Today was a good day. It was sunny. Or, a better way to say it would be: today was a good day because it was sunny. I know a lot of deep-thinking, romantic people absolutely love a nice, dreary day. Bring on the hot tea, the fuzzy blankets, the long books. Bring on the sleet, the cloud coverage, the depression. Happy winter! Call me a ninny but I love the sun. And I drink iced tea more than hot. And a long book can sometimes intimidate me. Give me the beach over the mountains any day. (Okay, okay…don’t take the mountains away from me, either. I like both.)
But though my taste in weather may not seem refined, it is well-grounded. I love sunshine because sunshine loves me. Allow me to explain.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder subset in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year exhibit depressive symptoms at the same time each year, most commonly in the winter. People may sleep too much or have little energy.
I have hesitated to write about my experience with SAD until now, not because I’m embarrassed by it, but because I’ve already shared in the past about my struggles with anxiety and trichotillomania. I want to make it clear that I am not in a constant state of mental and emotional turmoil. Nor am I searching for new ways to gain your pity. As a matter of fact, these three issues are probably related (in other words, I didn’t “just get lucky” by winding up with three separate issues) and they are all controlled similarly. Mild anxiety and depression are sort of like parents to issues like trich’. I probably need to write about that again soon because I’ve had some breakthroughs and so has science! Trich’ is no longer thought to be so closely related to OCD and is being viewed more like addiction. My anxiety story could use an update as well.
In general, I’m a very happy person. I have a deep love for life, am surrounded by favorite people in the world, I get to write professionally and have seen many of my dreams realized. I have good physical health, a fulfilling spiritual life and I almost always get 8-9 hours of sleep a night. I love hanging out with friends, I love books and movies, I love food and I love sunshine.
Have you ever been embarrassed because there was something you couldn’t hide about yourself no matter how hard you tried? Like you are actually upset that you lost at Monopoly but you keep saying, “No, no. Really-I’m fine.” Or you are super attracted to someone and everyone in the room can tell? Or you’re PMS-y and there’s no keeping it to yourself? (“WHY AM I SO HUNGRY OH YES NOW I REMEMBER AHEM.”) That’s how I feel about SAD. It’s ridiculously obvious. If you’re with me, you never have to check your weather app or even open the blinds. Look at me. I know when it’s sunny. My body knows when it’s sunny. When it’s sunny, I’m sunny. Likewise, when it is cloudy, I am cloudy. Productivity goes from Oompa Loompa to Humpty Dumpty.
This is probably a good time to add that I have never seen a doctor about any of this (or hardly anything else, for that matter…) and so my diagnoses are unofficial, self-applied and generalized. “I know when it’s sunny” may not qualify as sound, scientific data.
There are some exceptions to this. I am not truly depressed every time a cloud passes before the sun. I am not automatically manic every time it pops out again. But there is a definite pattern. During the winter, a time when there is significantly less sunlight due to weather and shorter days, I struggle with “winter blues” or a general feeling of glumness. “Glum” really fits, because I’m not about to jump off a bridge, but I’m also not about to burst into song. SAD mostly has to do with the type of light you’re receiving, not the temperature of the air. Cloudy days in the summer are difficult too, it’s just not as common and the days are longer. And this is in central Texas…I can only imagine how much more challenging it would be up north.
Winter evenings are the worst (also for trich!) when the sun seems like it’s been gone forever and is never coming back. Evenings often include staring into space for no reason, scrolling through Facebook until it makes me sick, sighing. That’s when I’m at risk of going from glum to depressed. I mentioned that my anxiety, SAD, and trich are all controlled similarly and evening is when that really comes into play. All of them can be sent running if I can snap out of it or be preventative. Here’s what helps:
1. Staying busy
Not structuring my whole day to be hectic (that makes me anxious!) but shaking myself out of the slump by doing something productive or fun in that moment. Cleaning, writing a letter, taking a walk.
2. Leaning into winter
I don’t actually know if I like the phrase “leaning in” but I have heard it so much in the past few years, I’ve found myself using it. It still reminds me of While You Were Sleeping. “You were leaning.” Anyway, what I mean is, it can help to meet winter at the door with a big, unexpected embrace that is equally excited and aggressive. “Well hiya, winter! Fancy seeing you this time o’ year! Why don’t you stay a spell??” You know, kill it with kindness. Some people call this Hygge (actually, that’s another word I’m basically just guessing about.) In other words, if it has to be winter, make it WINTER. I am a true Buddy the Elf about Christmas, but after New Years, my Claus-o-meter gets dangerously low. It’s then that I have to pull out my favorite sweaters, make a big cup of cocoa and watch Little Women. Because, in all seriousness, I don’t hate winter—I just struggle to get along with it.
3. Pretending it is summer
Okay, now this is the opposite of #2, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Pretending it is summer usually involves adding color somewhere in my life. Buying flowers for the kitchen table. Changing out my bedding. Painting my nails. Anything that makes me happier than it should (what’s so great about nail polish?) like summer does.
4. Being social. Even though I’m not
I am a family person. I love my family and my friends who feel like family. I mean, I love the whole world, but I’m not a social person. I am an INFJ (I know what you’re thinking, that revelation would’ve saved me from writing this whole post. It explains everything, right?) I once lived on a huge ranch with only my siblings for friends (back when I only had three!) and was perfectly satisfied. My dream is to live on a farm on a hill and put my manuscripts in the mailbox when I’m ready to publish them. I love snail mail because it combines intimate friendship with being alone in my room. That’s why the internet is my best friend/arch enemy. I regress! I am not social, but I do love and need people. Being social is extra difficult when I’m feeling glum, pale and cynical. But being in society is like exercising, you may not always think you’re in the mood but you end up enjoying it and are almost always happy you did it. I hope this doesn’t offend my friends. I do enjoy your presence more than I enjoy doing crunches. The simile may not be waterproof, but I have found that pushing myself a little to stop and chat or get together with a friend or even make a new friend has helped keep the glumness at bay.
5. Admitting I have SAD and laughing about it
I would never laugh at your mental health struggle. Unless you’re laughing about it, in which case, I am all about it. Laughter truly is good medicine. Acknowledging the fact that I don’t get along well with winter and sometimes need a little extra help getting through winter days allows me to talk openly about it, deal with it head-on and even laugh about it, real as it is. My mom bought me a sweater that says, “Happy Winter.” Since she also struggles to love winter, it has a tongue-in-cheek implication. My dad sometimes gives me a “sunshine-y” coffee cup, like the one with a scene from San Diego on it, when I “look like I could use it.”
6. Light therapy. Maybe.
Last year, my mom and I finally bit the bullet and started researching therapy lamps. The lack of light definitely made a negative difference in our moods, so we thought it seemed logical enough that a special lamp could make a positive difference. We ordered one and used it all winter last year, according to instructions. Did it help? Neither of us is sure. Was it annoying? Definitely. I am interested in investigating other types of light therapy. Having a large, extremely bright light shining right on my face first thing in the morning somehow didn’t teach me to love winter. I get the idea, but it would need some tweaking for me to try light therapy again. Going outside and sitting on the deck when the sun does come out definitely helps (shout out to serotonin.) As a wise man once said, “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.” -John Denver
Despite my conclusion that I most likely do have a disorder that makes me feel sad when I don’t get enough sunshine, I will always cling to the belief that, as Anne says in Chapter 5 of Anne of Green Gables,
“…you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.”
I’ve made up my mind firmly. Winter won’t have the last laugh. I’ll show winter who’s boss…by enjoying it. But no promises I won’t have a few glum days in the meantime…and throw a bonafide party when I see the first onion flowers popping up.