Sunday, March 09, 2014

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder is that thing where you feel sad in the winter and not-sad in the summer. A lot of mentally-healthy people experience this pattern, but for some people it's like you have your regular life---and then you freelance as a director of mental illness on the side. As you go about your life doing all the things everyone else does-loving, making decisions, doing chores, teaching, talking, growing, raising children and/or puppies/kittens/plants, etc., you also constantly monitor the mental health index.

During the dark of winter it's all about sticking to a schedule, sticking to promises made, sticking the landings (if you'll forgive me). If you have to take meds to do that, you do. If you have to sit in front of a light box for a half hour, you do. If you have to exercise every morning to be able to not cry every evening, you do. You hang on to the knowledge that winter always ends.

And then, one day, it is March. About mid-March, specifically, when a line is passed, and the days stay light long enough (because it is ALL about the light) and you find that everything you worked so hard at over the winter is … easier. You surprise yourself one day by laughing your way through a meeting. You smile at strangers. You relax a little. For some people with S.A.D., that's pretty much it. They're off duty until mid-to-late September. For others, this is the first of two breaks. Because for all of May and into early June you're managing a different kind of mental health problem.

Hypomania is a condition that is kind of like the opposite of depression. You have more energy than normal, feel like you can do more than you normally can, take risks you wouldn't if you weren't in that state. When I was younger the impulsiveness was a real problem, but when I came to understand it, I also found that it was something I could control. I could guard against making foolish decisions by being in the habit of taking MORE time to make decisions. These days I'm more likely to sign up for one committee too many in the PTA than I am to do something really harmful. I don't drink or engage in other risky behaviors that would make it hard for me to stay on top of those "higher than normal" feelings. For me the hardest thing during this period is sticking to a budget. I don't buy big ticket items, but I might eat out more and I have a hard time saying no to things the kids want.

By mid-June the hypo state has often stabilized, and July, August, and the first part of September are the real vacation time from managing S.A.D.

S.A.D. is technically under the bipolar II umbrella, but it's most commonly "diagnosed" as "persistent clinical depression with a season affective component" because bipolar II is not popular with health insurance companies. S.A.D. can vary from winter to winter. It's worse in areas with less light and better in areas with more light. I take meds year round because I get the best stability throughout the year that way. I supplement with light therapy when it seems like a particular year is harder.

So happy March. For me, the month of second winds. I've had an unusually mild winter. This usually leads to a relatively balanced and normal spring. I'm feeling very grateful and so I thought I'd write a little note explaining S.A.D. to those of you who might be feeling worn-out from this winter and hoping for spring to come soon. In terms of light, it'll be here in about a week to ten days. (Only G*d knows when the snow will melt. In my backyard we have a ways to go.)

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