My Winter Tool Kit for Attacking My SAD

I am gradually assembling my winter tool kit.

I’ve finally admitted to myself that this Seasonal Affective Disorder is a problem. I feel a little weird about this, to be honest. On the one hand, I am fiercely protective of this diagnosis for all people. We have a legitimate, physical illness. Our brain chemistry is actually different in measurable ways. There is a list of symptoms that doctors recognize and treat. On the other hand, those symptoms include negative thoughts, difficulty concentrating (including memory troubles), lowered energy, and lack of motivation, and all of those things together add up to my brain tricking me into thinking that I’m just either not good enough, not strong enough, or not go-getter enough to act like a proper adult. I know, objectively, that it’s ridiculous and unfair for anyone, including myself, to judge my competency based on a chronic illness that will never be cured. And at the same time, I have a compulsion to hide it from everyone lest they think less of me. (Yes, I just used the word “lest” in a sentence. I wanted to follow it up with “lest they think ill of me,” and then I remembered that I’m not Jane Austen and this is 2015.)

So there it is. I’ve been minimizing my illness, even to myself. Maybe I did it because it was just easier to pretend to myself that I was fine. I mean, I went through some great counselling and learning over the last 17 years, and my improvements have been hard won. I don’t feel the same mental anguish as I did, I haven’t felt suicidal in ages, and I’m pretty good at recognizing negative thought spirals and getting out of them before they’re entrenched. So I think that maybe I then minimized the physical symptoms’ effects on my life.

But here’s the reality: every winter, I slowly fade away. My shiny, sparkly, creative, enthusiastic, interested, caring self gets thinner and thinner until I’m as flat as Stanley and I’m just trying to endure the tiredness without snapping at people until spring comes. I have the occasional good day, but they become fewer and farther between. I know that I need to cram all of my good work into the summer days when my brain still works, then use the winter for simple projects that don’t take much concentration. I disappear from social events during most of January and February. These are all classic signs of SAD, and it’s time for me to admit that it really does affect me still.

I’m tired of having only half a good year. I want to be myself in 3D as much as possible. What if I could actually write a book during the winter, or publish more patterns, or create new designs instead of having to wait for my brain to wake up enough in March for me to get on with things? What if Christmas became fun again instead of a month of overwhelming busyness to be endured and reviled? What if I didn’t have to put my life on hold for half the year, every year?

So. I’ve decided to be more aggressive about my treatment. This Winter Blues book that I’m reading says it’s possible. The author has SAD, and he has a successful practice AND he writes books! He attacks his SAD from all angles and is treating it and living his  life. I want that, too!

Here is what I plan to do. The key will be getting everything in place before the time change.

I’m going to find a psychologist that I like, who understands SAD and light therapy and can give me a reality check every two weeks or so. I need someone objective who will notice if I’m getting worse because at a certain point every winter, I stop noticing these things. I just think I’m tired and that I’ll feel better tomorrow, and it isn’t until spring comes and I wake up again that I realize how much I faded away for a while there.

I’m going to use my light therapy every morning. I will try to monitor my symptoms with a daily checklist so that I’ll know when I need to increase my light amounts.

I’ve had great success with using supplements in the past, and then I was mad when I needed to use them again the next fall. But I’ve finally admitted that I will have to resume treatment every. damn. year. There is no one-time fix for this. Unless I move to Florida. But even that’s not guaranteed, and darn it, I like Canada and my friends and family nearby. So anyway, back to the supplements for me. (In case you’re curious, I follow the plan laid out in The Mood Cure by Julia Ross. She explains all the how and why of it in great detail, and I love her. She has a handy quiz on her website for determining which neurotransmitters you’re low on. My body doesn’t seem to make or absorb enough serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine, so that’s why I take their amino acids (building blocks) as supplements. It really does help.)

I’m also curious about negative ion generators and transcendental meditation. The Winter Blues guy is quoting lots of research that shows they help, and he has some good hypotheses on why they work. Now, we Christians tend to get weird about spiritual practices that don’t originate with us, but I personally think that the bible talks about meditation quite clearly and favourably. So I’m open to learning techniques from different sources and applying them in a way that feels consistent with my beliefs. The studies show that the benefits are clear and measurable, and I’m intrigued.

I think I should also make myself a checklist of healthy habits. As the winter deepens, I usually forget the basics like drinking enough water, getting enough sleep (that’s a big one!), eating healthy food (I tend to lose my appetite and even food I like feels heavy in my stomach), and getting outside. I need to intentionally seek out activities that are fun for me, that bring me joy. It’s weird, but just plain giving yourself permission to do something fun for no reason can be hard at first! But it’s worth it.

And, last but not least, there’s the whole question of medication. Now, I’m not against it exactly, but I’ve tried a number of meds in the past and didn’t really find them helpful on their own. Maybe in conjunction with the light therapy they’d be more effective for me. But I think that, based on my success with supplements in the past, and the dismal results I’ve had with meds, I might still avoid them. And here’s the thing with meds: they don’t actually provide the neurotransmitters. They just prevent them from being sucked back up into their neurons prematurely, before they’ve been passed on down the synapses. And they can work a little like caffeine does: they stimulate production of something that needs to be made by your body, but if you don’t have the building blocks (amino acids) available, what’s the point? (Caffeine stimulates dopamine production. Eventually, if you rely on coffee as your only source of energy, your body is too depleted to keep producing the dopamine in sufficient amounts, and that’s why you need to drink more and more coffee to get the same dismal results, which eventually lessen more and more, leaving you wondering what happened to your wonder drug.) Without the raw material, how can your body keep making more, no matter how many meds you push into it? That’s why I prefer supplements: if I give my body the building blocks it needs to produce the proper neurotransmitters, it can build them. Incidentally, you can also eat your amino acids, but it’s much easier to swallow a pill a couple times a day than it is to change your whole eating habit when you’re already feeling like poo.  And the good news? You can feel the effects of the supplements usually within 30 minutes, compared to the 3 weeks you have to wait to see if your meds will work. And no side effects! (Now I feel like I should clearly say that I’m not a doctor, this is so not medical advice, and you are responsible for your own decisions about your body and your health. Get informed, read books, ask your doctor. I’m telling you what I do, but it might not be right for you.)

So. Do you have a winter tool kit you use to aggressively treat your SAD or depression? How do you cope? I’d love to hear your experiences and tips. Every little thing helps.