Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Rage Against the Dying of the Light": A Survival Plan for SAD

"Rage Against the Dying of the Light" is Dylan Thomas' famous poem for his dying father, of course, but it evokes something quite different in me, a survival battle of a different sort.

In his Mindblog, Deric Bownds wrote about seasonal affective disorder. (SAD; who came up with that clever but misleading acronym? I'd like a word ..)

Apparently as many as one in ten have this in more northerly latitudes... I certainly have it.

Let me tell you a bit about where I live, Vancouver BC; in December, it rains. Non-stop. For days and days and days on end. Now, this is coastal rainforest climate, and therefore rain sprinkles/drips/falls/pelts most of the time all year long; however, I find December non-stop rain especially emotionally invasive, accompanied as it is by other important factors such as:

1. Shortest days of the year in a latitude above the 49th parallel

2. No snow to reflect whatever feeble amount of skylight there might be even on days when there is a break in the rain. Nature's winter colors here are wet dark grey or wet dark green (take your pick). I've seen it so dark here that the street lights hardly take a break all day.

3. My birthday happens to fall between solstice and New Year. Happy Birthday to me.

4. It is generally regarded as the season to act jolly even if you don't feel it, for the sake of the troop.

My nervous system finds this combination of factors so stressful that if I don't "manage" my passage through this season, I could tip over into despair. Which I refuse to let happen. Instead, I walk straight into a social abyss, into social "dark", retreat to let my system work through its impasse, free of outside stress. I retain my right to feel inwardly sane and on even keel for whatever the next year might bring.

I've written about having this little affliction, once before, here. I've let go of jigsaw puzzles since then, however, in favor of sitting at the computer with a 10,000 lux sunlamp blazing for a few hours every morning from October on, drinking coffee. Therefore "November" has been less of a "problem" in the last few years; I've learned to confine the disorder to a shorter period, in December instead. Hurray for neurogenesis, neuroplasticity.

Someday I may alter the overall Survival Plan to include travel away to a sunny clime, but these years I find even that nice idea too daunting. Here's the current plan - I offer it freely to whoever wants to read it, this solstice day, 2007:


1. Sun lamp
2. Fireplace (real or fake, doesn't matter)
3. Computer, internet and online life, TV, access to DVD rental near by your house
4. Enough clean clothes and food, etc., to last a few weeks
5. Enough control over your life to take a sizable time out without financial damage to the rest of your year.
6. Ability to say "no thanks" to invitations from other people. They may never fully understand why you would rather be solitary, but after awhile they will simply stop asking you to be social against your own inclinations or natural preference.
7. No need to feel obliged to try to explain yourself.
8. A willingness to be alone, in your body and in your own life, completely off-clock, so everything can reset itself naturally, as best it can.

You've arranged your few weeks off work, one week on one side of winter solstice (today) and one week (and a bit) on the other side, having found there's no point in pushing yourself to go against your own inherent need to retreat. Do not feel bad for acting anti-social. Most of the year you are social enough. Do not apologize for doing something you need to do to retain your own capacity to steer your own mind through life. Unless you are a mom or dad with young children who need to be reassured by emotionally available contact and/or programmed with (or deprogrammed from) culturally appropriate activity, the on-going social impact of you not being part of any "scene" that involves other human primates will likely be vanishingly minimal. Let others do whatever they need to do, and take your right to do what you need to do, for you.

Congratulate yourself if you've planned ahead, if you've withdrawn naturally by stages, by graded exposure/graded withdrawal. One year, just stop sending greeting cards. See how that feels. If it feels ok, move on: next year, try stopping your attendance at all (meaningless to you) social outings. See how that feels. If it feels good, move on. The year after that, add (meaningless to you) gift-exchanging to the "things to let go of" list. The year after that, have a yard sale in the summer and, in addition to regular yardsale-type clutter, get rid of accumulated decorations, wrapping paper and fairy lights. You will feel "lighter" and more free, and the person who buys it all will feel lucky. Win win.

- This part is up to each individual.
- Make it up as you go along - you've already done all the hard work of creating a retreat space for yourself in which you can be free of others, off all clock & culture constraints.
- Reap all the benefits. Integrate them. This is recharge time. Plug yourself into yourself for a change.

This year I find I'm sleeping better, much much better. In bed by 10 and up at 6 or 7, usually without waking in the middle of the night, something I thought I'd have to forever more endure.

Last year at this time I was seized by a rare need to exercise, and spent three months being on a treadmill 30 minutes a day. This year, no such need has seized me yet, but the treadmill is here, just in case.

I'm finding this year (perhaps a result of the exercise last year?) that I can think more clearly, a bonus. I spend my time these days learning to give myself permission to think things through more carefully, slowly, from more different sides than usual, to forgive myself for feeling slow and thick and vulnerable and starkly mortal, to let things mull themselves around however long they need to. I want my mental compost to be rich and fertile, sufficient to get me through another year.


Strengthen Your Health said...

I love your authenticity and sharing. Good for you for opting out of the insanity of the season. I am one of those with children who need that programming or deprogramming - I'm not sure which. Do not go gentle...have a healthy birthday! I look forward to the thoughts that spring from your respite.


Unknown said...

I had lived in Oregon for about ten years before I understood that SAD was taking me down each winter.
All your suggested actions are great. The light is definitely number one on my list. I even bought and inexpensive light meter to help me insure that my lamp set up was getting plenty of photons to my retinas. Although Northwest skies are grey, the natural light during the day is still significant compared to indoors. I outfitted myself in waterproof jacket, pants, and shoes and try to walk a couple of miles outdoors most days, even when it is storming. That really helps me a lot.

Hang in there. As soon as we hit Dec. 21 I tell myself that the shortest days are behind me and that each day lengthens by more than the day before right up to the equinox.

Diane Jacobs said...

Thank you both for your thoughts.

I'm muddling along pretty good. I'm reading "Kent's Life" today, enjoying it a lot. A LOT. Someone my age; culture and trajectory slightly different but alive as long as I've been. I'm somewhere in Sept. 06, and just found this quote:

"Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. You've got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight." --Bruce Cockburn

Alongside Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Hot Tuna, I remember the hours I used to spend listening to Bruce. Yup Bruce, yup Kent, that quote is just about perfect for this retreat of mine. Thanks again.