Take Back the Winter: SAD, Labels, and Light Therapy

Do you know what kind of person you are? I do. I have a pretty little list of labels now, and I have to admit, I kind of like them. Weird, right?

I mean, we usually resist labels because Ugh. They make us feel icky, like we’ve been pigeonholed and we’re stuck as stereotypes and we can’t really be ourselves. That kind of label, I agree, is 100% awful.

But I’m talking about a new kind of label. These are words that I’m applying to myself that fully describe who I am, in my own mind, with my own definitions. They are Me. No one else has given them to me, and they help me understand how I work, what I need, and how I can take care of myself. They are life-giving words, and I love them.

So, let me introduce myself to you all over again.

I’m an introverted, HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), creative, right-brained, Scanner/multipotentialite who has SAD. Just saying it makes  me giggle because there are so many initials there, like I have a doctorate in my own special blend of weirdness.

But here’s the thing. I have always felt like a fish out of water. People give me strange looks that I haven’t known how to interpret and might have been reading too much into. Maybe it’s because they’re surprised when I say smart things because I’m introverted and don’t always express the depth of my processing that well. But I’m an HSP, and I process things very deeply. I see things in minute detail and feel things intensely. This whole HSP thing is amazing — it’s probably why I’m an artist, a writer, a noticer-of-knitting-details and therefore a great knitting teacher. It’s also really difficult because I get super easily overwhelmed by all the things my senses are taking in, and when I get overwhelmed, I shut down and need time and space to reboot.

Add SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) to that sensory processing sensitivity, and holy meltdown, Batman!

For the past two weeks, I’ve been in absolute overload. It started with the perfect storm of of events: we left our house in some capacity every day for almost 2 weeks, AND I had a little extra stress from the high excitement/anxiety of submitting a couple design proposals and waiting to hear whether they’ve been accepted or not. So I didn’t have enough down time, and I even when I had a little, I couldn’t relax.

Now, in the summer time, I can handle the heightened emotions of submitting proposals and waiting to hear back. I have margin in my life, I’ve kept my schedule controlled to accommodate the extra stimulation of building up the courage it takes Every Damn Time to put myself out there, and it’s fun.

But something was different this time. The proposal was Huge, for one thing, and the waiting has been difficult. But I can usually take deep breaths and go on with my life. So it blindsided me when I couldn’t overcome the anxiety and everything felt too tall, too claustrophobic, too shaky and anxious. The normal mess of a large family and dirty dishes piled up and became ominous and foreboding, even though it’s just the usual. Leaving the house was becoming difficult, and I felt always on the verge of tears. Trying to write it out was a little helpful but didn’t take away the awful stomach-churning dread that kept coming at me.

I assumed it was because we’d been so busy and I needed a break from the stimulation. My HSP-ness was on overload and I needed a day or six at home in a row with my earbuds in and some comforting drawing or knitting going on. But it even my knitting wasn’t enough to calm me.

And then I had an aha moment yesterday. It’s autumn. The days have been getting shorter for a while, and I am like a flower who craves the sunlight. I keep every single light on in my house, and they are all bright, daylight-spectrum bulbs because I hate the dark. All my curtains are white to let in the glowy sunlight, my walls are painted like the sky in various states of sun and haze, from clear blue in the kitchen to  my favourite, a pale blue-grey that’s like the edge of the sunrise when the sky begins to lighten in my living rooms. I feel suffocated in the winter in dark rooms with dim lights.

This, my friends, is a clear indicator that I’m a SAD sufferer.

In the winter, all my systems slow down until I’m a sleepy shell of myself. I’ve been telling people for years that I have depression that’s under control, but I’ve finally realized something: I have SAD, and the mental anguish is under control thanks to some great learning, books, and therapy, but the physical symptoms recur like clockwork every September and last through to March.

I get sluggish and sleepy. Waking up is hard, even though coffee helps me immensely. I’m always a comparatively low-energy person, but in the winter, it’s brutal. Keeping up with normal chores becomes too hard. I step over messes, telling myself I’ll get to them later when I have the energy. But the energy doesn’t come until spring, and then I recriminate myself for being so lazy and letting things get so bad.

I let the dishes pile up until the kitchen becomes too stressful for healthy cooking, but I can’t make myself do anything about it. I need long naps. I get snappy and irritable. I avoid making social commitments, I cancel plans, I stop going to church. After December, I’m absolutely wiped out from all the Christmas visiting and shopping, and it takes me all of January and February to recover — or so I thought. But now I’m starting to wonder, this second, as I’m typing this, if the January/February slump is due more to the SAD than the Christmas overload.

I feel a sense of dread in late August and early September, and I try desperately to think of ways to combat or avoid the Christmas craziness. How can I cancel all our plans with family and friends in December without hurting their feelings?, I wonder.

Well. This year, for some reason, I remembered about SAD. And I did, finally, what I almost always do when I’m presented with a challenge: I found a book about it. So yesterday, I began reading Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder by Normal E. Rosenthal, MD. I guess I’d assumed that I knew enough about depression and therefore SAD by now that I didn’t need to look it up, but I was so wrong. I’m so, so, so incredibly glad that I started reading this book.

For one thing, I’m a huge geek who loves to know how my weird brain works. Like I said, having those little labels has given me such freedom to just be my strange self because it turns out that there’s nothing wrong with me. There are actual biological explanations for most of my quirks! Thank God. (Now, I’m not including being a jerk in the list of things that are not wrong with me. Being a jerk is just so not okay, ever, and that’s why I keep looking things up — I have people that I love and want to treat well. Learning about how my brain works allows me to take care of myself properly so I can be a decent, although still-imperfect, person to live with. Learning to accept myself, quirks and all, helps me to accept them as they are so we can all coexist in a supportive, caring environment.)

So back to the book: it’s so encouraging to read how effective light therapy and other, supplementary forms of treatment are! I have been really wishy washy with my light therapy over the years, and I think now I’m ready to fully commit to it. I want to see if I can go a whole Canadian winter without losing myself. It’s so frustrating to know that I’m going to slowly slip away and not reappear until next spring. I’ve had to plan my deadlines, projects, and goals around my winter foggy-brainedness and lack of concentration. I’ve had to push things back and delay them because I just couldn’t function without long naps. I’ve lost weeks and probably years of my life to being just too tired. It sucks.

So this year will be the year of the lights. I’ve ordered one that fits the specs backed up by the research. These lights can get quite expensive, so I was really glad to find one on the Costco website for “just” $99. I already have a light that’s probably 15 years old, but it turns out that they’re supposed to have UV filters on them, and mine doesn’t. So I’ll keep it as a back up for a secondary location or something, but I’ll try the new one for every-day use.

I also got a little carried away and ordered a dawn-simulating alarm clock. My sleeping schedule gets really thrown off in the winter, and I really don’t do well with inadequate sleep, but I find it hard to get to bed on time in the winter. The early sunset really throws me off, and I get super sleepy at supper time and then catch a second wind around 9 or 10 pm that keeps me up too late. And I’ve never been a morning person, an energetic person, or an early-to-bed person, so suggesting that I just go to bed at 9pm makes me laugh. Thanks, but no thanks. I just don’t seem to fit into that mold. I’ve tried. But I’m hoping that the dawn simulator will at least keep my own natural rhythms from getting thrown off.

So that’s my experiment for this winter to battle SAD. I’m going to commit to using my light every morning, in the time when I normally would sit down with my coffee and scroll through Facebook while I wake up. Instead, I’ll drink my coffee under the light and read something interesting or scroll through Instagram on my phone. 🙂 I’m also seriously considering seeing a psychotherapist, as someone who could be objective about how I’m doing. (Part of the problem with winter is that the descent happens so gradually that I think I’m doing fine until I start to awake again in the spring and realize how much I’ve missed.) But I have no idea how much that would cost and if I can afford it. Man, I wish mental health therapies were covered by OHIP. Side rant: Don’t you love how everyone is all like, “Oh, we need to support mental health!” but there are no affordable programs to support outpatients unless they’re in a crisis? What the heck?

October is when the Write 31 Days blogging challenge takes place, and last year, I participated but on my other website, the one about knitting. It was great, so fun, and a good challenge. I learned a lot. I wanted to do it again this year but couldn’t think of 31 more knitting tips or any other knitting topic that I could write about every day for a month. What I really want to write more about is mental health, taking care of our tender selves, and generally surviving life when we’re part of the fringes in terms of personality. I looooove knowing that I’m an HSP; it has changed so much of how I take care of myself for the better. (Ear plugs are my friends!) The introvert lightbulb was also a huge turning point for me, as was finding out I’m a multipotentialite and it’s normal for me to have so many interests and hop between them, even though not everyone functions that way. My productivity and sense of wellbeing have gone up as a result of all these discoveries.

So I think I’m going to come here and write about that stuff. I’ll keep publishing my knitting patterns as I finish them and doing all my normal knitting stuff because it’s one of my comforting activities. It keeps me grounded.

But I’m going to pop in here every day to chat about sanity, and how I don’t always feel sane anyway, and how that’s a normal thing for HSP’s especially but there are good ways to manage it. 🙂 I’m going to show you my dark underbelly because I’m getting very confused by the people who think I have it all together and then compare themselves unfavourably to me. That makes so little sense to me, so I must not be communicating very well. And darn it, we need to support each other, not compare ourselves to one another. What is that saying? We can’t compare our insides to somebody else’s outsides. Everyone loses when we do that.

If you’d like to join me this month, you can do it in a couple ways. The easiest way for all of us is probably for you to subscribe and receive the posts right in your email inbox. You can also find my Facebook page and follow along there. I’m on Instagram, too, but I post a LOT of pictures of yarn, so be warned. And most importantly, can you guys let me know how you’re doing? We’re all so much the same inside, and  it’s so comforting to know we’re all in this together. So please leave a comment if I’ve said something that resonates with you. Then everyone who visits will know they’re not alone.

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