Winter is a tough time for a lot of people, especially in the Northeast. Lately we’ve had to deal with buttloads of snow and all the additional time and stress that is required for dealing with such a mess. But the issues extend much deeper than endless shoveling and crappy road conditions. Every year nearly 10 million Americans, mostly those in northern regions, deal with symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD.)
Throughout the Fall and Winter months the days are shorter, a heck of a lot colder, and the sun has disappeared on a cruel hiatus. This lack of sunshine causes a deficiency in our levels of vitamin D and takes a serious toll on our bodies. People suffering from SAD report symptoms that are synonymous with depression: sad, hopeless, unmotivated, interference with the ability to attend to family/work/school duties, and a disinterest in spending time with friends or life in general.
Hold up, seriously? All that because we can’t catch some rays? Sunshine aids in balancing the hormones serotonin and melatonin. Studies have also shown that it disrupts blood flow to the brain, which screws with our cognitive functioning. It’s no wonder that SAD sufferers feel unhappy, sluggish, and downright foggy.
The good news is that SAD is only temporary. Unfortunately for some people their struggle with depression isn’t dependent upon the season. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (adaa.org) 14.8 million Americans suffer from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD.) This is the kind of deep, dark, comatose-inducing, how-will-I-ever-go-on?! depression. MDD lasts for a period of at least 2+ weeks and usually occurs after a life-shaking event, like losing one’s job, a breakup, or the death of a loved one.
For some (ahem, this girl right here) the problem doesn’t stop there. About 3.3 million Americans are affected by a condition formerly known as dysthymia, or Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD.) This type of depression lasts 2+ years and brings an overall feeling of Blah: low energy, poor appetite, insomnia/hypersomnia, stress, irritability, and the inability to derive pleasure from activities that once brought joy. Clearly, depression of all types is a huge issue for a large percentage of the population, and frankly I don’t think it’s talked about enough.
I used to be the most carefree and rambunctious kid on the block. All of that changed around the age of 12. I had faced so much instability during my childhood. People used to comment on how resilient I was, but resiliency is like a rubber band. If you stretch it out enough times eventually it snaps. Boy oh boy did I break. I could feel the change in my bones, and it scared the crap out of me. I walked around with a constant lump in my throat and as if I’d been hit by a truck; the wind knocked out of me, choking, and suffocated. I could not for the life of me remember what true happiness felt like.
Eventually my friends noticed the change in my demeanor. When I’d once been described with adjectives like “outgoing” and “bubbly,” I soon got slapped with the cringe-worthy label: aloof. Bless my mother’s heart as she tried to make light of the issue and play it off as a joke. I remember her saying, “A loofah? They think you’re a shower scrub? That’s ridiculous!” It hurt so much to be misunderstood. I was just as confused as everyone else about my newly lackluster self. All I knew was that my soul had been taken hostage. Where I had once been the loudest leader of lively conversation, I now found myself at a loss for words and staring blankly at walls. I would have given anything to get the “old me” back.
In a lot of ways I’m still waiting to feel like that giddy 5th grader again. At first, I thought the depression was just situational, as many cases of MDD are brought on by brief episodes of devastation that will heal overtime. I proceeded to run all over the country trying to change my “situation.” Maybe this school or this job or this activity will bring me back down to earth. After about a decade I realized (with a sigh) that maybe my depression is chronic. For some people, medication can make a world of difference. I’ve spoken with countless therapists and tried just about every medication on the market in an attempt to kick my Eeyore-esque outlook, but nothing ever seemed to make much of a difference. However, everybody is different, so if medication does work for you that’s fantastic! You should absolutely not be stigmatized for something that helps you feel human again.
I guess that brings me to the whole point of this topic. There is so much misunderstanding that surrounds mood disorders. I’d be a very wealthy woman if I was paid for every time someone told me to “Just relax,” “You need to have more fun,” or “Why don’t you smile?” Believe me, if I could I would. Given the choice of feeling numb or elated, obviously I would choose the latter. I could squeeze my eyes shut real tight and try to conjure up that effervescent feeling of giggles, but I’d probably just end up pooping myself. My depression has gone through many stages, and I’ve learned that there’s a wide spectrum of functionality. Maybe I can’t laugh when society says I ought to, but hey I no longer want to drive off a cliff, and I got out of bed today. Now that’s something to be proud of!
For someone with depression it takes significantly more effort just to think and accomplish basic activities. Some days are harder than others. Some days I’m super quiet, because my thoughts have ground to a halt and it physically hurts to talk. I spend all day dragging myself around just pretending to be normal (whatever that means) that I collapse into bed absolutely exhausted. “Faking it” is draining, but we do it anyway to placate others. The sad thing is, many people with depression isolate themselves in order to not burdens others with their “problems,” only exacerbating the feelings of loneliness.
If you’re somebody who finds yourself on the receiving end of someone else’s less-than-chipper outlook, don’t judge them for it. Don’t hold it against them or shut them out. There’s a heck of a lot more to it than simply “getting over it.” It’s brain chemistry bitches! Know that their bad days are probably when they need a hug the most. Their good days simply showcase how hard they’re trying and speak to the magnitude of their strength. If someone can’t support you on your low days then they probably don’t deserve you on your best days.
Just because I can’t get titillated over things other people expect me to be doesn’t mean there aren’t other things that revitalize my soul. Just because I’m not smiling doesn’t mean I’m not happy or grateful to be alive (which is another huge accomplishment for someone who used to pray for death.) Depression does not mean you are weak or any less of a person. Depression does not in any way define your character. It doesn’t speak a lick about your talents or passions. In my experience, feeling lower than dirt completely changes your perspective on the world around you. Depression has the ability to make you more humble, compassionate, and ultimately stronger than the average bear.
So maybe I don’t have a magic trick that will make my depression entirely disappear, but I do have a method for combating the sadness monster. Overtime and through much exploration, I have built an arsenal of things to help boost my mood: hiking in nature, yoga/exercise in general (I’m soo much better to deal with after I break a sweat,) playing with my dog/ watching funny animal videos, or simply holding a mug of tea and inhaling deeply. Every day I make sure to include at least one of these tiny joys that I know will offer some peace of mind.
Sometimes none of the above works. Sometimes (much to my dismay) I can’t stave off the feeling that the world is crumbling around me, and I cannot keep my eyes from springing a leak. But now I don’t beat myself up about it. I know that it’s okay to put myself in bed early and try again tomorrow…and that’s really the key: Never ever give up hope.