Until a few years ago when I finally moved northward from Florida, you could have told me that apples grow in February and blackberries in March, and I’d have had little reason to disbelieve you. Moving from the tropics gave me an appreciation for when certain plants are cheaper to purchase and that snow is something to contend with, but I also had to face the reality of SAD, seasonal affective disorder.
The well-documented phenomenon of seasonal affective disorder affects roughly 10 million Americans and can crudely be summed up as a form of clinical depression tied to the changing of the seasons. Most who are affected by it feel it in the winter months, though there are many who feel depressive or even anxious symptoms in summer. The cause for the disorder is unknown, but theories range from people staying indoors due to the cold and dark, thus messing with melatonin production in the body, to an evolutionary leftover encouraging us to be more lethargic and energy-conserving due to the lack of resources our species once dealt with during the winter.
For a very long time, I was a skeptic about SAD. To a certain degree, I think it was just a lack of exposure. Most people who told me they were depressed around the holidays seemed to have the same objections I did to commercial Christmas co-opting and being forced to participate in insincere, even corny rituals. As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in Florida, a state noted for having about one percent of its population affected with SAD (compared to ten percent in Alaska).
Even more embarrassingly, I think that I dismissed the disorder out of hand just because of its criteria and name. That psychologists would go so far as to come up with an entire category of depression tied to something as trite as the weather and name it using an acronym that spelled out the word “sad” seemed indulgent at best, ridiculous at worst.
My outlook on SAD changed when I married someone who contends with it.
My wife’s seasonal background is not terribly dissimilar to my own. Before she moved to the same area of Florida in which we met, she had been born and raised in Orange County California. While we both had near-constant sunlight, for whatever reason, she actually did pay attention to whatever seasonal changes were available to her. When she eventually made her own trek to the north, I saw for the first time in the near-decade we’d known one another the true extent of what an early sunset and a sub-freezing thermometer could do to a person.
My wife is not like me: where I am (affectionately, I hope) referred to as a bit of a curmudgeon, she has a reputation for being an absolute delight. She’s pleasant and effervescent, sweet and energetic, loves people, and is always adventurous. She loves the outdoors and the fresh air, and absolutely must leave the house at least once a day or else she feels as though waking up might be a waste of precious time and opportunity.
Autumn is her favorite time of year. She loves crunching leaves underfoot and eating pumpkin-flavored anything and apples. When the mountainsides near our home turn brown and yellow, she feels a peace with the world that I envy every moment I witness it. Then the winter comes and she begins to talk about how she doesn’t want to leave our apartment anymore, how she hates that the sun sets before six and how she’s tired all of the time.
Christmas and New Year’s give her some joy for a while, but she describes February as “Dark. Cold. Depressing.” I hesitate to say that she becomes a different person—it’s more like the person I’ve always known her to be is slowed to the point that I need to work much harder at recognizing her.
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Now, anyone who has ever helped a loved one or a partner through depression is aware of how every instinct in your body cries for you to help them get better. All you want in the world is to remind them that their smile is more luminous than any summer day, and you can drive yourself to exhaustion looking for gestures and foods and conversation points that can bring them around. That’s natural and part of caring. It’s also rarely the most productive use of your energy.
There are therapies that have been used to varying level of success when it’s come to SAD: therapy using various lights and lamps is frequently used, and has been shown to have few side effects. In some serious cases, medication can be prescribed—SAD has been linked to suicidal thoughts in many cases–and any such options can and should be discussed with a mental health professional whenever possible. In most cases, explicit attention to self-care is seen as a great response.
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For me, my job as a partner, and ally, and a witness to SAD is to just be supportive. It isn’t my place to try and step in and attempt to “fix” anything my wife is dealing with. I only need to recognize it for what it is and give it the proper attention that it always deserved and I had so much difficulty giving it for so many years.
I’m absolutely privileged to be an individual who does not suffer from SAD. I easily could have been. I have reason to believe that it may run in my family among a number of other depressive tendencies, but I’m fortunate not to. And I’m fortunate to be able to stand in for someone I care about and be there for her as she handles it in her own way. Sometimes that looks like listening and being in her presence while she contends with a dark bout for a day or so. Most times, it’s shouldering a little more of the load that we carry as a couple trying to make it through and survive and exist.
And sometimes, it’s as simple as warming her up and being a little bit brighter than I might have felt like being, just for her, just for that cold, dark day.