By Katrina Woznicki
“Winter depression” is a misnomer, but let’s call it that because I’m not in love with the clinical term “seasonal affective disorder,” which makes it sound like I don’t like the trees or tulips or snow or any of the usual seasonal indicators, because I do like those things.
My winter depression usually begins in early November, around Daylight Savings when we turn the clocks ahead and gain an hour of darkness. I start dreading this ritual during October, even though I enjoy the colors of fall and all those toothy gourds decorating front door steps.
The worst of my winter depression usually lifts around Daylight Savings in March, when we set the clocks back and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Winters in the American Northeast aren’t the snowy, sunny winters I grew up with over 30 years ago; they are wet, dark, and warm, thanks for climate change. I’d probably do well with Colorado winters where it’s sunny and snowy. I like to ski.
So it’s not that I dislike winter, because I can play in the snow with the best of them; I dislike darkness.
Given the increasingly dark, rainy springs the Northeast has been experiencing lately, my winter depression lingers well past the Spring Equinox into April and sometimes even May.
It doesn’t matter what the calendar says: if it’s cloudy all day, if the sun hides for several days at a time, I sink into myself.
I dig out my “happy lamp,” which helps some. I take vitamin D which I’m not sure helps at all, but I keep reading it’s supposed to make a difference. I go to yoga class. I go to acupuncture. I go to the gym. I look at vacation pictures from the Bahamas, Mexico, Cuba. Florida, Arizona.
I try to remember that like moods, the dark clouds pass; the sun can’t hide forever.
In America, winter depression or seasonal affective disorder is said to affect 10 million people, many of them living in cold northern states like myself.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, you’re four times more likely to have winter depression if you are female; the risk is even higher if bipolar disorder runs in your family. A parent and a sibling both have bipolar disorder, which, believe me, is much tougher on the brain and body than winter depression.
Seasonal affective disorder is cyclical, but has distinct finish lines.
I don’t take any medication for my winter depression, though I pop the smallest dose of Klonopin available most nights to sleep.
That’s the weird thing about winter depression, that odd mix of insomnia and constant drowsiness; your body lies awake at night and then wants to sleep during the darkest hours of the day.
Winter throws off your circadian rhythm. You crave carbs thinking it will give you energy, but it doesn’t.
You eat things you regret like an entire bag of cheddar popcorn chased by a spoonful of Nutella. By 4 p.m., as the sun goes down during the weeks before the Winter Solstice starts adding minutes of sunlight to the day, you feel ready for bed, as if you put in a full, hectic 16-hour day at the office even though you only checked off three items on your to-do list.
I could make it easier on myself by going back on antidepressants, but I experienced a number of side effects taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, so in May 2015, when things were getting sunny again, I decided to go off these pills, and have successfully remained off them.
Though I won’t kid you: managing winter depression without pharmaceuticals (except to sleep) is sometimes very hard, especially during January and February when the holidays are over. I tell my friends to invite me out to brunch/coffee/lunch/dinner/drinks so I don’t ball up on the couch and obsess about death. I say this to them in a joking way so that no one cringes and rethinks inviting me out, but the fact is if I don’t pull myself off the sofa during the thick of winter, I do lie around obsessing about death.
This past winter, I scheduled trips to Florida and Arizona to break things up, and that helped, though coming back to cold New York was difficult. What’s amazing is that once I’m somewhere sunny, anywhere sunny, my brain and body quickly reorient themselves.
Within a day of full sunshine, I feel like me again.
Body tension softens. My mind considers possibilities, not endings. Intrusive thoughts subside. It’s like the sun speaks directly to me, saying “I’m here. You don’t have to worry anymore.”
My winter depression has had an effect on my family. It’s a weight that pulls us all down for a third of the year, every year. My husband and daughter like the Northeast, but I don’t, even though I was born and raised in the Snow Belt along Lake Ontario where winters are brutal.
We are preparing a move to Los Angeles, where my husband’s employer is based, and where every day feels like an early summer afternoon. I can’t wait.
I want to be like my Los Angeles friends who put on gloves and a heavier coat when the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I want to forget that I ever needed a happy lamp. I don’t want to check the weather app wondering how many more days before the sun returns.
I just want to trust that when I step outside, odds are it will be sunny, and I’ll feel okay.
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