There’s no easy way to explain to the people in your life that the change of seasons fills you with dread, and that turning the calendar to April or May means that things are about to turn ugly. This particular disorder, based entirely on your body’s reaction to the seasons, sounds strange. No matter how medically savvy you are or how jargon-filled your descriptions may be, there’s an element that comes across as mythological, like a human transforming into a werewolf during the full moon. If you don’t truly understand it, how will anyone else?
I was in my late twenties when I noticed some changes that occurred one autumn and lingered until spring, not that I made the link to the seasons until later. As summer faded, my energy began to disappear. At first the changes were subtle, like losing interest in projects I had been working on prior to the change in seasons. As time went on, I became withdrawn and depressed. I stopped being excited about anything. I blamed these changes on external factors, like stress over study and work. After several months of this, I began to feel like this was who I was: a depressive, reclusive person without much energy or direction. And just as I accepted my new fate, spring rolled around. I started leaving my apartment voluntarily again, instead of having to force myself. I chose to contact friends, instead of remembering them in a haze of guilt. I resumed exercise, socialising and writing. By November, I was overflowing with energy and truly delighted by life. I felt disbelief over all that time I wasted in bed, rather than bursting awake to start tackling all the wonderful things I had planned. Sometimes I had too much energy; after hibernating all winter I was buzzing at a frequency some people couldn’t keep up with.
This turned out to be a cycle that I was doomed to repeat each year. It wasn’t until I discussed what was happening with a doctor and psychologist that I began to make sense of what was happening to me, six months out of each year. It was seasonal affective disorder (or SAD), a type of depression that is linked to the change in seasons, and specifically the lack of light exposure in winter. Having a name for it helped me understand what I was going through, and legitimised what I experienced. It wasn’t about being emotional or dramatic, which I worried about the rare times I tried to explain it to others.
Once I knew what it was though, I didn’t find a magical fix. I still spent months fearing its arrival, which I unscientifically pinpointed to the day daylight savings ended. It made me feel bleak, always anticipating the return of the depression. Instead of appreciating summer solstice, the longest day of the year, I thought about the fact that the days following would be getting shorter.
In the depths of winter, I huddled up under blankets at home. I checked social media, never posting anything myself, because it is hard to post when you are lethargic and depressed. I eyed photos from friends in the northern hemisphere with unrestrained envy. I wanted to believe that if it was summer, I would be okay again, but I also doubted this, despite previous experience that strongly suggested this would all change with the seasons. Like the first time I experienced SAD, I started to suspect that this was the ‘real me’ and that the summer version of myself was fake, a version of myself that I wanted to believe was real. I avoided any form of social interaction that took place in person, because I felt like I had nothing to say. If asked about my life, I cried. I judged myself harshly, irritated by my limitations. If I cried, I found myself horrified by my sadness, and scornful of myself.
During summer, it is easy to come up with solutions and preventative strategies for the next bout of SAD. One January, after a day of socialising and enjoying the sunshine, I decided to write a list of ways to avoid experiencing such depression during winter. My list reminded me to exercise, meditate, socialise, talk about my feelings, volunteer or help others in some way, and other practical suggestions, like having a healthy daily routine. I emailed it to myself with the heading ‘How to survive winter and S.A.D.’ The next time I had SAD, I remembered that it existed but couldn’t bring myself to read it. I was certain of my own naivety. When I eventually read it, I didn’t follow my instructions. Since then, I’ve learned that there are well-researched treatments for SAD, including psychotherapy, light therapy (lamps or glasses, which help by providing artificial light) and/or antidepressants. A combination of these can be lifesaving. I also learnt that I shouldn’t have dismissed my survival list so quickly. I just need to keep refining it each year, so it seems relevant and achievable, no matter how bleak I am feeling.
I have worked hard to stop viewing myself as two different personalities – a winter and summer version. I try to accept that both are me, with different energy levels. I also worked on my tendency to push myself during this time and judge myself for not getting things done. When it came to writing, I was either impatient with myself for not writing or rejected anything I managed to write while I was experiencing SAD. Now I try to view it as a low output time where I rest, recuperating from high-energy times. It’s okay if the words don’t come.
Recognising that SAD involves major depression and treating it appropriately is crucial. SAD is often referred to as the winter blues, which doesn’t properly convey the angst and suffering depression entails. In a world where mental illness still caries so much stigma, and which lacks adequate funding for mental health, it is so important that we listen, and recognise the symptoms. It is not being emotional or weak to admit there is a problem. With the blinkers that come as part of the package with SAD or other forms of depression, it can seem pointless, but it is worth dragging yourself out of bed to get help.
Image: Lance Anderson
Roz Bellamy is a Melbourne-based writer. She writes essays, memoir and fiction, and her work has been published in a range of publications including Going Down Swinging, Seizure, Archer Magazine and The Vocal (Fairfax). You can read more of her writing at www.rozbellamy.com.