’s disappointing that my friends have left for the hotter months. Well, now that I know this happens, what can I do to make my time here more enjoyable during these months? It might take more work, but it might also be an opportunity for my husband and I to learn more about this new country we now live in.”
Keeping active and not withdrawing, as you’re so tempted to do, is one way of keeping from becoming depressed or to help emerge from depression. You need to fight your temptation to stay in bed (even if it rains) and to try to meet some of the people who live year-round in your community, as well as find activities to become involved in. Perhaps you can go beyond your retirement community and actually become part of the larger community that you live in. This may be a bit harder and will involve more of an adjustment to a foreign culture, but it can also be quite exciting and fulfilling. And you won’t have the problem of everyone leaving during the summer months. In addition, getting involved in some physical activity, as well as relaxation, would help you with your mood. Have you tried yoga? This would take care of both goals. Plus taking a yoga class, or any other class, would be a good way to meet some local people.
You mentioned that you have had bouts of depression before. I would, therefore, suggest that you seek some counseling to help you to change your habits of depressive thinking that may occur when you have some time on your hands. As you can see, these habits are with you wherever you are. In addition, perhaps there is a biochemical component to your episodes of depression that might require some medication. Have you been on medication for depression before? I suggest that, before you slip any further into depression, you see a doctor for an evaluation to assess if medication might be appropriate for you. Given that you are in a retirement community with many other North Americans, you will likely find such services in your area that cater to an English-speaking population.
Please feel free to write back with any questions and I hope you are again soon enjoying your golden years in paradise.