Every morning from October through April, a steaming cup of black tea isn't the only thing I have with breakfast. I also sit under a beach-bright therapy light, specially formulated for folks like me that need more light than the winter months at my northern latitude can provide. While I'm eating my cereal, I pop a small dose of fluoxetine, more commonly known as the antidepressant Prozac. Then, I get outside, making sure in all but the worst weather to start my day with a brisk walk in the fresh air.
It took me twenty years to figure out this regimen, the one that keeps me (mostly) humming through the gray winter months feeling like myself.
In high school, I had no idea why I was tired — I just figured I was staying up too late. (Well, probably that too!) Neither did I know why I was craving ridiculous amounts of sugar, breads, and other carbs, and putting an extra ten pounds on my small frame every winter, only to lose it fairly easily each summer.
This strange, annoying pattern followed me north to college in Massachusetts, and then south to Virginia for grad school, where it stayed both manageable and mysterious. My lifestyle kept things under control: I was outside walking and running a lot, and with the freedom that comes with being a student and a single person, I had plenty of downtime to pamper my needs with extra sleep and time to recharge.
Things changed, though, when I moved to snowy Cleveland as a newlywed. Here I spent long, busy days in a tall office tower looking out my window at gray skies and a frozen Lake Erie. It became harder and harder to answer that alarm clock in the dark winter mornings. I couldn't stand shivering into work, being cooped up under fluorescent lights all day, and then leaving only when it was time for another cold, dark commute. Now, on top of the serious carb cravings, I was also unhappy and irritable.
I finally read an article that flipped on the proverbial light bulb — I had seasonal affective disorder, or SAD — a form of depression that strikes some people in the dark winter months.
That should be the end of it, right? Go, get some help, and get back to living life. But no, because I'm totally stubborn and for years I wouldn't go to any sort of mental health professional. Oh no, I didn't need to see anyone, because I was sure could handle this on my own. I got on , bought myself a SAD light, and figured I just needed to cheer up and cut back on the sweets.
I muddled through for several more winters, and then I had children, three of them. By that time, I was at home with my small kids full time, and I began to get hit harder. The lack of sleep, constant demands of little ones, and lack of personal time or space layered on top of my SAD finally began to crack my stubborn façade.
By January, I would start to feel like I was falling into a dark hole. Heavy-limbed and bone-tired, I dragged myself through my days, the exhaustion deepening as winter rolled on. By February and into March, I was emotionally brittle. Both tears and irritability lay under a thin veneer of calm, and both broke through regularly, sometimes at once. "You just don't seem happy anymore," my husband said with concern.
He was right, I wasn't. To be frank, it made me even more unhappy that I couldn't handle this myself. Why couldn't I just tough it out, as I'd done for so long? In a warped sort of way, my resistance to help was both self-damaging and selfish. My pride — my insistence that I was not a "mental health visit" sort of person, whatever that means — meant I was punishing not only myself but everyone else around me, who had to live with an unhappy person in the house.
I knew the next step would be medication, and it scared me. And, yes, that's just what the mental health nurse practitioner recommended. What if I hated it, if it had a lot of side effects, or I just didn't feel like myself anymore? She and my husband said the same thing. If is helps, wonderful. If you hate it, you stop. (I was lucky that, as unpleasant as it was, my SAD was something I could live with if I had to. I could still perform all the duties in my life and it was still considered minor as depression goes.)
Obviously, it's working out with the meds. My SAD isn't gone. I still need my old techniques of light therapy, outdoor time, and exercise. But adding the small dose of medication to the mix makes me feel noticeably lighter and brighter — really, just more like myself instead of a tired old crank. Surrendering my pride to ask for help was a fair trade, and I'm so glad I made it. Feeling good feels good.