Warning: Before I launch into my latest bout of ruminations, I want to caution you that I will be discussing depression and mental wellness in this article, including a brief mention of suicidal thoughts. If that doesn’t suit your fancy, I suggest returning to our main page and finding another article more to your tastes. I also want it to be known that I am not a mental health professional, and while I can empathize and offer a supporting shoulder if you think you have SAD or another form of disorder, I do urge you to speak with a doctor or therapist who has had proper training about your emotional and mental health.
That said, let’s talk about the holiday blues.
The ‘holiday spirit’ has never come easy to me. When Halloween is done, and the world turns to Christmas lights and carols in every store, I tend to withdraw. I prefer solitude, I find it more difficult to wake up in the morning, and I rotate between eating too much and too little. I’ve been like this for years, since my early teens, and every year my family will tease me about my ‘holiday blues’ or call me a ‘Grinch.’
I thought I just didn’t try hard enough to like the holidays, so I over-compensated by buying more presents, making more cookies, and watching more Christmas films. I thought it would cure my lack of holiday cheer, but nothing quite got rid of that lingering emptiness that started in the fall and stayed until after my birthday in February. For over a decade, I just assumed that I wasn’t embracing the holidays fully, and that I just didn’t care enough about my birthday because I didn’t want to celebrate. Every year, it got a little bit worse, and at my lowest point, during one bleak January, I seriously contemplated suicide.
And then I learned about S.A.D. Seasonal Affective Disorder.
According to the Mayo Clinic, S.A.D. is a “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year.” Most commonly, people are affected during the winter months, and most often if they live far away from the equator. However, this doesn’t mean that people who live in warm, mild-tempered climates like me are immune. S.A.D. can affect anyone, but not everyone knows what to look for and brush it off, as my family did, as “holiday blues.”
It took me quite a few years to figure out that I was probably one of the people who yearly faced S.A.D. I was 21, and I had just returned from a year abroad in France, and that winter in Europe was one of the roughest that I’ve ever had because there were months when the mountain I lived on was covered in gloom and fog, and the weather was so miserable that my mood reflected it. I was describing this to a friend, who told me that it sounded like I was affected by S.A.D. I set to researching about it, and the next year as I was back home, when the California sunshine slipped away to fog and rain, I kept track of my mood changes, and paid attention to the patterns of my emotional stability. The next spring, I met with my doctor and explained to him what I’d experienced and my suspicions, and the next fall, I went into the colder seasons more prepared for the change in mentality that I knew I was going to experience sometimes.
There are many reasons why S.A.D. happens, but probably the most simple explanation is just that humans need sunlight to thrive. There’s a reason we describe the weather as “gloomy”, after all.
If you’re S.A.D., talk about it.
I come from a community and family that ignores the ‘invisible illnesses’ such as Seasonal Affective Disorder, and my mother’s advice to ‘pray about it’ didn’t do much to lessen the effects of depression. I am lucky that I had friends who recognized my struggle and gave me the support I needed (they still do).
There are quite a few ways to manage S.A.D. Some people spend more time outdoors in the sunlight, some exercise more, some focus more on their hobbies, and other seek professional help. Me? Every year, when the Christmas lights go up, I make a choice: I’m going to make it to next Christmas. I wake up every day, make that choice, and it helps on the really bad days. On my doctor’s recommendation, I also need to spend more time in the sun, so I walk, I open the blinds in my office, and I try to be more active during the daytime. Some days are still a struggle, and when those days come, I find someone to talk to.
I know this is a bit of a somber topic to write about so close to the holidays, but I figure that there’s at least one person like me, dreading the holidays every year, making sorry excuses to ditch out of social responsibilities, and wasting too many hours staring at a blank ceiling. I know what’s it’s like to be behind a closed door, simultaneously achingly lonely yet also craving solitude. That hollow feeling you have right in the center of your chest? It might be more than you being a bit short on holiday cheer.
Soon, we’ll be ringing in a New Year, but if you think that you may be experiencing S.A.D. I encourage you to make a resolution to find help before 2019. It is said that around 10 million people in the U.S. are affected, and even more around the world, so even though it may feel like it: you are not alone.