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 8:00amSAD 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.