Saturday, October 17, 2009

SAD Lights

In Alaska, the tell-tale sign that winter has arrived is not the snow; it's the dark. And darkness has arrived in Eagle River, Alaska! As I type this at 7:02 am, it is pitch black outside. It's more than just dark, too. It's thick, pea-soup-fog dark that you can almost taste with every breath. It's can't-see-the-horror-movie-villain dark, until his hockey mask or machete is just inches from of your face. Until I moved to Alaska, I loved the dark and the feelings of macabre it brings this time of year. Up here above 60 degrees latitude, however, so much dark slowly wears on you and begins to mess with your head.

Last week, the dark slowly began to wear me down. At the end of the week, after a particularly dark morning, I spilled my tall soy chai latte ALL over myself, which would normally elicit profanity or laughter. Instead, I rushed to my car and sobbed the entire 30-minute drive home. I knew then that it was time to break out the SAD light.

SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, is a condition in which you feel fine all year, but when the winter darkness comes, you are plunged into depression and feelings of despair. It makes you feel tired, sluggish, sleepy, antisocial, and hungry, especially for carbo-loaded junk food. Most northern, higher latitude countries experience high rates of SAD. ( Strangely, Iceland is the exception.) Alaska is acutely affected by this winter condition. In a 1992 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that 4% of sunny Sarasota Floridians experienced SAD symptoms compared to a whopping 28% of Fairbanks Alaskans. SAD is also not an equal-opportunity seasonal scourge. The National Mental Health Association reports that for every 4 people suffering from SAD, 3 of them are women.

 a bright Alaska morning at 8:00am
SAD can take a while to develop, too. Someone once told me that his wife had been living through dark Alaska winters for 25 years until she developed SAD. Although this was the only person that I had ever heard of being officially diagnosed with SAD, most of us feel its effects if we've been in Alaska for more than a year or two. After living through my first two Alaskan winters unscathed, I began to loathe being near ANYONE during my third winter and slowly got sucked into the world of eBay bidding wars. At the same time, one friend experienced SAD symptoms in the form of daily trips to Wal-Mart to buy countless hand towels and knick-knacks while another friend decided that bathing was really only necessary every two weeks.

To thwart the winter's temptation to sit in the dark, sob intermittently, and gorge on Fanta and Chex Party Mix, many of us self-medicate with a healthy dose of artificial sunlight. When you sit in front of a special light or light box that replicates sunlight for about half an hour, your brain thinks that you are soaking in the rays, changing its biochemistry ever so slightly to keep you from releasing sleep-inducing melatonin. Although light therapy is not officially approved by the FDA, Alaskans swear by it and most own at least one SAD light.

A SAD light is a special type of light that can bring a refreshing drop of sunshine to the dimmest and darkest locales. An effective SAD light gives off 10,000 lux of light and little to no harmful UV rays. Back when I bought my SAD light a few years ago, there was only one basic model - a white 24" x 18" box with a couple of fluorescent bulbs inside. Now there are plenty of options to chose from - portable SAD lights, travel SAD lights, desk SAD lights, Dawn Simulators, Full Spectrum Light Boxes, and even the Verilux HappyLite® SAD Mini Ultra Sunshine Supplement Light System, which I bought at Costco last year but have yet to try out. Thirty minutes in front of any of these can return the spring in your step and rescue you from five months of compulsive shopping, constant overeating, and rolling fatigue.

Every winter morning, our trusty light box sits at the breakfast table with my husband, daughter, and me as a friendly fourth companion. It has helped me get through seven long, dark Alaskan winters without returning to misanthropy and the false comforts of eBay. I wish I could say the same for the Chex Party Mix.


  1. SAD is truly a mysterious thing. I personally never suffered from it, but know lots of folks that did.

    When I was old enough to understand such an illness existed, I initially thought those who were born and raised in AK were immune, like I was, but then realized the native population seemed to be effected more than most. You would think that segment of the population, having been in AK for eons would have adapted to the darkness, but apparently not.

    Here in WI the latest it gets light is 730a and earliest for dark is 430p. Not so bad compared to AK.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Kellie. It's strange that the only people in the world who seem to have adapted to winter darkness are the Icelanders. They experience as much darkness as the rest of us at this latitude, but their SAD rates are lower than those for most of the U.S.

  3. I like following your blog! I'm forwarding it to my family because you talk about everything I experience but never get a chance to write about!

    My son asked me this morning "Mommy, what time does the sun wake up?" My first winter here was the worst- postpartum baby blues and getting used to the dark make for a tough time. At least now my kids sleep in until after 7 (instead of being up at 5:30).

  4. Thanks, Jennifer! I can't imagine being postpartum during an Alaskan winter!!! (I moved here when my daughter was a toddler.)
    We're facing a new challenge this year, though. It's my daughter's first year of high school and, no matter how many hours we log in with our SAD light, we're still not used to getting up at a pitch-black 6:00am.