The “S.A.D.dest” Time of the Year
Every October since I moved to Canada, I have experienced a sense of dread. I know that long, cold, dark days are coming and that I will suffer. The constant rain, dampness and misery for four to six months of the year are very hard for a tropical person to endure. Growing up in the Caribbean, there are no “seasons” per se. Apart from when there is a significant weather system, rain tends to be torrential but short in duration and, within a few hours, is usually gone. Bright sunshine, heat and colours, (both in nature and in décor), characterise the Caribbean existence and we tend to take this for granted.
I had only heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) in my introduction to psychology class when we went through the entire DSM, (the diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders used by clinicians). It seemed like an odd disorder to have and, my Caribbean mind could only intellectually understand the possibility that this could happen to people. All of that changed when I migrated. For the first time in my entire life, I understood that a lack of sunlight and an abundance of cold weather can indeed cause otherwise healthy, well-adjusted people to experience alarming negative shifts in their mood, behaviour and thoughts.
My own journey with this predictable and frustrating condition was rather alarming the first time it happened. I noticed that my body felt sluggish, my mind became foggy and I started to feel inexplicably down for weeks at a time. I had no desire to even leave the house, I was craving comfort foods and my sleep pattern was completely erratic. Although I do not have any diagnosable mental disorders, I started to get scared because I was experiencing symptoms I have never had before including suicidal thoughts. I started to wonder if I should just pack it all in and move back to the Caribbean.
Many of my clients over the years who come to see me during the fall/winter period describe the same symptoms. Most are female and reported that this seems to be a strange pattern for them completely unrelated to their menstrual cycles. At that point, I started to realise that it is important to start shedding proverbial “light” on this issue which is triggered by the long darkness of fall and winter. As much as we tend to talk about anxiety and depression, we do not do much psychoeducation around S.A.D. That changes today.
S.A.D. is considered a subtype of depression that recurs annually during the fall/winter period. There is an even rarer form of this condition that occurs during summer but, it tends to be more common in the darker and colder months. The common reference to it is “winter blues” which most people report experiencing. However, the difference is that S.A.D. can seriously affect the ability of the person with symptoms to function normally.
Symptoms of this condition include many of the symptoms of unipolar depression in which there is a feeling of depressed mood most of the day almost every day, a loss of interest and joy in activities that were once pleasurable, sleep issues, changes in appetite, (in my case a constant craving for waist expanding carbohydrates), decreased energy, mental fogginess, lethargy, weight gain and a tendency to oversleep. For a more comprehensive list of symptoms, see here.
My own struggle with this sometimes-debilitating condition has seen me running to my doctor’s office completely freaked out because suddenly, there is a strong desire to just die so the suffering will end. Obviously, that cry for help is a sign that I really want to live. As someone who generally does not experience symptoms of anxiety or depression outside of situational factors, this was a terrifying event. My doctor did the psychoeducation that no other space did up to that point. At least what I was going through had a name and wasn’t all that “strange” after all
I found that going to the gym was very therapeutic. The ability to move my body and push my physical limits gave me an endorphin boost that went a long way in stress management. I bought a “happy light” which is recommended for treatment of this condition, (for more information, see here). The concept of self-care took on much deeper significance at this time as I had to consciously choose not to eat the comfort foods I craved, monitor my sleep and purposefully engage with other people even when I did not want to.
Last winter, after much deliberation, I was put on anti-depressants to see if that would help. It didn’t. Instead, I experienced a complete flattening of my moods, stomach issues, headaches and an assortment of rather unpleasant side effects. I had to taper off as quickly as I could as my job as a therapist cannot be done effectively with the inability to experience empathy. I wondered why I was so unlucky as to have to deal with side effects from medication that is supposed to make me feel better.
Usually, I would try to travel to the tropics during the winter so that I can get some of that Vitamin D into my body naturally. Connections to members of our ethic group, (ethnic group, NOT race), help to keep the ties to our “homelands” going while we live through the dark, long days of winter so I would try to visit Jamaica to see my friends and family there as “therapy”. However, as we all know, COVID-19 has made this impossible. Actually, COVID-19 has taken all of the coping skills I would normally use to be able to balance myself between November and March. I know I am far from alone in this situation and therefore, I want to take the opportunity to normalise this shared experience.
What I have found helpful is the recognition that it is o.k. to not be o.k. Winter is hard in general with the shortened exposure to sunlight, the cold and damp weather and their effects on us. COVID-19 is likely to make the situation far worse as most of us have come to realise that the manner in which we would create moments of joy and normalcy have the potential to turn deadly for those we love. Although we crave connection and company on one hand, we fear fatal negative outcomes of this natural need on the other. That is a truly difficult place to sit. If it hurts to think about this and it brings you to tears, that is ok. How could we not feel distress about this?
This winter, my coping mechanisms have to change. It means reaching out to my therapist more regularly, calling my relatives and friends to connect using technology rather than trying to see them. It is slowing down my work schedule so that I can account for the lethargy that I experience, and having more reasonable expectations of my productivity in a way that accounts for the situational factors that led the world into chaos. It is limiting my social media and consumption of current affairs. The choice of comedies over dramas gives some temporary relief as well. Most importantly, it is being transparent about what I am dealing with so that others can feel safe enough to share their distress as well.
As we close the chapter on a truly complicated year, I wish us all better mental and emotional well-being. I hope that as we move towards a vaccine for COVID-19, we are still able to cultivate moments of joy against the bleakness that is the Canadian winter. Above all else, I hope that we learn to take care of ourselves and that we can understand S.A.D. and stop thinking we are “weak” or “crazy” for struggling.