When you cross SAD and PTSD

I had a rough couple of Octobers as a young adult. Big earthquake one year. Huge fire two years later. Terrifying car crash a few months after that, which wasn’t October, but which also didn’t make fire recovery much fun. In Boston, also October a year later, I struggled with a major injury; another big injury the following October.

And as I was acclimating to those psychic bruises, I walked through Harvard Square to rehearsal one October night. The sky was absolutely black, street lights painfully bright, and life flowing all around me. I didn’t notice that I was having to try much harder to get through my days since the time change. But I did notice that it was starting to rain. Barely.

I stopped at a red light and looked down a side street. And the tiny rain drops looked, in the street light and against the black sky, like snow.

And I lost my everloving mind.

I paced like a wild animal, knowing I had to get out. I had to leave, escape, claw, leap, fly. Fly! Yes, that’s it. I ran back up the street to a pay phone (yes, it was when there were pay phones but not cell phones). I pulled out my credit card, and checked the back for an airline phone number. I called and asked for the first flight back home.

I laughed at the price. I had to find a way to make it, and not lose my mind. Because I couldn’t afford a panic trip home.

Instead, I talked myself down, went to rehearsal, and the next day looked in the yellow pages for a therapist. (This was in the time of pay phones and email. I’m pretty sure there was a search engine of some sort. I just don’t remember if this was still yellow pages time, or if we were able to ascertain the location of a therapist by just typing in “Boston therapist seasonal affective disorder.”) Now that I think about it, I called my insurance company. From a land line. They gave me three names.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is pretty easy to remedy, he said. Generally, it takes lots of outdoor exercise in the daylight, and 15 minutes a day in front of a light box. For me, he said, based on my reported symptoms, it had to be 2 hours a day of full spectrum light. Read a book in front of the light box, he said. Every morning. Eat your breakfast, write letters, do whatever you need to do, but get within six inches of a medical device every day for two hours. If it feels like you’re euphoric, back off by 10 minutes. And if you feel unable to work, get out of bed, or eat, come back.

It was a long winter. So was the next one.

When I came home to a place with more sunshine, milder winters, and longer days in winter, I had fewer problems. But winterns are still tough.

And without fail, some time in October I start to a panic a bit. Is there any chance to get closer to the sun, quickly, for at least four months? Will this winter be bad? Will I be able to make logical decisions or am I beyond all hope until March? Or beyond? Am I just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, anyway? Is there any point to the light box or exercise? Or healthy food? Or getting out of bed?

It's a long walk off a rotten pier.

It’s a long walk off a rotten pier.

November, to me, is both intensely tough and intensely joyful. Thanksgiving is coming, and I love seeing family. Fall is lovely, and soup plus corduroy plus cocoa make anything wonderful. But the dark and the cold leave cracks into which sadness creeps. Even in cords, drinking soup and stirring cocoa. I ser the sad coming. I know it’s here. I know I have to fight.

I have my lightbox out, and will use it tomorrow. I’m trying to get more sleep. I have all my bright scarves out, so I remember to wear one on particularly emotional mornings. I have healthy foods planned so I don’t sink into a self-medicating pattern of whole loaves of bread for dinner this winter. I will move around, outside in daylight, every morning.

I hope that everyone who notes that the change of the season, and particularly the end of daylight savings time, makes days a bit harder, a bit slower, a bit more claustrophobic will make time for outside activity, bright colors, good food, and a lightbox if necessary.

They make a big difference.

So does making it through October. Thank you, Universe, for making it through October.

11 thoughts on “When you cross SAD and PTSD

  1. I really struggled with this my first few winters in Washington State. We don’t do winters like this in South Africa! Something that helped was learning to think in terms of having two different lives. So long as I manage to get past the sudden shift to dark and chill without crashing into depression, I can love the winter. I light a lot of candles, and wear bright colors and soft, warm hats and silk scarves (silk is incredibly warm!) But for all that, there’s a real sense of joy that comes as the winter solstice rolls by. Even though it’s colder than ever and slushy and dull and the holidays are over, I know the sun is returning and that lifts my heart.

    • Good points. I really noticed a magical December-embracing version of myself when my first son was an infant. His fascination with lights and candles and hats and roaring fireplaces did let my tiny heart grow three sizes. And oh, how I love celebrating solstice. We peanut butter pine cones with seeds for the wildlife…and I inwardly cheer “it’s nothing but more sunlight from here!”

      • Do you also experience a pang around June 22? I find myself going, “Already? But … summer just got here!” And for a few days it really bothers me that from that that’s as long as our glorious evenings are going to get.

  2. That fire pic looks so much like my fire memory. Raging inferno. Apartment building dwarfed and surrounded by flames. It will always be like yesterday in my mind. There’s not a day that goes by that a fire siren doesn’t quicken up my heart beat for a few secs. It doesn’t help that I live two blocks from a very active fire station, but I do viscerally appreciate the closeness of the station. I can even hear the subtle difference between police, ambulance, and fire truck sirens. I can also tell the engine sound of a fire truck going down my street from all the other traffic.

    Now is the time of year that people burn leaves. Gets me every time. Just the faint smell of smoke outside is also enough to give me a brief panic until I can sniff out which direction it is coming from. Soon it will be cold enough that I’ll smell fireplaces going around the neighborhood. Winter used to be a cozy time for me, I used to love fire and candles. Now, I have a fake LED insert in my fireplace and I don’t dare light a candle unless the power is out.

    It’s a rough time of year for me too. The darkness shortens my dog walks, and the cold makes me not wanna get outta bed until the heat kicks in. I’ll lose my little mind when I see white crap on my lawn.

    • Yes, ma’am. My fireplace is full of LED candles. I can’t imagine actually lighting a fire in the house.
      And distant wildfires that turn the sun red?
      Oh, unicorn. You know.

  3. That was a very brave post. I have similar issues in the spring–May is a very bad month for me, so I understand. Rejoice in your November and find your sunshine.

    • Thank you. I hope next May turns the tide toward hope. I’ve decided after writing this post that it’s silly to hold 5 bad Octobers against the whole month. It’s only 11% of my Octobers that have been rotten, and that’s a pretty low percentage.

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