By E. Sparling
Before there was #thestruggle, there was The Struggle, or more accurately "I'm struggling." #thestruggle was sleeping through an alarm, a bathroom with every stall taken when you had a narrow sliver of time to use it. "I'm struggling" was crying every time I heard my alarm, or in that bathroom stall typing that message, or in my car as Christmas music played through my speakers. My favourite season, my birthday, and my beloved winter holidays went unappreciated, owing to my brain and its chemical failures.
After years of questioning whether Seasonal Affective Disorder was a real condition, I realised that it was indifferent to my skepticism. SAD doesn't need you to believe it exists; it makes itself known. Still, I was no stranger to the psychiatrist's office, which somehow made me even more reluctant to say "I'm depressed." I thought of the poem "Not waving but drowning" and felt it keenly, but still wanted to choose something less dramatic than "drowning." So, I chose "struggling," and I certainly was.
In my wisest years (or, in years that my boyfriend figured out that my persistent black mood was biological), I deal with my condition medically and behaviourally. An uptick in anti-depressants, or an increase in intake of sunlight in a part of the country that becomes bitterly cold when the days shorten, help me through my long, sad days.
However, in past years, before I understood my seasonal affliction, I looked for other ways to rid myself of the emptiness. I would try to exercise more, as if I could outrun the season. For the length of a 5k I was happy again, but the endorphins would be blunted shortly after; I was the fittest, most depressed version of myself that I can remember.
In addition to the benefits of exercise (which, for me, are short-lived), I try to utilise the light lamp that credentialed medical professionals say, as if it's so obvious, is the key to feeling better. That it's just 20 minutes right away in the morning, and you'll be fine.
I dream of inventions that would make this possible — sun lamps in the vanity mirror of my tiny Hyundai, or an old fashioned-looking desk lamp that would blend into my very visible circulation desk. Maybe a UV light that attached to a hairbrush? My mornings are a flurry of activity, as long as I can pry myself out of bed. I wonder who has a life of leisure that accommodates luxuriating near one of these hulking lights every morning. I already wake up at 5:45 a.m. for work, and I have a strong feeling that setting my alarm to go off twenty minutes earlier than that would only devastate my sleep-craving brain further.
When students at my job ask about my bloodshot eyes, I assure them it is allergies. Allergies are convenient. Allergies are impersonal. Allergies are something that you can discuss with every person on the planet, without fear of discomfort or judgment.
And, allergies are treatable. So is seasonal affective disorder — for me, anyway. I remain conflicted on the usefulness of the sun lamp, even as its £120 worth of harsh light shines directly into my eyes. On days where the long dark tea-time of the soul seems to start with my morning coffee, I plug it in and place it on the floor next to where I sit. I worry that I will be judged, or that some students at my school will see it, know what it is, and whisper about my shortcomings. But, I doubt that my teenaged students are thinking too deeply about my behaviours outside the classroom.
Beyond the light cure, after a particularly sob-filled winter two years ago, Wellbutrin once sucked all the cobwebs out of my brain. A few days after I started taking it, I woke up feeling like the concrete that had shot through my veins was breaking up and releasing me to accomplish goals beyond brushing my teeth and feeding my dog. A couple of weeks into the regimen, my fiance and I went to Disney World; I swear my eyeballs were sucking in all the Orlando vitamin D greedily. I was changed, and while I know it was all in the timing and the bupropion concentration, I will forever link hugging Pluto with a resurgence in my desire to be alive.
Still, there are no guarantees. In mid-November I heard a song I'd listened to on repeat all summer and was shocked to discover, for the first time, the desperation and sadness in it, notes like knives hidden in the chorus. It was enjoyable while the sun shone, but almost unbearable in the dark at 5 p.m.
And, sadly, "It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas" has become a warning sign for me, and not a carol. My life is not the same in my formerly favourite time of year. It's important to have those realisations, to acknowledge that weeping in a Dunkin' Donuts or sleeping immediately after returning home from work, only to go back to bed at 9 p.m., may not be healthy, but they are behaviours associated with my SAD.
As helpful as this self-awareness is, it's perhaps equally crucial to love and be loved by a person who texts you and asks you to report on your "glooms," concerned that you're slipping into darker territory. "Struggling" and the "glooms" are code words that we use to gauge how I feel; their deployment is as obvious as buying pet-friendly snow melt and conditioning our skis. When the sun and the warm weather return, we pack them away like mittens to be used at the next sign of frost.