I lived most of my life in a certain gloomy and cloud-covered upstate New York city. Second only to Seattle in lack of sunlight hours, in my hometown Seasonal-Affective-Disorder wasn't an illness but a way of life.
|Christmas tree in the city square during a storm.|
One winter, I'd had a couple friends sleep over. Suddenly, mid-morning, the sun came out. No one was expecting it, it hadn't been in the forecast we watched religiously every night. The three of us were upstairs, when we heard a shout. "The sun! The sun!" Rushing over to the hall window, we pulled the curtain back, and stood there, basking in the weak, watery rays that managed to filter through the frosted glass. Immobilized, we just stood, feeling the faint promise of warmth on our skin, holding our hands up as if it was somehow possible to catch the rays between our fingers.
|Winter work break.|
Living in this type of climate, your body just shuts down during the winter months. Winter means hibernation, limited outings, social events, activity in general. Often I wouldn't see friends or neighbors all winter long, in the spring we'd emerge from our cocoons and ask each other how we'd fared the winter. Through a combination of old, poorly insulated houses and an incredibly greedy regional power company, no one could afford their heating bill. Turning a thermostat above 69 was sacrilege in most homes. My parents kept their heat at 65 during the day, 55 at night. Winter was cold, both outside and in. Winter was dark, and winter meant an endless succession of coughs, colds and flues.
In this kind of climate, Seasonal Affective Disorder was a joke. It was so much a way of life to become run-down and depressed in the winter, that classifying it as a disorder was like saying feeling tired when you hadn't slept was a disorder.
Eventually I broke. I just couldn't take it anymore. It wasn't so much the snow, but the oppressive cold, with no relief until spring. Once fall hit, I was just never warm. The cold would just sink into my bones, and only a really really hot shower could temporarily relieve it. It wasn't that I missed the sun, it was that I started to forget what it was like.
|Typical late-afternoon street view in Central New York.|
I considered myself lucky that I'd never have to go through another horrible northern winter, never have to sink under that weight of frigid despair again. So imagine my surprise when my body decided it would get ready for this upcoming winter by shutting down. Not as badly as in the old days. My mood is okay, none of that hopeless feeling that I don't know if I'll make it out the other side of winter-- just a complete physical shutdown.
It started with a cold. I was sick for almost a week, then got better. The next day, a new cold. This went on for a month, with varying symptoms, just to assure me that it was different colds, not the same one. Runny nose, stuffy nose, sinus congestion, sneezing, coughing, sore throat, fevers, nausea, migraines. Ugh. Then the fatigue settled in. Not only was I sleeping ten to twelve hours a day, but I needed naps on top of that. After just a few hours of being awake, I'd start to feel fatigue, especially in my legs, which would cramp up. The only relief came from laying on the couch with my feet elevated. I started feeling cold all the time, wrapping up in blankets all the time and wearing a winter parka outside to walk the dog, even in 40 or 50 degree weather. And the most frustrating thing was that there was nothing wrong with me besides a couple upper respiratory infections that my nephew brought home from daycare.
|November in North Carolina.|
The irritating thing about SAD isn't just that it makes you feel "sad," it causes physical lethargy, weakness, and compromises the immune system. I guess I'm thankful to be done with the "sad" part of it, but I'd been really happy at the prospect of not having to suffer through another winter feeling physically dragged down. I guess that's just the way it goes though. And I supposed I've learned a lesson-- it seems that while our conscious minds are more than ready to forget the past, bodies are stubborn and uncooperative creatures of habit. It also is a relief to finally understand what is going on, it can be a bit scary to feel so tired and sick all the time with no discernible medical reason. There's also ways of treating SAD, that is, when you recognize that's whats getting you! So I'll be bringing on the sun therapy, vitamins, and exercise.
Well, that's a maybe on the exercise. And I'm tired of writing now. I think it's time to go put my feet up...