Saturday, January 14, 2012

Seasonal Sensitivity

Without doing any research into the matter, I pronounced years ago that I have Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. I have noticed it in myself just since moving to our north-facing, winter-shadowed house in Quincy. It also seems to worsen each year that I live here or the older I get, I don't know which. Whether I would be diagnosed with the disorder by a doctor is unknown and I don't have any intention of finding out. In general, I feel that I have a fairly stable disposition that tends toward the optimistic and the happy. I consider myself a happy person. But this is what I notice. In the summer I have a propensity for irrationally exuberance. I seem to have almost endless energy for exercise, new projects, socializing, housekeeping, activities, etc.  I feel excited about each long summer day. In the winter, I am not motivated to go outdoors in the cold weather, the shade and cold that envelope our property are depressing to me, and I sometimes feel paralyzed, as if I am just waiting. Waiting and waiting until the weather warms back up again and real, quality life can resume. 

So, what do you think? Do I have it? I found this quote on Wikipedia:
In the popular culture, sometimes the term "seasonal affective disorder" is applied inaccurately to the normal shift to lower energy levels in winter, leading people to believe they have a physical problem that should be addressed with various therapies or drugs.
I have never considered the possibility of using drugs to feel better. In general, I like to feel all of my feelings, even the uncomfortable ones. I know that some drugs are invaluable to people, but in general, I am anti-prescription drug. Even legal drugs, like alcohol, I believe should not be used to self-medicate. I like the quote, "Never drink to feel better, only to feel even better". 

The more I read about SAD the less I think I would be diagnosed with the disorder. Apparently it is not even considered a stand alone affliction. Instead it is called a "course specifier" and may be applied as an added description to the pattern of major depressive episodes in patients with major depressive disorder or patients with bipolar disorder. Many of the symptoms that are listed, I either do not experience (morning sickness, difficulty concentrating, feeling of hopelessness, tendency to oversleep and eat), or experience only mildly (withdrawal from social activities, carb cravings, pessimism). There is a lesser form of SAD called subsyndromal SAD which may describe my experience more accurately.

I've decided to coin a new phrase for my experience. Rather than refer to myself as someone with subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder which sounds so clinical and unfortunate, I have decided that I, along with many others, are seasonally sensitive. We are mentally healthy folks who are especially sensitive to the seasonal extremes. Apparently there is an established "subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder" rate of about 25% in Alaska! So one in four has a named mental illness! That is the thing about psychiatry, once something is given a name and classified as a malady, people who have those symptoms feel like they fall outside of the norm, that there is something WRONG with them. Well guess what? While certainly there are deviants at the far ends of the spectrum, the vast majority of us fall into the "normal category". I think it is completely normal to be a little bit crazy at times.   

So I will try to respect, if not embrace, my seasonal sensitivity. There are things that I do and can do to ameliorate my winter symptoms. One thing that I have just discovered is the Farm Girl Blog. Writing and sharing make me feel good. I also enjoy planning and taking trips to warmer, sunnier climes. I beg friends to drag me outside in the winter weather to ski, walk, or snowshoe. This year I have begun taking a vitamin D supplement when I remember. Another option, of course, is to move south or, at least, out of the mountains to where the winter weather is milder. At the very least, a sunnier house location is in order.

I have an abusive boyfriend analogy that I use to describe our current home. Never having had an abusive boyfriend, I am only conceptualizing. In the summer our home is seductive. When the days are hot we have a bit of afternoon shade that makes being out of doors pleasant. Our air conditioning consists of leaving the windows open at night and then shutting them in the late morning as the temps start to rise. Our yard backs to the forest so the backyard and patio are private. We string lights and eat our BBQ dinners out there. It sits close to the downtown (but with a stately elevation on it) so we walk to do our errands. I am in love with our home in the summer. It is gentle and kind and beautiful. In the winter it can be bitter and mean. Just across the road there is sun but we are deprived. Old snow remains stubbornly in our yard long after others are barefoot in theirs. It beats me up and spits me out and I am just ready to leave it when.....the first of the tulips begin to color, then come the irises. The lawn turns an invigorating green, the back patio and garden beckon, and the love affair begins anew.

So with my seasonal sensitivity comes a passion for spring and summer and fall that perhaps are a worthwhile trade-off for the winter blues. So as to not neglect food in my examination of seasonal lows and highs, I will share that I took a peach and cherry crisp, that was cooked in our sun oven last July, out of the freezer today. With every bite there is a visceral connection with the sweetness and abundance of summer.


  1. It sounds as though you are deeply connected to the natural world, which ends its winter days at 4 p.m., and does less and less as the darkness deepens, even becoming completely dormant and waiting...waiting for the light to return, for the newness of life, the promise that is never broken. So, what's wrong with that?