About those other things that have been going on with me lately? One of them is the weather. We just had a nasty heat wave, and I have Seasonal Affective Disorder.
A SAD State of Affairs
SAD, or, as it is officially (but inaccurately) known, Major Depression with Seasonal Pattern, is clinical depression in response to factors in the physical environment.
Winter SAD, which you may have heard of, results from insufficient exposure to light. It was first observed as a winter-related phenomenon, since sunlight is weaker, days are shorter, and clouds are more common during winter in many climates.
However, SAD can also be found year-round in people who work at night and sleep during the day, or even those who live in sunny places but spend very little time outdoors. That makes the name misleading, and the official diagnostic criteria just plain wrong in far too many cases.
Summer SAD, which you probably haven’t heard of, is major depression triggered by heat, usually in conjunction with humidity (I’m fine in the desert). It also is not necessarily seasonal, but can occur wherever someone is exposed to hot and humid summer-like conditions, whether natural or artificial.
I have both types of SAD. It’s no accident that I’m in a climate with mostly cool summers and relatively sunny winters. It’s insanely expensive to live here, but it’s one of the few climates in the U.S. that works for me.
However, heat waves do happen. They’re a double whammy, as the best way to keep my house cool to combat summer SAD is to cover the windows – which plunges me into darkness, and triggers “winter” SAD!
We had a particularly long and extreme heat wave last week. I was already dreading the length of the trek (2.5 hours each way) into San Francisco for the premiere of Sensitive: The Untold Story when it hit. Most buses in my area aren’t air conditioned, or even well-ventilated, and tend to run 10-15 degrees hotter inside than the outside temperature. Thankfully, the heat wave broke on the day of the premiere. Although the trip was as long as I expected, it was not as hot.
A SAD Story
SAD has had a huge impact on my life. I first became conscious of winter SAD in high school, when my second semester grades dropped drastically in comparison with my first semester grades two years in a row. I lived in a place with long winters, during which I rarely went outdoors. That’s a pity, as I now know the reflectivity of snow can be very beneficial for people with SAD.
However, I hated the cold (due to being an HSP, no doubt) and never really had proper clothing to avoid frostbite, so in my mid-20s, I moved to a better (I thought) climate, where winters rarely dropped below freezing.
By that time, seasonal depression patterns had been widely noted, and research was underway. It was only a few weeks after my arrival in my new home that the first study verifying the existence of SAD was published. Surprise! SAD had to do with light, not temperature. As it turns out, I had chosen one of the worst places in the U.S. for a person with my condition – the mild but famously cloudy Pacific Northwest.
I should’ve turned tail and run for California right then, but, not really understanding what depression was or how it was affecting me, I didn’t. And then it was too late. I stagnated in misery for the next 15 years. I was intermittently suicidal, had problems keeping jobs and friends, couldn’t sustain an interest in anything, and wondered why things that appeared to be effortless for other people were so very difficult or plain impossible for me.
Then a longtime friend committed suicide. This was deeply shocking, and as I processed it, I noticed that I seemed to understand the way he felt a whole lot better than most of his other friends seemed to. Was I just wrong? I decided to read up on depression. That was the beginning of my finally learning what depression was, and what it was doing to me. His suicide almost certainly saved my life. I like to think he would be pleased about that.
So how come it took me so long to figure out that I was chronically depressed? There are a lot of answers to that, way too many for a single blog post. Some I’ve already talked about in other posts. Some of my reasons were doubtless personal to my particular history and personality.
But I do want to mention one problem that I think is an issue for everyone, depressed or not: The symptom lists for depression are not very useful at identifying depression in oneself, or understanding what it is like for others.
I suspect people who live with mates or family might be more aware of their depression-related behaviors, because there are people outside themselves to notice and comment upon them. However, triple Virgo that I am, I have lived alone (=no other humans) for most of my adult life.
I’ve developed my own list of depression signs, but it can often take several days for recognition to kick in. Oh, right. It’s been foggy for a week and there’s a mountain of dirty dishes in my kitchen. Those two things are probably related. Time to pull out the light box.
The signs below may indicate something else (for example, housework and hygiene go to the winds when I’m on a writing binge), but generally, if several things on the list are occurring, it’s time to step up the depression management. About which I will also talk more after the list.
I KNOW I’M DEPRESSED WHEN…
My bed doesn’t get made
Dirty dishes pile up
I don’t feel like showering
I don’t feel like going anywhere
Unfinished projects pile up like drifts in the corners and on the surfaces of my home
I only want to eat, listen to old time radio drama or Victorian novels, and play computer games
I put off tasks that bum me out or require concentration
It’s really hard to remember things
I dread trips to the supermarket
I imagine the worst possible outcome to any anticipated interaction
My to-do list gets longer every day instead of shorter
I forget about and miss important deadlines
I make more errors, and have more accidents
I only want to listen to music with a strong rhythmic beat, in a minor key
My sleep cycle becomes progressively more random
I can’t get motivated to do anything
I feel like a failure because all of the above is going on
Note that depression symptoms vary from person to person, and even from one time to another in the same person. They are inevitably shaped by your personality, your family history, and your present environment. So if my list doesn’t resonate for you, make your own.
DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT
Normally I avoid violent idioms, but in this case, depression is beating you, so you have to beat it back. Here are some ways I have done that.
- Light boxes (RESEARCH BEFORE BUYING – lots of useless ones are out there)
- Dawn simulation (here’s a really cheap one I like)
- Light reduction in the evening
- Sleep restriction (no more 10 hour nights!)
- Getting outside
- Spending most of my time in a bright room
Herbs and supplements I use/have used to manage depression:
- Rhodiola Rosea
- Phosphatidyl Serine
- St. John’s Wort (Hypericum)
- omega oils
- probably a few other things I don’t remember
Different substances have helped me with different aspects of depression. Some helped mood, others helped energy level. I have often combined more than one.
As with depression symptoms, treatment effects can be highly variable, from person to person, between different brands of the same herb or supplement, and even at different times for the same person.
DO YOUR RESEARCH. I cannot stress this strongly enough. If something can change how you feel, it can also interact with other medications or conditions, or impact your dietary needs. Look for informative websites that don’t sell the product you’re researching, and that do footnote studies in credible medical journals to document statements they make. You need information about dose, interactions, and contraindications before you to decide to try something. Advice from a knowledgeable health care professional is also an excellent thing, if you can get it.
Start with a low dose (especially if you are an HSP), increasing slowly. Keep notes, and give a fair trial to whatever you’re trying. By which I mean, do it regularly, and for long enough to really test if it works. This is the second-hardest thing for depressed people to do. The hardest is trying the next thing if something doesn’t work.
I know it’s so dark down there at the bottom that it’s hard to see where up is, but trust me, UP EXISTS. You are more than your depression – you are completely unique, the only you in the universe. The loss of that would be tragic. Don’t let that happen. Keep fighting. One day you’ll find a solution that works, and you’ll be so glad – and so proud – you stuck it out.
The title of this post is a quote from Charles Dudley Warner. A slight misquote, actually. He said everybody complains about the weather, but I like it better my way. Never heard of Warner? Me neither, but he was apparently an American writer, and buddy of Mark Twain, to whom the quote is often misattributed. Until I looked it up for this post, I always assumed it was an Oscar Wilde quip. It just sounded like the sort of thing he would say.