This is a guest post from the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition and Tim Kistner.
It took me more than ten years to finally understand the affliction I face with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). My experience with depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) began to surface when I was a teenager. As with many feelings experienced from a teenage perspective, I was incredibly confused by the wave of depressive symptoms that began to infiltrate and disrupt my daily routine. The gradual onset of feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and irritability could hardly be attributed to something seasonal as I navigated new experiences of change, heartbreak, peer pressure, and all the typical lessons learned in high school. Later, came an inevitable cycle in which I found myself carefree and blissful through the warm summers offset by the deep dark hole of winter.
My mother, who had been treated for depression and anxiety, heard my concerns and convinced me that I too suffered from this affliction and may possibly be bi-polar. She listened to my frustration and was my first, and most important, relatable resource. Still, only I knew the severity which seemed to worsen through one school year. It was easy to hide and hard to talk about. I never felt happy, normal or focused at home or in school despite having quite a few close friends, loving family, and stable home life. It got harder and harder to hide it and I knew self-medication with music and recreational drug use was not sustainable. All I could do was patiently wait for it to go away, for the tide to turn. Fortunately, my school recognized an issue as I was failing classes and notified my parents.
I still don’t know who recognized my desperation and reached out to the school counselor for me. In the grip of another deeply depressed day I was called into the school psychologist. The results showed I was quite smart, had some reading issues, and should see a psychologist for depression and anxiety. I had no problem accepting these terms, it was really what I needed to hear in order to comprehend the daily and prolonged malaise.
My first experience with a professional therapist was hardly breakthrough. I was meeting face-to-face twice a week to talk about the problems I was having but he was old, not cool, not rebellious, and completely unrelatable. As a teenager it was so hard to understand and seeing a shrink made me feel like I was crazy or not normal, not just a high school student who was just a little down. Now I know how common mental illness is.
Medication was considered but I was determined to fix it myself, as symptoms diminished with longer days. I never seemed to suffer in the summer. No one ever suggested it could have been SAD. I came to know and anticipate the rolling tide of stark seasonal change. Year after year it destroyed all I had built when I was healthy and happy. I thought this was just how things had to be and attributed this cycle to the school year and uncertainty that I needed to be in college acquiring so much debt. At 20 years old, living away from home, my doubts were not unfounded but clearly amplified and confused by a seasonally affected mental state to a stress point the most severe in my life. I didn’t know where to go so I checked into a hospital ER. They provided some care and, more importantly, resources for a professional I could see. It was extremely hard to tell my parents and friends what I was going through but once the ice was broken a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. It took me years to understand the cycle, but consulting friends and several professionals gave me the wisdom I needed to recognize other treatment options and ultimately a lifestyle change. It pushed me to live different ways and try radically different things.
I started to understand what I needed to do to mitigate depression. What was healthy and what wasn’t. I began to recognize when I was in a bad state, at what point I need to talk to someone, and a few habits to avoid when I’m low. A few years later in the depth of another dark winter I finally saw the light without really even knowing it. My uncle invited me to learn to ski with him up in Vermont one weekend. Having never tried it growing up, I wanted to see what it was all about. We spent three long days in the sun starting at the very beginning with “pizza/french fry” and even progressing to pushing myself down an intermediate ski run. I never had so much fun and never felt so happy in the winter! The feeling of joy and wellbeing persisted for days as my deprived vitamin D levels were replenished. The seasons turned and summer felt great again.
As autumn came that year, I anticipated the lows and began to feel the pull. I knew it was coming and I did not want to go through this again. I had to change something in my lifestyle. By stroke of luck, I met a friend of my brother who just returned from living in Colorado for few years. He moved out there to ski and had a blast doing it. I talked about how little I wanted to stay in Pennsylvania for the winter and recalled how happy those days of skiing were earlier that year. What started as tossing the idea around soon became initiative. I was going to do it. I would quit the great job I had, leave all of my family and best friends, many of the hobbies I had, and move somewhere I could be outside in the sunlight every day. I found myself having the best winter I ever had with barely a trace of the winter blues.
Even through the holidays with my first year away from my family and working a minimum wage job I didn’t love, I was inherently happy. My foundation was sturdy and everything else was okay and manageable. My thoughts and emotions were clear, my moods stable. This is what I needed to do to get through the winter and live a stable life. My energy persisted and I didn’t want it to end. Positivity and adventure were the strongest I ever felt as I approached the next chapter of my life. With possibilities gleaming I made another big move towards the ultimate life outdoors and drove in the direction of Alaska.
Healthy Minds is a monthly column coordinated by Ketchikan Wellness Coalition as a way to share positive stories from people living with mental illness, offer information from local mental health professionals about maintaining mental health in your life, and provide details on tangible activities or actions you can take to strengthen your mental wellness. If you would like to contribute to the column, please contact Romanda Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org