Into the Light: The Season for Seasonal Affective Disorder Is Real

I don't live in Florida or Rjuka, and I have not the time or inclination to erect giant mirrors on Willis Tower. But I am going to proactive. I will be making do right here and staring into the light for hopefully a happy winter.
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I am a lucky person: My life is big and good. I am a playwright, actor and educator. I am also well-medicated.

A decade ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder. The shorter days of less sunlight in the winter months terrify me because of the reality that is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It may exacerbate my depression and plunge me into the dark. I am bracing myself and working on a plan to avoid the hole.

I know it is necessary because here we are again post winter solstice, the darkest time of year. I know, because at this time last year, as most people were making New Year's resolutions, taking inventory of their winter sweater wardrobe and gearing up for skiing or snowboarding, I stumbled into the hole after having a good spring, followed by a happy summer.

The invisible hand of depression pushed me down for almost four months. It felt like an eternity. I not only missed the sun and the deep blue sky, but I missed my old self. I slept 11 hours a day and woke up exhausted and ready for a nap. Sadness and despair gnawed at my brain, and because my depression manifests itself physically, I felt like a low-grade flu followed me around like a nagging child.

Prepping for the writing classes that I teach took twice as long and drained me, although I could always rally in the classroom. My classes were always full of talented, generous writers and for a few hours it would take me out of myself.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, SAD is characterized by recurrent and cyclical episodes of depression, usually in late fall and winter. It is estimated that 18.8 million people or 6 percent of the U.S. population suffers from SAD along with another 14 percent who suffer from a milder version we often call the "winter blues."

By January, predictable symptoms may have existed for two months, as the sun's rays are weaker and the darkness is longer. Symptoms including extreme fatigue, sadness, emptiness, anxiety, decreased energy, a lack of focus, productivity and pleasure in activities often subside in March or April. Many of us don't feel fully "back to normal" until early May.

Another symptom that's common with people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder is an increase in carb cravings. Me? I could not get enough cookie dough, linguine, warm French bread, mashed potatoes, corn chips, chocolate cupcakes, and finally, most embarrassingly, Cheese Whiz. On a cracker or straight from the can.

We don't know exactly why Seasonal Affective Disorder occurs. The research says there are probably several causes. Scientists have discovered that a neurotransmitter called serotonin may not be functioning well in people with SAD. Also hormones like melatonin play a role. There is the eye's sensitivity to light and the circadian rhythms, which involve sleep-wake cycles during the changing seasons.

Where you live may also play a factor. Experts contend SAD is influenced not by the cold, but by diminished light and latitude is part of that equation. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that 1 percent of Florida residents, 4 percent of Washington, D.C. residents, and nearly 10 percent of Alaska residents suffer from SAD.

In an attempt to combat this weather phenomena, Rjukan, a small town in Norway recently completed installing three 300 square foot heliosatic mirrors that will redirect the sunlight into the town. Not bad for a community of 3,000 people.

I live in Chicago, where my husband and I have an extended family and our work. I love it here. Chicago has a spectacular skyline, terrific theater and world class restaurants. But unfortunately 79 percent of its winter days are cloudy to partially cloudy. This week it has snowed for days, snow is expected to continue for a few more days and it is below zero.

One recent gloomy afternoon as I tried to psych myself getting outside to shovel the sidewalk, I happened to flip onto an article on the website of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on the benefits of prophylactic treatment for SAD. In other words, it suggested being proactive before the SAD symptoms sink in.

I am trying. This year I refuse to be bullied by SAD. I did some research, talked about it with my psychiatrist and got an OK.

So every day for 30 minutes I am doing phototherapy by sitting in front of a 12" by 24" metal box that contains two long tube lights behind a metal grating that delivers full spectrum 10,000 lux of light. My cat likes to sit in front of it too, so I let her, because who wants a depressed cat? The light board cost $139 and is designed to mimic outdoor light that researchers believe may lift mood and ease other symptoms of SAD.

I am not alone in my efforts.

The Memorial Hospital in South Bend has installed a Light Therapy Feel Better Center and offers complimentary 30-minute sessions.The counseling centers at University of Washington, University of New Hampshire and Macalaster College in St Paul, Minnesota provides light therapy to its students through their counseling centers. And the Lightbar in Portland, Ore. is a bistro that combines food, trendy cocktails and music with light therapy. Genius.

My psychiatrist suggested upping my supplements of Vitamin D and fish oils. We developed a modification plan for my antidepressant regime if I find myself going into the hole. I know from experience that altering your meds may be a complicated hit or miss, but I like knowing that I have a fall back.

He also told me to, "get somewhere sunny if you can. Some people say that they feel better after just a couple of days."

So instead of going on our traditional summer vacation this year, I'm splitting the time up into two short winter jaunts to visit warm weather friends in January and February. I know that Van Nuys, California and Houston, Texas are not glamorous, but they are hot and full of sunshine.

I am also going to be more vigilant this winter about exercise and yoga and as difficult as it is, I am trying to slowly regulate my sleep patterns.

Finally, most importantly for me, I am booking my calendar weeks and months in advance to get me up and out into the world when all I want to do is stay under the covers and mew. I am planning dinners out, movie night in with fun friends, actually showing up for holiday parties, entertaining weekend visitors, getting theater tickets and faithfully going to writing group, book club and visits with my parents and in-laws. I've even decided to throw myself a 1/2-year birthday party.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is real and dark for millions of people, and these measures aren't for everybody, but for me it is worth a try.

I've never been a "just in case" kind of woman. I don't carry antacids when I go to my favorite Mexican restaurant. I don't bring an umbrella if it just "looks" like rain and I don't stash an extra $20 bill into a secret fold of my wallet.

I don't live in Florida or Rjuka, and I have not the time or inclination to erect giant mirrors on Willis Tower. But I am going to proactive. I will be making do right here and staring into the light for hopefully a happy winter.

Arlene Malinowski, Ph.D. is a playwright, actor and educator. Her solo show "A Little Bit Not Normal" chronicles her journey through mental illness and recovery.