Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) In Remission: P.T.S.A.D.?

I think I just might have Post-Traumatic Seasonal-Affective-Disorder. If there is such a thing.

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.
October was a cold month. By the time Halloween came around, winter jackets, hats and gloves were already a wardrobe staple. I have many fond memories of trick-or-treating in the snow, my costume hidden under a parka. By November, the trees were bare, the wind was strong, and it was dark out by four o'clock. Christmas meant below-zero windchills and blizzards, with more of the same for the January, February, March, and April. Yes, April. The cold was bitter, the snow never-ending, but the worst was the sky. Day in and day out, it was overcast and gray. The local newspaper kept a running tally of the amount of days the sun managed to come out. One April, we had four days of sunlight, in the whole month.

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 moved down to North Carolina last November. Between the fantastic climate and the excitement of living in a new place I didn't have time for winter blues. When spring came, in MARCH of all months, I remember feeling giddy to the point of ecstatic just from walking outdoors. Finally, for the first time in my life, I was warm. My brain must have been overdosing on vitamin D, because even summer in upstate NY didn't bring that kind of sun and blue skies.

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.
Though I'm always loathe to admit it's all in my head, in this case it was, and is. After so many years of living with seasonal depression, and often the really bad kind, where I could barely function except to drag myself in to work, my body/head seems to have just gotten into the routine of it. While my spirits are still up this year, physically I'm so used to an annual shut-down that that's exactly what my body did as soon as the daylight hours began to shorten. And unlike in New York, where I was used to it, and prepared to fight it off as hard as humanly possible, here it just caught me unaware.

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...


  1. I carefully read your post, Anaya, because I'm from a hot climate (Louisiana) and have often wondered how people in the northern climes fared during the winter. I have a friend with SAD so understand that. However, about you being cold so much, can I delicately ask if you've had your blood pressure checked? The reason I ask is because I have low blood pressure and know that bone-chilling feeling you described. Anyway, hope this winter isn't a really cold one for you. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Hi Kittie,

    Funny you mentioned BP, I actually had it checked yesterday! No problems, but it has tended to run low for me at times. I never thought about it contributing to chronic chills, but it makes sense. My normal body temp is actually low as well, I only make it up to 98.6 when I'm sick. Guess I'm just cold-blooded, literally!

    Now that I've moved down to North Carolina, I don't know how I ever survived the north. It's funny though, it doesn't faze my mom, no matter how cold or how much snow and grayness there is.

    I love living in in the South, especially the 90+ days. I think some people are just geared more towards the warmer climates...

    Anyways, thanks for commenting! Happy Thanksgiving to you as well:)