The over-engineered gaiety of the holiday season has spent itself on strings of twinklies and on ceramic reindeer. A cat cannot bat an ornament without being showered by needles. By the side of the road, Christmas trees tilt, half buried by the plows. Angels on high have been replaced by credit card balances that are just beginning to arrive with their sobering proclamations. And to top it all off, the world outside has been covered by a blanket of snow as heavy as those lead aprons the dentist puts on you when you get an x-ray, and another, similar, lead apron is stretched across the sky.
People are going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark, and, even if they are blessed with an office window, as I am not, during the day, they spend the day in a dim light. We blame the way we celebrate Christmas for a bleak mood this time of year, but, in my professional opinion, it’s not all the lights and tinsel that’s at fault; it’s the dark. Christmas does what it can to alleviate the dark, but it’s just not enough.
The month-long celebration of Christmas/Chanuka,/Kwanzaa/Festivus is just not enough to overcome a condition so serious to warrant its own DSM diagnostic category: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): the depression that dogs many through the dog days of winter, especially in aging north eastern cities with a rotten core, like mine.
Things get really hopping here at the psych ED this time of year, people looking for medication, a bed in the looney bin, someone to talk them out of the noose. I’m so busy I have no time for my own noose. Still I’m convinced that all these poor, misguided SAD sufferers are looking for the wrong things to alleviate their pain and the interventions we were offering: Christmas, etc, drugs, psych ward beds, and crisis intercession, are misguided and costly.
It makes a lot of psychological sense to place the Christmas/Chanuka/Kwanzaa/Festivus celebrations right in the middle of the winter solstice, when everything is most bleak. Why not compensate for an overactive pineal gland with a forced march to the shopping mall, late night parties combining alcohol with a boss you don’t like, dodging the mistletoe, and the delicious expectation of Santa, judging between the good and the bad. It makes perfect sense to me, except for the fact that the fun must come to an end sometime, the needles must fall, the credit card statements must arrive, and we must all get back to the day-to-day grind we call living when it’s still darker than a coal mine outside.
They way we think SAD works is like this: darkness stimulates the pineal gland to produce melatonin, a hormone which, in turn, travels though your body and puts you to sleep. That’s why most people get sleepy at night and have a hard time getting going on a dreary, dim, rainy day.
Santa ought to leave full spectrum light bulbs as stocking stuffers.
In the morning, the pineal gland stops its production of melatonin and we wake up, although many of us are not morning people, requiring hours of melatonin non-producing and pots of coffee to get going in the morning. In the case of SAD people, there are just not enough non-melatonin producing hours in the day.
The solution is simple: get up and turn on the damn lights.
Ever since Edison, we’ve been blessed with a cheap, effective source of light; if we’d only use it. No, instead, when we wake up in the morning, depressed, we pull the covers over the head and stay in bed, the curtains still drawn, and the lights still off, worsening our condition. Of course, its only natural to do so, sleeping late is what depressed people do, if they sleep at all. What really gets me is the professionals who prescribe the drugs, admit to the psych ward beds, listen for hours to suicidal ideations, when the solution is simple: get them to turn on the damn lights.
This time of the year, I want to buy a case of light bulbs, pass them out in the waiting room and say, “All you who aren’t going to kill yourselves right now, go home and sit under one of these things for a couple hours in the morning. Turn it on first. Better yet, don’t just sit there. Get some exercise under the light. Then come back if you still feel bad.”
Get some exercise, yourself, you fat tub of lard, they would say. But, you see, light bulbs and exercise don’t do me any good. I already know that. I’m like this all year long.
They wouldn’t let me pass out light bulbs in the waiting room. The condition requires further study, they say. We don’t know for certain what causes SAD, they go on, we think it might be an over-active pineal gland, but we’re not sure. A special light works best (Bright white, full spectrum light at 10,000 lux). Light therapy is not covered by health insurance. We need to conduct a full assessment.
Oh, give me a break and turn on the damn lights, whatever light you got. How hard is it?
- Why too much bright light before bed harms sleep (bbc.co.uk)
- Mysterious Melatonin (marianuniversityscienceblog.wordpress.com)
- Turn off the lights if you want a good nights sleep (tricitypsychology.com)
- Light Therapy (psychologytoday.com)