Mid-November, bring on the SAD

A personal interlude. My energy was subdued today, and at 8 PM it feels like it’s been dark for hours. My appetite has been gravitating toward comfort eating and I’m wanting to sleep more. My mental concentration has turned fuzzy. I used to joke that I must be part bear, as I like to hibernate. The reality is that I’ve been afflicted with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) most of my adult life.

You can google SAD to see the symptoms – the Mayo Clinic page is the first one that comes up for me and it’s pretty accurate. Fortunately, the worst of the mood symptoms can be treated with medication. I still find it hard, though, to rally my energy and concentration during the low-sunlight months.

This raises an interesting question, one first explored by Peter Kramer in his book Listening to Prozac: what does it mean to “feel like oneself?” Dr. Kramer was a practicing psychiatrist when SSRIs such as Prozac first hit the market, and he was struck by how many of his patients would claim “I feel more like myself than I have in such a long time.” Having a bit of a philosophical disposition, he explored this aspect of identity and the possibility of “cosmetic psychopharmacology” in his seminal work.

If my “self” has a baseline of cognitively sharp, personally friendly, generally upbeat, and energetic, then SAD makes me not feel like myself. This leaves me with a couple of choices. I can use medication, light-box therapy, force myself to exercise when it’s the last thing I want to do… basically push myself to do things that once came easily in terms of self care, in the hopes of minimizing the effects of SAD.  Or, I can just accept SAD like the change of seasons.

Again, the fact that I can even consider letting SAD run its course has to do with good medication. I’m not suffering the worst aspects of depression, that crippling soul-pain coupled with spiraling, obsessive thoughts. Given that I’m clinically in a safe place, what about the other symptoms? Increased lethargy, increased need for sleep, decreased enthusiasm for just about anything… None of them are killers. In fact, they’re not even that painful. The problem is, they’re not “me.”

The Buddhists talk about the parable of the two darts. The normal slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are like getting struck by a dart – it’s painful. But when we start bemoaning the fact we were struck by a dart, worrying about what it all means, seeking solace in sensual pleasure… that’s all suffering. It’s like getting hit by a second dart.  So with practice and awareness we can avoid the second dart – we can alter our response to the normal ups and downs of life. Reduce if not eliminate suffering.

I feel like I’m in exactly that position at the moment – how to orient my attitude and actions around the inescapable fact that my neurodynamics change with the seasons. I can reduce the pain of the immediate problem, just as one would dress and bind a dart wound. But to the degree that I struggle with “not feeling like myself” in these times, of pushing myself to do all sorts of things that I would normally want to do, but don’t want to do now… am I just causing suffering? I think the distinction has to do with those actions that will likely result in better health (and to be clear, I don’t consider my current state “different” than usual, but truly “worse.” This isn’t just an equally desirable alternative to “normal.”). If getting my butt in the saddle 2 or 3 times a week is going to alleviate the symptoms, that’s probably a good idea. Kicking myself for not reading as much, or “slacking off” on my guitar project, is not a good idea – that’s true suffering.

Surprisingly, I’ve enjoyed the discipline of pushing myself to write something every day of NaBloPoMo – it reminds me to look inward and see what my mind has been ruminating on today, and expressing that brings a sense of peace, if not resolution.


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