Sharon Lee Snow
Imagine you’re floating in silky blue-green seas off the coast of St. Pete Beach one August day, sun on your face, Margarita in hand, when your dollar store raft is yanked suddenly out to sea. Thrown into choppy gray waters, you cling to your flimsy raft with all your tipsy might. Alone in the Gulf of Mexico, you think of fins. How would you feel if you knew this was coming, that it would come every single year, and there was no way to stop it from claiming you? What would you do?
This is what happens to me every winter. I have seasonal affective disorder. It sounds almost festive, a strange misnomer for something sinister. After all, it’s “seasonal,” like Christmas trees and PEEPS marshmallow chicks at Easter. And it has a cute little acronym: S-A-D—“SAD”. How bad can something be that has such a cute mimetic nickname?
Seasonal affective disorder—seasonal depression—is a nasty, all-too-real nightmare. But don’t just take my word for it. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the bible of psychiatric ailments—SAD is not a separate kind of depression but a “specifier” that provides clarifying diagnostic details about an existing type of serious mood disorder. In the case of SAD, the existing mood disorder is major depression with the added fun, quirky “seasonal” aspect.
Most people understand major depression as a serious illness. It has a serious name: Major Depressive Disorder. Clinical Depression. This illness is not messing around. We’ve seen the TV commercials; we know, if we don’t understand, the hopelessness, the woman curled up in the sheets while her children play unattended and unloved. We know depression because we’ve watched the little gray blob of a cloud trail after the woman no matter how many meds she swallows to make it go away.
Most of us have heard that depression and mental illness are as unremarkable as the common cold and one in five of us win this unlucky lottery in any given year. Alec Baldwin had it. Buzz Aldrin, J.K. Rowling, and Mozart had it. Princess Diana and Demi Lovato. We hear these statistics and look to our coworkers to see which one of our cubicle mates is certifiable, smug that it’s not us.
But SAD? Seasonal depression? Let’s face it: it isn’t cancer and it sounds weak, suspicious, like some sort of flimsy excuse. No one likes winter anyhow, so get the hell over it. You don’t look depressed.
I’d love to get over it, but it’s complicated. Even a cloudy day can bring me toppling down. I know when the summer solstice hits, and I savor it. If I could, I’d live forever in that day. Ritual and legend surround this longest Midsummer’s day—pagans and witches and Celts in dance and sacrifice, thinking time and night has stopped and demons can be vanquished. But I know it’s a sham, and the shadows will soon assert their reign. There is nothing to hold them back.
What does it look like then, a major depression that’s seasonal; a poorly timed mood disorder with “Silver Bells” and “Feliz Navidad” as an unappreciated soundtrack? Mostly it’s internal, a private war zone in one’s mind. But the inner struggle is a bitch. That life-and-death struggle out to sea is going on in your friend, your coworker, your teacher, even while they teach a class or help you on a presentation. They struggle with their part of the project, and you grow annoyed. And yes, they seem tired and irritable, but hey, who isn’t? They are also kind of rude, and you are tired of their ignoring your texts. What is their fucking problem?
Their fucking problem is this: they are swimming in a sea of molasses. They are looking at you through this alternate universe from underwater. Their real self is held captive by Hades underground, and this strange automaton replica is staring helplessly at you.
Seasonal affective disorder is considered a malfunction of the circadian rhythm (our 24-hour sleep-wake cycle) and tied to the sleep hormone melatonin and the neurotransmitter serotonin. The shortening of the days and light begin their disruptive chemical lobotomy starting in autumn or earlier. The dread starts sooner. In the Sunshine State, a little over one percent of the population suffers from SAD, while in Alaska and other Northern states, up to ten percent or more. Overall, five percent of the population suffers from clinically significant symptoms, but many people suffer to a lesser degree. We have all heard of the winter blues or cabin fever. Consider millions of sufferers, mainly women of childbearing age—typical of clinical depression which targets women up to twice the rate of men, trying to manage a strange, ill-understood disorder that rampages through families unlucky enough to pass along this genetic fault line in the DNA code.
In many cases, sufferers don’t begin to feel well until mid-spring. That is half their year lived underwater, subpar, struggling to breathe. I count months. I cross them off. I look to sunny days and stock up on sun like supplies for an expedition. And I am. I am taking an expedition to the dark side of the universe. My dark side.
My maiden name is “Snow.”