For what seems like the fourth time in the past month, Spring seems to have arrived. There had better not be a possible snowfall in the forecast for next week or I’ll be depressed.
While we enjoyed a relatively mild winter this year, that was actually not such good news for some of us. When it’s a cold winter, like last year, at least there’s plenty of sun during those short frigid days. But when it’s a mild winter, it usually goes hand in hand with lots of clouds and precious little sunlight. That can contribute to depression.
I don’t use the terms “depressed” or “depression” lightly or figuratively. You’ll never hear me say: “The store was out of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream… Now I’m really depressed.” I might be disappointed. I might be frustrated. I might be hungry or angry. I might be sad. But depressed? That’s a whole other story.
I’m familiar with clinical depression (also called major depression of major depressive disorder). I went through a bout of severe clinical depression about 10 years ago. For several months I was in psychotherapy, on a heavy dose of antidepressants, and on disability leave.
I managed to emerge from that bout of depression with a combination of the above-mentioned standard treatment for clinical depression, along with exercise, a better diet, and forcing myself to have more of a social life—no easy task for an introvert.
But sometimes it feels like it’s lurking just around the corner. When I felt that way about five years ago, I went back into therapy for a little while, just for a “tune up” as I called it.
I definitely felt it creeping back during this mostly overcast winter. It wasn’t as severe as I have experienced before, but it was a familiar enough feeling for me to know that it was indeed depression. Yet I did nothing about it. Instead I fell into into the vicious circle of lethargy, bad eating habits, lack of exercise and social retreat that are caused by, and contribute to, depression.
I wondered if it might be seasonal affective disorder (SAD—specifically winter-onset SAD), so I recently looked up the symptoms for SAD and major depression. I won’t pretend to have the medical training required to self-diagnose, but how interesting/alarming… I experienced 16 out of 17 of those combined symptoms over the past few months. Most of them would not be obvious to anyone other than myself, since they aren’t necessarily outwardly noticeable. Except for the weight gain—I went from losing 70 lbs. over a 1.5-year period to gaining 20 lbs. in 3 months. And the irritability/“problems getting along with other people”. Yup. I’ve been a rapidly expanding and increasingly obnoxious, angry asshole.
I took some time one afternoon this week to walk along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. Sure, I could have spent the time working. But since I have the luxury of a flexible work schedule as a consultant, I decided to spend the time outside in the sun. Taking a few photos, which accompany this article.
Let me be clear: depression is a serious mental health condition. A walk in the sun will not cure clinical depression. A combination of interventions is usually needed to treat clinical depression effectively. This can include antidepressants and psychotherapy. The medications used to treat depression are more effective and have fewer side effects than ever—a bit like the ever-improving profile of antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV. These interventions are usually required to treat depression because depression is not just “feeling sad”. Clinical depression actually means that the chemical balance in your brain has changed, causing you to perceive the world differently, making you think that the world has changed into a different, darker, depressing place. People living with HIV can be at higher risk for depression, as a result of some of the effects of HIV infection itself or of some ARVs. Talk to your doctor if you think you might be depressed.
As I said, one walk in the sun won’t cure depression. But it’s one (literal) step that can help to chase away the dark and dingy film that clouds your brain when you’re depressed.
I just try to keep in mind what my therapist said me all those years ago. The world has not changed. It’s the same as it always was. It’s my perception on the world that has changed because of the chemical imbalance in my brain. Once I get better, the world will look better again. For now, I will try to eat better, exercise, and go for more walks to Let the Sunshine In.