Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Ann Freeman: Time for the dark clouds of Seasonal Affective Disorder

When it’s dark I get sad. Seasonal Affective Disorder, that is – SAD. Such a clever acronym for this thing that feels so heavy, like someone poured molasses on my normally sunny, sparkly soul. 

SAD is a recognized mood illness that happens for most people during the late fall and winter months, especially in winter climes like Minnesota. You can read all about the symptoms and more here.

People used to think it was fake, probably because it mostly women are diagnosed with it. It takes the medical community a while to take us seriously sometimes. But it’s in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), so it has been anointed as real.

I’ll admit that I was personally skeptical about SAD and resisted the diagnosis when my doctor made it about five years ago. In my childhood family, rules for living included, “Just snap out of it,” “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” “Mind over matter,” and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” 

So I blamed myself for my fall and winter low energy, for the overwhelming urge once home from work to get into “comfy clothes,” get under a blanket on the sofa, pour a glass of wine, ignore phone calls and texts, and watch bad TV. (I actually voted more than once during American Idol last winter. Now that’s depressing.) 

I never got “SAD” until recently. At least I don’t think I did. I grew up in Minnesota and when I was a kid, winter was my favorite time of year. I loved skating, sledding, skiing, and snowball fights with the neighbor kids. My mom believed getting outside was good for us and I remember being bundled up and sent out for hours at a time. We had fun.

As an adult I was a single parent. There was no time to be “SAD.” Exhausted and stressed maybe, but lethargic and withdrawn? Not a chance. I’d get home from work and start my second job which included cooking, cleaning, and arm wrestling two kids through homework they had no interest in doing. Maybe I had SAD then but I was stretched too thin to notice (and clueless that feeling so stressed could have indeed been a symptom).

It’s probably no coincidence that I started noticing the symptoms for SAD once I was an empty nester and had the time and space to melt on the sofa at night.

I’m coming to accept that I indeed have SAD. If I look back at my journal entries, every year they start to get gloomy around November and lighten up by mid-February. I am a child of the sun and light. During the heat of summer I’m my own comic midsummer night’s dream, twirling in the giddy glow of a happy, satisfied soul. 

It’s hard to come down from that summer high every fall.

I do stuff to deal with getting SAD. I have a light box (it’s actually called a “Happy Light“) that sends 10,000 lux of simulated daylight my way 30 minutes each day as I drink my morning coffee. The light is bright and annoying. I’d like it better, I think, if it also gave off heat and actually felt a bit like sunshine. I take a Vitamin D supplement (though sunlight is the best Vitamin D therapy), and work on eating right and exercise. And having fun, the best Rx of all. If all else fails, I add a low dose anti-depressant to the mix.

But this year, as we passed the Summer Solstice (meaning the days were going to start getting shorter), I went back into denial and was determined to be the master of my moods (mind over matter, remember) and to keep that easy, breezy, summer girl feeling all year long, without any help, even as we haplessly cascaded toward the fall and winter, the monochrome gray, and the long, dark nights. 

I held on valiantly until daylight savings ended, despite all the tell-tale signs that SAD was creeping around the bend again. Once I admitted the comfy clothes, blanket, sofa, and lack of desire for a social life had gripped me once again, I capitulated, and am back on my anti-SAD routine for yet another winter, anti-depressant included (the thing I really wanted to avoid). 

I’d like to think I could will my winter blues away. Maybe I’ll move to the desert some day. But until then (or maybe just in general), I have to accept when it’s dark, I get SAD.

This post was written by Ann Freeman and originally published on Upside My Head (Pay Attention Now).

No comments yet

Leave a Reply