• Sarah Murphy, LCSW

August Blues: You're Not Alone

Sarah McIsaac Murphy, MSW

Soon after the 4th of July my mother would say, “Well girls, the summer will be over soon and you’ll be headed back to school. Time flies after the 4th!” My mother was an uncommonly loving and good-natured parent but when she made this comment, I hated her for about 10 seconds. “Mum! How can you say that?! It’s so mean! Stop.” She’d giggle saying, “I’m sorry honey, but it’s true.”

I loved summer and did not love school. I loved White Park Pool, riding my banana seat bike, free tennis lessons at Memorial Field and staying up to watch the ABC movie of the week, usually with Kristy McNichol, Jason Robards or Farrah Fawcett. School was tolerable because of  kickball, four squares and my friends. I did not like map skills, silent reading or division. I did not like the smell of the school or the lunchroom. I especially did not like the memory of being whisked out of the school’s fall festival, when fishing with a plastic fishing pole for ‘treasure’ in a kiddie pool with my younger sister. I didn’t appreciate being rushed home by the older sister who wrote my mother saying,  ”Please come home but leave the monster at the hospital.”

When we returned home we found people, many of whom we didn’t know, milling around, some crying and others were smoking in the house - my father would be pissed. There were aunts and uncles I’d met once, neighbors and Rosemary, Mum’s best friend. It was weird. Why were there so many snacks? I scanned the kitchen and saw an enormous German chocolate cake on the center of the kitchen table. It was in the shape of a Bundt cake, very popular in 1973, with white icing dripping down along the perimeter, like a crown. I liked the look of it but did not like the platters of meat or the macaroni salad with miracle whip not mayonnaise.

My heart began to sink as I scanned the dining room and saw neither my mother nor my father. My brother was home from college - very cool - but when he walked toward me he didn’t look like himself. Everything was in slow motion. Voices were unrecognizable, like the teacher on the Snoopy Halloween special, “Wah Wah…” My mother appeared, took me and my younger sister by the hand and signaled my brother, to head to the front room. We almost never sat in the front room because the furniture was special, less than five years old. As I sat down, I felt an earthquake inside my chest. The terrain in my heart cracked swiftly the way real earthquakes cracked highways in California. Tears piled into the crack and a sea of tears fell out of my eyes like waves. Something was very wrong. The tears knew what it was but I didn’t. Mum huddled us together and said, “Girls, Daddy…..went….. to... heaven... today….He... died... and... now... he….. is... with….. God. I'm ...sorry.”

I don’t think I knew the word ‘fuck’ at 8 but I felt like saying it, “WHAT THE FUUUUUCK!? WTF. WTF. WTF?! THIS CANNOT BE TRUE” I cried angrily, “Mum, you have to be wrong. You’re wrong, Mum! He is not in Heaven. He was here today, at lunch! He’s here! Where is he, Mum?” I cannot remember much after that except for her hugging us and my asking, “Mum, are we poor now?!” I didn’t know that in 1973 any family with a chiropractor for a Dad living in NH, with kids in college, made us poor, automatically. Our world was broken but our social status hadn’t dropped that much.

This is a painful memory tied up with school but even before my father died, I disliked third grade and the previous grades. I never felt smart enough and had trouble paying attention. Unlike most girls I did not have good penmanship. The kindergarten teacher pointed that out to me. She was a crab who forced us to take naps, without mattresses, and spanked kids while donning a navy blue dress and pearls. I pretended to be sick, as often as I could get away with so I could watch The Price is Right or That Girl with Mum and sipping cocoa. 

School could be scary. On the 3rd day of classes in freshman English I forgot my book,Great Expectations. The teacher peered at me with unblinking eyes framed by horn rimmed glasses, and said “Go get your book, Sarah. Now.” I got up, jogged down the hall and across campus,  half a mile away. I returned to my seat, a human ball of shame, sweat and embarrassment. As we read aloud I pretended to care about Pip and Miss Havisham but imagined stomping on ugly, preppy handbook-looking glasses worn by a  teacher I’d later realize started the day off with a cocktail. I forgot my book while he remembered his cocktail and how to be mean to a 14 year old girl who already felt like an outsider, like Pip.

These are some of the reasons I experience the August Blues. Your reasons may be different but they likely derive from fear - fear of being embarrassed, ashamed, or the fear that you’ll be unable to perform at the level you are supposed to have been performing, already. Were you worried that you wouldn’t make the football team, track team or JV soccer? Did facing the facts scare you? Maybe you hadn’t done ANY of the summer reading and hadn’t worked out like you promised your coach? So, when August rolls around, 20, 30 or 40 years later, you feel some leftover dread, fear or sadness. 

You may also feel happiness and excitement because the start of school wasn’t all bad. I loved the smell of freshly cut playing fields, seeing friends and teachers I’d missed and the sound of chapel bells. Time in August is precious and fleeting, which is part of the reason it generates anxiety and melancholy. Maybe you’re starting college this week and the combination of fear and excitement is giving you insomnia. Perhaps you’re overwhelmed and there’sis too much to do! You need to see your friends, pack and read at least one of the summer reading books before tomorrow.

August feels like the end and the beginning, life and death, Maria von Trapp singing Edelweiss versus Jack Nicholson foaming at the mouth in The Shining. It’s a mixed bag, isn’t it? Maria von Trapp wasn’t always happy. She probably ruined her beautiful dress hiking through Austria and Jack from The Shining might have sought help? He could’ve taken an anger management class or started an SSRI?

August Blues are like Sunday nights when you realize you still have to take a bath, practice your spelling words and your favorite show starts in ten minutes. Fortunately, we can pause and remember to be compassionate with ourselves. This is not easy, at least for me. Pausing  is not for the weak and requires practice but it helps. It gives our mind a chance to find a quiet little perch, where we can breathe, notice and remember we’re not alone. Pausing helps us to loosen our grip, stop digging and sometimes we realize we do not have all the answers and it’s a relief. Letting go is action. It may be quiet and subtle but it’s also powerful and restorative.

We loved being young, some of the time, but it was also painful and uncomfortable. We love diving into cold water and detest shivering when we get out. It’s difficult to let go of certain times and seasons and it’s difficult not to demonize or idealize them. We crave the feeling that everything will be fine and the fact is, most of us are okay, right now, in the moment, even if the days are getting shorter. The internal struggle to resist what we don’t like or don’t want, makes us suffer more and enjoy less while the sweet pause allows us to float, instead of struggle.

The fact is we’re alive this August and there will undoubtedly be a range of experiences to come. Practicing the belief that it’s only good times or it’s only bad times ahead, set us up for a life of foregone conclusions instead of a life of possibility and adventure. August is a wonderful month and a tough month. The light is beautiful and school shopping ads are annoying and relentless. Facts help us step away from the  “everything is great or everything is awful’ mentality. Your son or daughter might have a great first semester at college and a tough one. Your parents might struggle with empty nest syndrome and have the chance to fall in love a little more. Feel your feelings, remember the facts and know you’re not alone, with August Blues.

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