Hug the Dog, Plus Other Thoughts on Seasonal Affective Disorder

I’m sitting in front of the HappyLight waiting for the giddy to kick in. Okay, it’s not exactly a feeling of giddiness and there’s not a switch that gets flipped to take you from obviously sad to blatantly happy, but after the fact, after I’ve sat here for 30 or 40 minutes with this light shining in my eyes, there can be a sense of mild euphoria that is both disconcerting and pleasing after feeling so dark.

To keep a sense of balance, I really need to sit with this thing every day. Skipping a day ultimately results in a funk. It’s not addictive, but I miss it when it’s not there.

The SAD has been worse for me this year than I can ever remember and it’s only the beginning of February. It was late in coming; early January instead of November, and I thought briefly that this might be one of those years when I escaped its clutches. Maybe I got enough Vitamin D from being out in the sun all summer — there have been years where that actually did happen. But it hit like a truck during the first week of January when both Greg and I came down with that terrible flu that has been going around. My case was surprisingly mild (a rarity for a person who gets colds that leave her with 10-week bouts of laryngitis), but it was bad enough that I felt like crap long after the fever and the coughing had stopped.

The typical self-care tricks are working only marginally. The problem with depression, mild or severe, is that you tend to talk yourself out of the things that could help, justifying the refusal of activity with the logic that, hey, you’re depressed. Get up and exercise? But I ache all over and feel like crap, I can’t. Go for a walk? But it’s so cold and grey outside, let’s not bother. Sit down and write about it? Oh, what good will that do, wallowing in your own sadness and self-loathing?

Let’s be clear, having experienced both, SAD is most definitely a milder form of depression. That’s not to brush it off as being less serious or less important, obviously YMMV, but for me, it feels very much like something I know I will get past, the sun will come out tomorrow and all that jazz, whereas regular depression felt ten times worse, with zero optimism that anything would get better or improve, and just wanting to make the mental and emotional pain stop, in any way possible.

So February is all about acceptance for SAD sufferers. You know Spring is coming, but you also know you’ve got a good four weeks before Winter cracks and six to eight weeks before you can feel the warmth of the sun on your skin again. (I’m in the weird situation of disliking the heat of Summer more than I dislike Winter, and Summer comes with its own strange form of SAD to contend with, so a trip to somewhere balmy and tropical is never the answer. Again YMMV.) In the interim, between working up the energy for self-care, I do February things. That includes curling up and watching lots of TV and movies, eating lots of comfort food, and sleeping, probably more than normal.

My inner critic wants to berate me for being a lazy slob, but I think the biggest part of getting over any kind of depression is learning to tell your inner critic to fuck off. Not always, I mean, bathing every day is still a good thing, as is keeping up with life in general, and personally I tend to feel better if I have some sense of accomplishment each day. But I’m also willing to cut myself some slack.

Just get through it, as best you can, I tell myself. And be good to yourself, take care of yourself, but don’t be too harsh on yourself when you don’t get something done.

And find the joy in something every day. Not that glorified bullet point list at the end of the day (“Today I am grateful for…”), but in the moment. The taste of that tea, the coziness of that sweater, some beautiful passage in a book, or a moment in a television show that is particularly moving.

Hug the dog. Eat the chocolate (just a bit). Stretch. Hug the dog. Savour it all. Appreciate it all. Keep doing that until Spring.

The sun will come out tomorrow.