Monday, November 2, 2009

SAD songs say so much

I took a week off from postings because I was struck by a mixture of fatigue, slight seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and unchanneled restlessness. I don't get hit with that too often, but every now and then some sort of minor mental affliction takes up occupancy in my head for a few days, and holds on until I can shake it off with a combination of friends, exercise, reading, and a couple of good nights of sleep.

I hadn't planned to write this blog about SAD or depression, but after the above brief intro, I think I'll continue.

I always hated and despised the approach of Winter. I still do. But over the past few years, the advent of cold and darkness doesn't instill the same sense of dread and hopelessness that it used to. In 1991 and 1992, living in San Francisco and Dallas, respectively, I had a brief respite from the absolute terror I felt each year at the onset of Winter. When I returned to Kansas in 1993, after the two years of freedom from SAD, the symptoms only became worse. I would fall into serious depression, gain weight, have a terrible time sleeping, have troubled interactions with friends and family, and have inward-turning violent fantasies. Over the mid to late 90's, I honestly couldn't estimate the number of times I wanted to die - at my own hand, at the hand of others, or by accident. Every single night (and often during the day) for years, I would think for hours about how I no longer wanted to be around and participate in anything having to do with life.

And the SAD only got worse. It finally overflowed into the rest of the year as depression set in throughout the calendar. I also started suffering from terrible heartburn. It was so bad that I slept with a bottle of Tums (backwards, I always found funny, Tums spells smuT) by my bedside. I'd take a couple before bed, then once or twice as well during the night as heartburn pain would tear my from a usually restless slumber. And the depression hurt in other ways too. As the psychic pain became physical pain, I would regularly feel continuous sharp pains in my chest - the kind you feel when you are about to cry. Except in my case, whether or not I burst into tears, there was no subsidence to the pain. Finally, I knew my depression was coming to a head when on a flight, I looked out of the plane's window and thought, I could give less than a shit if this bird fell out of the sky. Or rather I thought that I thought it, because my traveling companion heard me utter the thought and was very uncomfortable the rest of the flight.

In 2001, I got invited to bike around the southern portion of France with a few friends. I started training for the ride. I was heavy, but not particularly out of shape. What followed the training was one of the greatest two weeks of my life, as five of us rode our bicycles on a self-contained tour which began in the dirt-bag city of Marseilles, and then went in a broad circle through wonderful places like Avignon, Aix, and Cassis. Sometime during the ride, the five of us were sitting at dinner and having a discussion that touched on mental health. It turned out that each person on the trip had been to see a shrink at some point in their lives. Three, in fact, had been to see the same shrink. All felt as though the visits had helped them very much. So, when I returned to Kansas (sadly just a few days before 9/11), I called and made an appointment.

I won't go through the whole experience, but some thousands of dollars later, and following some teary psychiatrist couch scenes worthy of a Hallmark movie, I was on the road to recovery. In the sessions, we did therapy that was both traditional as well as a newer type of treatment known as EMDR (see link below). I also started taking Zoloft. I knew that I only wanted to take a drug such as this for a couple of years, and then it would (I hoped) keep working after I had been weaned off of it. Prior to taking any anti-depressant, I had been very leery of them. I was worried that the drugs would turn me into an emotionless corpse, walking though the world with little feeling for anything. But I was desperate to get better. And the lows were so low that I felt I needed to do something. And curiously, Zoloft worked for me. It is true that while on the drug, the highs I had previously experienced when something wonderful happened, weren't as high. But the lows were also definitely not as low. It really took the edge off of everything. While the life experience may have been slightly dulled during the time I was on the anti-depressant, I found that I could walk along the edge of the depression precipice without ever actually falling in.

A couple of years after starting the combination of therapy and modern medicinal cures for the depression, I stopped doing both. And now, years later, the effects of the combo are still evident. While I'm still a bit OCD, and still have some swings of mood and temperament, I am much more able to control the lows when they spring forth on cold Winter days, and darkest of nights. It isn't a picnic on the lawn, but it is manageable. I have many friends who have taken a variety of anti-depressants, and most (not all) have done very well with them. Many too have gone to therapists. And most (not all) have had good experiences there as well.

I think that SAD and depression are pretty easily diagnosed by those around the person experiencing the symptoms. It seems much harder to diagnose yourself, because you don't have any frame of reference to how you should actually be feeling. It is much like getting a first pair of glasses. Until you get them, you don't have any realization that the world beyond a certain point isn't blurry. Once you do have a pair, you see what you have been missing - how the other half lives.

So, as we again approach the crappiest of all seasons, think about anyone you care about near you who may be feeling the effects in a more extreme manner than normal. If you do see the signs, take a moment to see if the person is aware of it, and if he/she is taking steps to work through it. While they may not want or take your help, you will have at least done your part to help make them aware that there may be a problem that they should be addressing.

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