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'Tis the Season of SAD

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Personally, I find winter in the Northeast to be akin to the eighth circle of hell. And I'm not alone. Here's some expert advice on how to kick SAD in the A$$!

woman crying

Vivian Manning-Schaffel: One 20-degree February morning, as Sesame Street blared in the background, my eyes lifted to a vignette where young children on a beach were chasing waves on a warm summer day. It was soundtracked to a cheery calypso ditty: "Hello happy, happiness/Silly jokes and what comes after/Howls of everybody's laughter/Happy, happy, happiness/Hello, happy happiness/Running barefoot on the beaches/Eating messy juicy peaches/Happy, happy, happiness." And I began to convulse in tears.

The last thing I wanted was for my kid to see me so upset, but I couldn't help it. See, I have a little something called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Each November, when the temperature dips below 40 degrees, the simple exercise of busting out the down jackets consumes me with dread, anxiety, and grief. I mentally fast-forward a few months, after the novelty of the first snow and holidays wear off, to my kids squirming and fussing over putting on layer after layer of confining clothing just to run out to the store -- and my snapping at them impatiently. I automatically think of the back-wrenching exercise of pushing my stroller through mounds of slushy, New York snow, covered in dog sh*t and piss, of endless days trapped in a 900-square-foot apartment with two stir-crazy kids because it's too cold to go outside. And I lose my sh*t because to me, this is a four-month sentence of complete and utter misery.

I'm an outdoorsy gal. My vision of happiness involves long days out and about under the sun, followed by a swim to cool off and dinner al fresco. Hell, I'm even okay with putting on a leather jacket, jeans, and boots. But to a SAD person like me, a scarf may as well be a noose. If there was a way I could sleep until April, I would.

A legit form of depression with lethargy, irritability, social withdrawal, and sleepiness among its capital symptoms, SAD can be particularly hard on moms who are hard-pressed for the time to indulge in these tendencies.

"I knew the moment I heard about SAD that this was what grabbed me by the head and shoved me into the muck each winter," says Grace Mauzy, a mom of four and native of Waterville Valley, NH -- a popular northeastern ski town. "So from that moment on, I made a commitment to be outdoors every single day, unless I was sick, for at least one hour between November and February. But then I had kids, and the hour wasn't always mine to have."

"Mothers are a very challenging group of patients because they are so aware of the needs of their children that they can very quickly attend to their kids before themselves," says Dr. Lois Krahn, professor of psychiatry and SAD expert at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. "A whole day or week can come and go, and they know what they should be doing to help themselves with SAD, but they just don't manage to do it for very impressive, laudable reasons."

And, as with straight-up, full-time depression, SAD can effect your parenting. "I would be intolerant, and just wanted to curl up and sleep for hours," says Mauzy.

Joyce Anthony, a SAD mom of one from Erie, Penn., can totally relate. "In winter, I found myself doing only what was absolutely necessary as a parent," she says. "Emotionally, I tried to engage, but was often withdrawn in spite of my efforts."

Marcia Passos Duffy, a native Brazilian and mom of two teens from Keene, NH, says the only thing that got her through each winter was escaping to visit her folks in Florida each February. "I felt I could not get through the winter without some sunshine and warmth," she says.

Aside from making hay to warmer climes, how can we SAD moms help ourselves and thus, help our kids?

Let There Be Light
Dr. Krahn says the best way to treat SAD is with light therapy. If weather permits, bundle up and get out in the sun at every opportunity. If you happen to be in a far northerly place where weather conditions prohibit spending time outdoors, Krahn recommends investing -- and actually using -- a full-spectrum lightbox (one that includes blue/greens). If reading a paper under a lamp for 30 minutes each morning is more fantasy than reality, Krahn recommends a light hat you can wear around the house.

Work Off Your Angst
My personal SAD fix is getting my a** to the gym for some cardio every other morning, by hook or crook -- even when it's b*tch-a** cold out. "Working out can be a tremendously helpful tool in treating any kind of depression," says Krahn. "Pursue winter sports and maybe make a little more of an effort on bright days without a wind to be outside to enjoy the winter weather." And with the advent of groovy home workout apparatus like the Wii Fit, working out at home is easier than ever.

Meditate and/or Medicate
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a legit form of depression, and thus is treatable by meds. Ask your doctor if antidepressants are a viable option. "I double the dose of my antidepressant in winter," says Anthony. "And I attempt to keep myself as busy as possible -- busy allows less depression!"

Believe it or not, any combination of these treatments can really help. "I used to dread it as soon as the leaves would start falling off the trees, but I actually like winter now, even the cold," says Duffy. "I also don't feel the need to schedule trips to Florida in February to get away from the winter. My lightbox -- and walking my dog -- have made all the difference in the world!"

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2 comments so far | Post a comment now
Abby January 11, 2010, 12:14 PM

I think I have mild SAD. It’s SUCH an ordeal to bundle up 2 kids & take them out, not to mention the fact that I hate the cold unless I’m skiing. I find the getting dark early the most depressing, since it feels like bedtime at 4:30 pm but in reality you have hours to go!

Today I forced us out to the mall. We played in the play area, chatted w/ other people, ate lunch in the food court. It was actually a nice little winter outing! Now we’ll spend the rest of the day watching TV. ;)

tennmom January 11, 2010, 5:00 PM

Growing up in the mid-south, winter doesn’t bother me much. I almost enjoy the sun setting before 6 in the winter as opposed to keeping my kids awake close to 9 in the summer.
For those living in states where winter seems to last forever, I totally understand why the would be prone to SAD.
My husband lived in CT most of his life. He now drives 1.5 hours each way to work. By the time he is sick & tired of leaving home in the dark and getting back home in the dark, spring forward pops up and all is well again in our little world.

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