The SAD Regimen

Confession: I never could get the hang of January.

This year I am blessed. I have energy and focus and I love my life, but some days some days I worry myself sick over the silliest things, and I just can’t think of that WORD while I’m talking to my children (and so I stammer until they supply it for me) (multiple times in a day). Some days I can feel it like ghostly fingers: tendrils of SAD fear and fog creeping into my mind.

I have been here before and I remember how to cope, to live, to heal; and I know that I am loved and that spring will come again before I know it. So I hang in there, and I bless Jesus for conquering darkness. I make small goals for myself and do them—even just cleaning my bathroom or making that phone call. I eat protein and fruit. And I tell my husband how I feel.

Dorcas Smucker wrote an article called What Works for Me: the SAD Regimen. Read it, if you or someone you love has down feelings in the winter. It’s excellent advice, the best I’ve read on the topic for a long time.

April is coming!

Comedy of errors

Confession: It’s been that kind of week.

It’s February in Meadville, where we have two options left open to us: to ignore the winter entirely, or to give up and wallow in it like swamp invertebrates. I looked up the weather forecast and it’s unbroken clouds for a week to come. My brain is filled with gray fuzz half the time and I am doing stupid stuff without even trying.

Once I got stuck in my own lane, for the first time in two years.

(“In” my lane may not be entirely accurate. “Completely off the side of” may be more so.)

Once my husband was having a bad day, so I baked him cinnamon rolls as a way to say “I love you, honey. Life is good.”

They flopped.

Once I left home in the morning forgetting not only the trash bags full of my sons’ snow clothes for outdoor recess, but also a Tupperware full of frosting I needed for a cake decorating class. Hey, I remembered the sleds. And the cake… And everything else, but only after arriving at my destination fifteen minutes away.

Once I tried to drive up a hill, in snow, with my e-brake on. It wasn’t a very big hill, and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get traction. I had to back down with a row of cars lined up behind me. And at the bottom I thought– Oh. E-brake.

Once I lost control of my emotions while singing in church, getting red-faced and giggly-panicky over the simple fact that I looked at the composer’s name. In my defense, it was “Kirchengesangbuch.” Which looked to me like rather boastful German for “Ich have made-n dis songbook.”

Once I spent a whole day on a project that didn’t go anywhere. I don’t mean I didn’t get done; I mean it didn’t go anywhere. Toast. Kaput. No can do. At the end of the day I cleaned the supplies and trashed the scraps of fabric and tore up the patterns and cried a while and decided to pretend I’d spent the whole day on the couch.

What project?

Once I got the news that my little brother negotiated a 14-foot freefall on a ski slope and ended up in the ER.

(He’s fine. Just um, sore.)

It’s been that kind of week.

And in the middle of it I spent time laughing my head off at a ladies’ party [delightfully therapeutic] and practicing frosting roses [more like frosting toadstools to a casual observer] and opening a surprise package from someone I don’t even know [the ultimate delight] and often sleeping so profoundly mid-day that I wake up disoriented and drooling, with a severe crick in my neck. I don’t remember ever being so tired in all my life. It’s like being pregnant without the baby.

Yes, it’s that time of year. And that kind of week.

But He has not given me over to darkness. I don’t forget for a moment (and I am not faking this) that I have a really, really nice life and I want to live it all. By this I know I am not going under.

This post doesn’t really have a point except to say that I’m still here. Generally speaking.

There and back again

hope

Change comes slowly, and is shy of being quantified. It took a lot of time, a lot of living, just to heal.

My depression is seasonal, but it was getting worse. I wasn’t getting back my zest for life in between. In the summer times I didn’t ponder taking my life, but I would always have been happy if my life were taken from me.

My doctor, who has been pronouncing me “stable” at periodic check-ups since that first one, likes to remind me nowadays, “You were way beyond SAD when I first saw you. You were severely depressed!” (Thank you very much.) Because my struggle is seasonal, we have to take things a year at a time. She allowed me to cut back my medication dosage by half last spring, and we’re now on schedule to come off entirely at Easter.

And in January 2013? Most days I have energy, hope, ideas. I feel good. But I’ve had gray days too, days when I am anxious or exhausted and the world does not look worth getting out of bed for. The struggle is not behind me.

I want to share with you some things that brought me out of darkness, but behind them all—Jesus has been good to me. I love Him so much, and I owe Him my life. He held me securely when my mind was sick and confused.

Gray feelings come to many people, for many reasons, but depression proper is rarely one-dimensional. There’s usually more going on than meets the eye. On the most basic level, my body was not getting enough light. But Jesus addressed many areas of my heart, used many things to draw me back to hope.

1. Medicine helped me.

It really did. It gave me the space and ability to heal. For what it’s worth, my doctor and my mentor agree that depression should be treated as both physical and emotional, not as one or the other.

2. Talking with a mentor helped me. A lot.

My darker emotions churned inside, and I didn’t know where to go with them. I thought I was good at processing things, but that was in my journal. I was not good at allowing others into my darkness, or at walking head-on into struggle rather than circumnavigating or jumping to quick fixes.

I think that one of Satan’s most vicious weapons is isolation, when we believe that we are quite alone and must be silent. I grew up blessed with a good family—a mom and dad with whom I could talk freely. Now I have a good man who listens to me well. But I had to learn to broaden that support base, to open my heart to others. When you talk to a spouse or a family member, they are on your team. They are biased, slightly bent in the same places you are. Meeting Jesus in community is one of the most life-changing things I know. I wrote more about that here.

Daniel Defoe says,

How frequently, in the course of our lives, the evil which in itself we seek most to shun, and which, when we are fallen into, is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very means or door of our deliverance, by which alone we can we raised again from the affliction we are fallen into. (Robinson Crusoe)

For me, the evil was not depression. The evil was calling for help. The evil was admitting I didn’t have it all together. The evil was letting people in. And that “evil” became one of Jesus’ most effective tools in saving me.

3. Exploring truth helped me.

I believed some wrong things about Jesus and the world. Maybe it seems like a good thing to yearn for heaven so earnestly, or to have no fear of death. But I wanted heaven as an escape because I couldn’t handle life. And some fear is normal—a healthy safeguard that God puts in place. These days when I hear of a life cut short, I feel sad. Not jealous.

Jesus allowed me to take this slowly, but he has begun opening my eyes to His beauty and presence in the world. He is up to something. His victory is already assured—and I get to be a part of His work in changing this broken earth.

4. Learning to recognize my triggers helped me.

I mentioned holidays and shopping, so we try to watch carefully what we commit to over holiday seasons, and keep things simple. Sometimes in the winter I give my mom a grocery list, and send her out for me. But I have more subtle triggers too. Unsettled pain. Unresolved anger. I had to learn to feel when I was going there, and get some rest and help.

5. Creative outlet helped me.

I grow stuff now—lots of houseplants, summer veggies. I plan gifts. I spend time in nature. I write a lot—that alone has been revolutionary in helping me to process life. The path here will be different for each person. What do I love? What am I good at? I had to find ways to incorporate joy and purpose into my weeks with a few concrete habits.

6. Coming to terms with my depression helped me too.

  • Permitting myself to struggle—I’m a very human woman who faces ordeals I find hard to withstand. It’s okay to feel, and even to feel black. That doesn’t mean I have to go under.
  • Allowing time for healing
  • Getting the rest I need—i.e. in the winters: a lot
  • Working at learning the balance between getting out and doing things (to stay engaged and afloat), and saying no (when it’s simply too much)
  • Accepting that my bent toward depression is one of the things that makes me need Jesus and His people

I don’t know how to wrap up a story that hasn’t ended. But once again I thank you for your grace to me. If you or someone you love struggles with depression, keep in mind it will not look just like my story. Depression wears many faces, and each of them should be taken seriously…

The End.

The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning. -Ivy Baker Priest

Déjà vu

I am in the middle of a story about my experience with seasonal depression. Begin at the beginning right here.

*****

Spring came, and I felt fine. Life moved on. Life was good. But I encountered some really low times, and they got worse. Seemed like each January I bottomed out, though there was always a legitimate “reason”—either I was pregnant (hence emotional), or I’d just had a baby (hence fatigued), or we were facing some difficult things at work or church…

One evening in January 2009, I sat writing in my journal and got a strong sense of déjà vu. I think I’ve written this before… I paged back, and back, and back–and found I had written some nearly identical entries exactly one year before: January 2008. For the first time, I asked myself Could this be seasonal depression?

I took stock and realized—Um. This year there is absolutely nothing “wrong” with my life. We’re healthy. I’m not pregnant. My baby is two years old. We have no major stresses. But I am writing blackness, just like last year.

Black is really the word, though I want to be sensitive to anyone who considers it racially loaded. I do not; and I can’t find another word that comes close.

Usually in the fall, I could feel a frightening slide into frustration and futility. Several years in a row, I hit extremely low points right at Christmas. (Uh-huh. There’s a reason I’d skip the month of December if I could… Association is a powerful deterrent.) January and February would be dark, and in March I’d suddenly feel like I was waking up. The robins would return. Spring would scent the air. I’d think Where have I been, these last three months?

Well, I’d been immersed in every dark emotion at once… fear, anger, hatred, despair. I cried. I slept. I prayed to die. I also experienced physical symptoms, though I didn’t know why. I became weak, shaky, exhausted. I dropped things a lot—I mean physical things.

Once I took part in a small cooking demonstration for my church ladies. Doing my show there in front of everyone, I dropped a sharp knife right down by my feet. Embarrassed, I picked it up… only to immediately drop it again. They began chuckling at me, not unkindly. Did she just drop that again? And I dropped it the third time. Numb with shame and panic, I furtively retrieved it, set it safely on the countertop. What is happening to me?

I walked so close to the limit of what I could handle. I learned to spend time in the evenings doing nothing, just sitting. My small son Aarick invented a new imaginary friend, with an imaginary mother whom he named Always-Tired.

I was afraid to go out with people, especially crowds. I felt I was wearing my exhaustion like a garment; like people would take one look at me and say Oh my word, honey! What’s wrong?!

Once we discovered that my symptoms were seasonally affected, we took some steps to cope. If you’re dealing exclusively with SAD, they are excellent helps:

1. A natural-spectrum lamp

  • Sometimes it’s called a “happy light” or a “sun lamp.” You can order one here, instructions included. The bulb is made to produce additional rays, simulating the sun’s spectrum of natural light. Basically you sit with your lamp for 20-30 minutes a day, reading or working on a project. When I ordered this one and began using it, I could tell a measurable difference within half a week.

2. Supplements

  • Vitamin D is what I took, in large doses. Ask a doctor if you are unsure how much is healthy. These capsules pack an astonishing 1250% daily value.
  • Others have recommended St. John’s Wort, SAM-e, and/or 5-HTP. I have not tried these myself, but have heard good things of each. (Caution is needed when combining them with some types of medication.)

3. Getting outside whenever possible

  • You may have to force yourself to do so, but the fresh air, light, and exercise will prove themselves invaluable.

Using these helps, I felt strengthened and fortified. Though expecting our third child, I had one whole winter of equilibrium (minus a February week of darkness). I was so relieved. This is the answer. I can beat it. But heading into winter two years ago, I made some big mistakes…

Bleak midwinter

I am in the middle of a story about my experience with seasonal depression. Begin at the beginning right here.

*****

Nine years ago, I looked out my window and thought, I had no idea there was so much gray in the world. Born and raised on the northern edge of Minnesota, I was the last person in the world to be afraid of winter snow. But every day? Every single day, with constant, oppressive cloud cover? Here was something strange.

Newly-wed and deeply in love, I thanked Jesus for the good life He’d given me. But I was lonely.

My house required little care. My husband left each day for work, taking our only vehicle with him. Stranded in an unfamiliar community with a total of zero family members, zero close friends, and precious few people I knew at all, I paced my living room and watched the snow fall.

I developed what I called “cabin fever” that first winter: a restless loneliness, a desperate yearning for the sight of something (anything!) green.

Growing up, I lived for winter, and I’ll tell you why. Every year of my life but one, my family traveled to Maranatha Bible School, a place I loved, a place I grew and thrived and came alive, a place I belonged. I hated my teenage home of Plain City, Ohio. Winter brought an explosion of brilliance and color, and when I returned home after two months, spring was in full swing.

Only once before in my life had I lived out a whole winter in one place.

Now I was in Guys Mills! the region in which my doctor claims the US government once positioned a top-secret base during wartime, because it was always hidden from satellite images by the heavy cloud cover. I don’t know if that is true. I do know that when the sun comes out from behind the clouds, we all run outside with our hands up, thinking the Lord is returning or something.

It’s one of the worst possible places to live if you have SAD, or are about to have SAD, and the journey was just beginning…