Blinded by the light

  • Mar. 10, 2004 2:00 p.m.

And then came the sun. Out of the blue. What a bummer, Berry Wijdeven writes. I was right in the middle of a major winter depression, wallowing in the depths of despair, bemoaning the rain, the wind, the lack of light and general direction in my life, when the sun appeared. And refused to go away. For days and days. Forcing me to leave my comfy chair, and go for a walk on the beach. Forcing me to enjoy myself, almost against my will.
It happens to me every year. Without fail. Just when I think I’ve survived another grey, grumpy winter. Just when I think the worst is over. The days are getting longer, temperatures are inching up, grass is starting to grow. Another winter is coming to an end. I should be happy. I should be glad. Instead, I’m feeling kinda down. Wazzup with that?
Turns out I’m SAD. I’m not happy about it, but at least it’s got a name. SAD stands for Seasonal Affected Disorder and is said to affects some 600,000 Canadians and 11-million Americans. Sounds way too crowded.
SAD is thought to be triggered by reduced exposure to sunlight, affecting our internal clock, resulting in changes to our brain chemistry. People between the ages of 20 and 40 are most likely to experience symptoms. Women are twice a likely to get it as men. I’m a 45 year old male. Now I’m really depressed.
What are some of the symptoms of SAD? Well, first of all, you tend to feel, well, sad. Listless, tired, with little energy. Irritable, with diminished concentration and increased appetite, especially for sweets and carbohydrates. Farewell Dr. Atkins. Hello, Mr. Double Fudge Ice-cream. Apart from stuffing your face, all you want to do is sleep, hibernate, stay in bed till summer. Sounds pretty tempting for sure, if not for the fact that you get amazing little enjoyment out of any of this. Everything seems so empty.
The recommended cure for SAD? Get plenty of exercise, spend time with friends and loved ones, take on manageable projects, eat the right food and fight the urge to sleep more than eight hours a day. Sounds simple enough. Problem is when I’m listless, tired, with little energy, the last thing I want to do is exercise. Spend time with friends. Eat right. Sleep less.
What to do? How to break this pattern? How to get more light to your brain in order to restore the chemical balance?
One option is to join the multitude of islanders fleeing the grey skies, heading for some well-deserved fun in the sun. I must admit, travel sounded tempting. For a bit. To be sure, the thought of a week or two in Cuba, Costa Rica or Hawaii, shedding those layers of polar fleece, basking in that never ending sun, had some appeal. Not enough, however, to rouse me out of my comfy chair. Travel is a hassle, especially to the States, where after 9/11 it has taken on all the pleasures of an extended root canal. Without anaesthetic. And in the end, travelling just postpones the inevitable: one day you have to return home.
You can tell the travel returnees. But you can’t tell them much. They’re too busy recounting stories packed to the brim with bright colours, blue oceans and oodles and oodles of sunshine. But while they’re happily recounting stories of tropical climes, their eyes tell a different story. They show shock. Shock of the brusque transition from the peacefulness of sipping a pina colada in the sun to the vicious reality and storm and thunder of a yet another Southeaster vying for a speed record.
My advice? Avoid the exotic locations. Avoid the harsh return to reality. If you have to get off the rock, travel somewhere you absolutely never ever would want to live. To towns like Prince Rupert or Prince George, places that never fail to make going home seem awfully attractive.
Better yet, get some light therapy. Light therapy involves the use of a special light (the so-called SAD lamp) which simulates daylight. Sitting in front of one of these lights, 30 minutes a day or so, usually in the morning, activates those happy chemicals, the seratonin, in your brain providing more focus and energy. Even after only a week or so, I can really feel the effect. Not that I’m suddenly dancing in the streets, but I do regain some energy, enough to let me cope till spring. Someone once told me that SAD lamps don’t really work, that it was all in my head. Well, that’s exactly where I want it.
There are quite a few of these SAD lamps on island, so you can likely locate one and try it out. They cost around two hundred bucks, which isn’t cheap. But neither is chomping on Belgian dark chocolates for days on end.
It is also important to recognize the symptoms. It took me years to realize what was happening and even now the sadness catches me off guard. By the time I feel the need to use the SAD lamp, I’m too depressed to get up and get it.
Ultimately, the best cure is the knowledge that the days will get longer, that the sunlight will return along with the energy levels. This too shall pass.
So are we out of the woods for this year? Not quite yet. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, March is going to be wet and windy. Get ready to wallow.

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