The SAD Season
One woman’s journey into the light
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The first winter I lived in Maryland, I rarely left my bed.
It was 2006, and my husband, Ron, and I had recently moved to Gaithersburg from Santa Monica, Calif. Uprooting our lives had been more difficult than I’d anticipated, and I spent hours fused to my sheets. I dozed. I cried. But mostly I laid flat on my back and stared at the ceiling.
I missed California’s sun and warmth; Maryland was cold and gray.
In Santa Monica, I had bounded out of bed each day, eager to walk along the beach before getting to work. Now it took hours for me to muster enough energy to propel myself into the shower, and then down the hall to my home office.
Though ashamed of my sluggish behavior, I had a good excuse. In addition to feeling homesick, I had suffered a miscarriage three weeks after the New Year. The loss had been hard.
So I didn’t think much about the fact that I continued to nibble graham crackers in bed long after morning sickness was no longer an issue.
A February escape to Mexico helped. As I soaked up the rays, ocean waves lapping at my feet, my sadness subsided. A warm breeze lifted the weight from my chest.
When I returned home, cherry blossoms were swirling. Color had returned to the world.
I dismissed my seasonal depression as an anomaly. Then winter was back, and my symptoms were, too.
By my third winter, one thing was clear: There was a pattern to my depression, and that pattern perfectly described seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
First identified in the early 1980s by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, SAD affects as many as 35 million Americans, according to Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization that promotes mental wellness.
Rockville’s Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, led the NIMH team that identified SAD after realizing he suffered from it himself. He wrote a book about the disorder, Winter Blues (Guilford Press, 1993), and, in fact, it’s “winter blues”—the milder form of SAD—that some 14 percent of the U.S. population experience. But for 6 percent of the population, the symptoms can be debilitating: hypersomnia, social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities, weight gain, change in appetite (especially a craving for carbohydrate-rich foods like my graham crackers) and sadness.
They’re the same symptoms as depression, but the distinguishing factor is the cycle of seasonality: The episodes regularly occur during the fall and winter and resolve during the spring and summer. (For a small number of people the reverse is true: Summer is the depressive season.)
In its most pronounced form, SAD can lead to hospitalization or suicidal thoughts, says Dr. Kristina Deligiannidis, medical director of the Depression Specialty Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass.