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Mendo Lake Family Life

A Never-Ending Winter: My Struggle With Seasonal Affective Disorder

Dec 05, 2007 12:00AM

by Claire Delaney

Last November was hard. I felt like everything took twice as much effort for half as many results. I woke up tired, every day, no matter how much sleep I’d gotten. I was irritable, cranky, out of sorts, and foggy all the time. I was close to tears often.

I ate out of habit, without pleasure or real hunger, or devoured carbs hoping to ease the funk—cookies, bread, crackers, noodles. Books and television—even old favorites—seemed boring and pointless. Simple errands felt like monumental undertakings, exhausting and defeating. If I was invited out I turned it down, reasoning that I would be too tired, too out of it to enjoy the outing, anyway. Physically I ached, with neck cricks and joint stiffness and headaches. My hair and skin were dry and dull, and I simply didn’t care.

I took care of myself, my children and my house, but only the basics. Who cared if the kids hadn’t bathed in a couple days? Who cared if we counted salad as a vegetable for the fourth night? Who cared if the folded clothes sat on dressers in leaning towers? They were clean, weren’t they? My husband was kind and supportive, but he couldn’t pick up more slack. I was distant and unresponsive and never “in the mood,” despite loving him very much.

Family Ties

Winter has always been hard for me, and it runs in my family. It was common knowledge that my grandma “had a hard time” with Christmas. For me, Christmas was the last bright spot in a long series of dull days that last until spring, so feeling this down in November scared me. If I felt this low in November, what was January going to be like? The thought terrified me, so I scheduled an appointment with my doctor.

My doctor checked me for thyroid conditions, but when I described how the last month had gone for me, crying completely unchecked, she leaned forward and put a kind hand on my knee.

“I think you are suffering from depression,” she said, “and we can help.”

The Quiet Epidemic

As many as half a million people in the United States may suffer from winter depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. Another 10% to 20% of Americans may experience mild SAD—which is more common in women than in men.

When talking to friends about my experience, I was brutally honest. Because I had held things together, more or less, the struggle I had gone through was not immediately observable to outsiders.

I hadn’t sat around in my bathrobe, unwashed and unkempt. I had met my basic obligations according the outside world: my kids were dressed and at school. I laughed, I talked, I wasn’t sobbing in public. I heard many women say they felt a dampening of spirits as the days darkened, but they had never considered going to the doctor.

“You were depressed?” one friend asked. “If you were depressed, heck, I’m suicidal.”

Signs & Symptoms of SAD

  • A change in appetite, especially a craving for starches or sweets.
  • Weight gain.
  • Fatigue or low energy.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Irritability.
  • Avoidance of social situations.
  • Changes in sleeping habits.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy.

Treatments for SAD

In the years past I had figured out that light played an important part in my mood. When I get up in the winter, I go around turning on as many lights as I can. I open blinds and let in natural light, too. I choose books and movies and TV shows that uplift and make me laugh, and I stay away from the bad news as much as I can.

It turns out that light does play a big part in seasonal depression. In fact, people suffering from SAD can use a special light box to alleviate symptoms. Called phototherapy, the light is about 25 times brighter than normal living room light, and patients expose themselves to the light for a half hour or so each day.

Medical help can take the form of antidepressants in a special class called the seratonin selective reuptake inhibitor family, or SSRIs. These include Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and Celexa, and they help regulate the way the brain processes the feel-good seratonins in your system.

Psychotherapy is generally recommended to accentuate the effectiveness of medical treatment. The stresses that a person can take in stride while feeling good can disable you when you are depressed.

The Grey Skies Parted

After taking my family history, my doctor prescribed antidepressants for me. Within a few weeks, I was more like myself, despite the gloomy skies outside. Life began to take on color again, instead of a faded black and white.

I still miss the sunlight when the days get long and dark, but winter days no longer make me feel like I want to curl up and sleep until spring. Seeing my doctor made the difference—not just for me, but for my whole family.


Claire Delaney is a mother of two in Northern California.