Never was a condition so aptly named as S.A.D. – Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I experienced it for the first time about 20 years ago. It was not my first winter in the UK – I had been living here several years by then, including parts of two winters in Scotland. But that particular November and December in London must have been exceptionally grey.
I was working by a train station that’s a major London transport hub – and there was nothing nearby to do at lunchtime except walk around in the cold and look at the very expensive houses and very exclusive shops. Of course, I could have walked back to the station and gone for a walk through the noise and the chaos of the trash retail in the train station, but I already passed through there twice a day on my way to and from the office, and that was enough. So at lunchtime I sat in the staff room, ate my lunch and read a book.
I travelled to work by Tube, leaving home in the not-quite-light of morning and coming home in the dark. And of course the Tube is underground so there is no natural daylight there. The cold miserable weather at weekends didn’t encourage going out – and at that time (if I remember the year correctly), I had a stack of credit card debt I was trying to repay, so going out shopping or spending money wasn’t high on my agenda.
As time ticked on towards Christmas, I felt a strange surge of panic. I’d booked time off between Christmas and New Year and suddenly I felt it was essential that I needed to get away somewhere sunny. I would spend evenings looking for some cheap last minute deal to somewhere in Spain over Christmas, because I was convinced that it must be sunnier there, it must be warmer there, I would be happier there. Maybe still cold, but sunnier. I was almost in tears over my frustration at not being able to find something, and my fear of being stuck in grim, grey London for a week.
Christmas time came and my time off started. I switched off my alarm and I woke up when it got light. I went out shopping for Christmas food during the day. I went out for walks with my housemates. The fear and panic and sadness I’d been experiencing started to ebb away and I calmed down.
It was a couple of years later when I first read about S.A.D. and recognised immediately the feeling that I’d had back then, the strange sad paranoia that comes about from not getting enough exposure to natural daylight.
I have ways to cope with the winter now. I have a light simulation alarm that makes the room get gradually brighter in the mornings so I’m not waking up in the dark. I walk to the station just about every morning so even on overcast days I get 25 minutes of exposure to daylight. I’m less good at leaving the office at lunchtime but I try and get out once a week at least. And most weekends I will get out for a walk – even if it’s just food shopping.
S.A.D. does make you sad, but if you recognise the symptoms, and take steps to mitigate them, you can manage it and carry on functioning even through the greyest of grey winters.