Mon, Nov-19-18, 03:47
This winter, have I finally found the secret to tackling SAD?
From The Telegraph
18 November, 2018
This winter, have I finally found the secret to tackling SAD?
The first signs of winter came a while ago, well before the clocks went back: the sudden shortening of the long summer nights which we had come to expect in this balmy year; some combination of cold and colour imparting a feel of chill to the air, some tone change in the mind’s middle-distance.
Then came the getting up in the dark, which the time change helped with a bit, not that I really noticed it. Like many others, I was already reeling internally at the darkening of the afternoons and will feel myself in winter until mid-March, at least.
Along with roughly six per cent of the population of northern regions, I suffer from SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. Its outriders are moodiness, lethargy and craving for carbs and sugar.
Regardless of where you are on the scale normal happiness, most of us at this time of year would benefit from eating omega-3s, taking deliberate exercise - preferably outside - and popping vitamins D and B 12 complex. These worked for me last year, in a definite if an unscientific way. But I did not seek help until the very worst was more or less over, in March. As it was all happening, I wrote a book about last winter, The Light in the Dark.
We begin back in August, with the turning of the hills’ bracken, running through the departure of the swifts and swallows, the bumps and bucks in the weather (the strange days of mustard dust and pink suns and the eventual coming of the Beast From The East), all the way to the snowdrops, the up-shooting greens and primroses. We end in this year’s spring.
The book chronicles how my mood changes with the season and, since it has been published it has been fascinating to learn from readers how deeply the condition affects so many people. There is not a profession, career, sector of the economy, age group or social class where it is either absent or particularly noted. We are complex creatures in simple ways.
Symptoms | Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Lethargy, no energy, unable to have a normal routine
Sleep problems: finding it hard to stay awake during the day, but disturbed nights
Loss of libido, no interest in physical contact
Anxiety, inability to cope
Social problems, irritability, not wanting to see people
Depression, feelings of gloom and despondency for no apparent reason
Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods
As all patients know, conditions and diseases by themselves are one thing but complications and combinations with others can double their power. I am cyclothymic (a milder subset of bipolar) so I go up and down anyway.
I can be level for long stretches, but cross cyclothymia with unhappy experiences (a bad bill, a family or professional set-back) with SAD and I enter a quiet hell. In the depths of last winter, I could not make the simplest decisions without agonising and getting them wrong. Memory, humour and hope all went. A potion three parts physical and physiological, then; a potion only one part cognitive, its effects were mad and terrifying.
Around mid-January I was sucking the air out of my family’s lungs, dimming any hope of the natural joy and souring the house like a black mould. Bereft of serotonin, I struggled to think clearly or make connections. A brave and logical person would go to the doctor. My father is such a man, my partner such a woman.
Scared I was losing my mind and would be sectioned or prescribed lithium, I desperately searched the web for admirable writers who have written well while taking such medication.
‘The boys and I can’t breathe,’ my partner Rebecca said and so finally, in March, I went, via the GP, to a superb assessor in a clinic in Halifax, near where we live. A mental health nurse of vast experience and insight: ‘Do you find you’re better in the sun?’ she asked.
‘Yes! I am!’
I thought I was there for bipolar but it turned my mood swings with the passing of the seasons make me an explicable specimen. Cyclothymia seems to have first found me at university around 1995, when I was 22. ‘We’re all cyclical to some extent,’ said my nurse, who told me to keep seeing a therapist and imparted quiet advice about supplements.
Down to a Halifax health food shop I went, necking the first pills of vitamin D, omega-3 and St John’s Wort at the counter. I have no light box, yet, I have been told it could help; parting with that cash has become my private test of whether I will practice my recently-learned preaching, or prevaricate, penny pinch and cross my fingers.
Instead, I am trying to follow good health advice. No matter what I do, I now do it in the name of balance and calm, conscious of winter’s coming depths and chills, believing I am in training to take on the black rains, the exhaustion and cravings to hibernate.
So I walk to the station, defiantly, getting some air and exercise. I cook oily fish because the ‘Omega-3 fatty acids may have “mood-improving” effects. It is a start. As a member of the fortunate 90s generation, I have gleefully swallowed worse things than the two yellow vitamin D pills I am now taking every morning.
I believe the experts who tell me Vitamin D is vital in activating genes that regulate the immune system and release neurotransmitters that affect brain function and development - especially in the regions that are linked with depression.
I loathe exercise for its own sake, but living in the Pennines I make myself do a regular short climb which grants views of Stoodley Pike, the ridges towards Todmodern and the brooding roofs and spires of Heptonstall. Even with the first bite of an east wind and crows jeering through the clouds, this gorgeous prospect spurs me on and makes me think, ‘What are you complaining, about really?’
This is not to minimise SAD. We are only in mid-November. Like vigorous brass sections, October trumpeted autumnal tones until November began beating the cymbals of winter. The world is absurdly beautiful now, if one can just get to a park or wood and smell it.
More likely, most of us will work through to Christmas and not really raise our faces to the storm until January. By the time of darkness and last-chance tax payments, many of my fellow sufferers will feel desperate, wishing everything was different, that all choices had been otherwise, forever.
This year, though, I know the shapes and names of the thing. Messages come daily about how others experience it. Most are in identical boats. And since the best guide to the future is the past, I know resolving to keep my head up, hopes high and my perspective wide will get me and my family through.
We SAD people are not alone, we have done nothing to deserve our blues and we will feel better: this will be my mantra. My aunt, an intellectual and businesswoman, has a concise formula for surviving storms, however menacing. ‘Adjust,’ she says, ‘And fight back.’
Amen to that.
The Light in the Dark : A Winter Journal by Horatio Clare