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For SAD People Everywhere,
There's a Remedy at Hand


Robert Taylor

To a significant number of Britons, the onset of winter is a cause of deep regret. Thatís if they suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly acronymed SAD and otherwise known as the winter blues.

The cause of SAD is simple. Darkness discourages the body from producing serotonin - a substance that people need in order to keep themselves jolly. In SAD people, reserves of serotonin seem to dry up altogether in the darker months. The less daylight there is, the worse they feel.

It didnít surprise me to read that the term SAD was invented in Britain. In all probability the condition itself was invented here too. London in particular can be a pretty gloomy place during winter. Sometimes it seems as though an impenetrable grey blanket has been laid across the city. And even when blue skies are in evidence, the working hours demanded of Londoners and the fact that most travel on underground trains means that a lot of people donít get to see proper daylight at all.

No doubt the same syndrome afflicts people throughout the northern hemisphere but they lack the catchy acronym invented here.

Unfortunately those people that arenít SAD can be rather sarcastic and unsympathetic to those that are. They liken SAD to ME - or so called ďyuppie fluĒ - and say that itís only suffered by people fortunate not to have anything more serious to worry about. Itís not a real illness, they say. Itís all in the mind (which is stating the obvious). No doubt this skepticism and ridicule make SAD people feel even worse.

For me the skeptical line of thinking doesnít add up. Just because SAD isnít as serious as, say, bubonic plague, and not so obviously visible as a broken leg doesnít mean itís not an illness. Most Westerners are pretty sure to live into a ripe old age. If theyíre free of physical ailments, then mental and emotional ones will come to the fore.

And in any case the symptoms of SAD, in acute form, are really quite disturbing. SAD people will feel unmotivated, withdrawn and doom-filled. They may experience problems sleeping and varying forms of depression including guilt, anxiety and hopelessness. They may avoid company and experience loss of libido, lethargy and even stomach problems or lowered resistance to infection. Starved of something to cheer itself up, the body craves carbohydrates, and therefore SAD people tend to eat more in the winter months, making them fatter and even more SAD.

The figures say that two per cent of people in Northern Europe suffer badly from SAD, with 10 per cent putting up with milder symptoms. In other words, this is not a psychosomatic or imaginary illness. Itís pretty common and should, to my mind, be taken seriously. So letís put all the skeptics to one side for a moment, and concentrate on what SAD people should do about their condition.

Actually I have to admit some bias here. Iím one of the ten per cent that suffer SAD mildly. SAD people like me canít understand how the majority of the nation can suffer the winter without becoming SAD. I have friends who donít like the summer for what to me are spurious and ridiculous reasons, like ďLondon gets too hot and sticky,Ē or ďthere are too many tourists.Ē To them, I suppose, my saying that the winter months make me fat and inconsolable is equally strange.

Now obviously Iíve read about all sorts of possible remedies for SAD, but one of the best and simplest, though more expensive, is a winter holiday in the sun. Last year I went to Antigua for a week in December, and found that the burst of ultra violet light in the middle of winter lasted me through until late March when Londonís climate became something approaching bearable again.

The day I left was a truly atrocious one - the sort that only London at its worst is capable of. It was still dark as I drove to the airport, and the windshield was battered by gusts of hail. The highway was like something out of a nuclear winter - all dark, wasted gloom. Yet I loved every minute of it, safe in the knowledge that I was escaping. Later, there was sheer joy when the plane broke through the clouds and we were suddenly bathed in light and sunshine. The relief was indescribable.

But the ultimate pleasure is in stepping off the plane on a balmy late afternoon in the Caribbean. Having stepped onto the plane in hail and darkness youíre ready to believe that youíve been the subject of some wildly elaborate magical trick -- something too good to be true. You wander around for the first few hours with a silly disbelieving grin on your face. And all because the sunís shining, and itís warm.

A week in the sun can work wonders on various different levels. The thrill of impending escape makes you revel in the misery of the dark months leading up to it and the anticipated contrast. This year I booked my holiday as early as possible, so that I could begin looking forward to it. Itís still over a month before I go, but Iím already dreaming about the beaches I will swim off, the restaurants I will dine at and the exotic cocktails I will sip. Truly, Iím like a kid in October that has already started looking forward to opening his Christmas presents.

You can see how SAD I am.

Now obviously the downside of a winter holiday is the homecoming. Everything is done in reverse, and instead of a silly grin you have a hangdog look of despair. Thatís when you have to resort to other ways of alleviating symptoms. After all, something that has been deemed worthy of medical terminology must also be granted the privilege of medical treatment.

Light boxes are all the rage here in London. I havenít bought one yet, but Iím told you have to sit beside it for a bit, and then you feel fine. I admit that at first I was extremely dubious about this. How can the body be tricked into believing itís bright and sunny when itís dark and miserable? It sounded to me like the famous Russian parody on Stalinist propaganda. If the train breaks down, just shut the curtains and Ďpretend that the train is moving.í

But it turns out that the average body - and certainly mine - is more stupid than I thought, and perfectly capable of being tricked into believing something that isnít true. Light therapy has been proven effective in up to eighty-five per cent of diagnosed cases. Now I reckon that anyone suffering badly enough to bother with a diagnosis must have worse symptoms than me. So Iím now pretty hopeful that a light box will suit me fine.

The preferred level of light in a light box is ďas bright as a spring morning on a clear dayĒ - which seems to make sense - and for most people allowing the light to reach the eyes for three quarters of an hour daily will be sufficient to alleviate the symptoms. Thankfully you donít have to stare at the light, but can watch TV or read. It really sounds rather relaxing.

But just in case it doesnít work, a friend of mine has also recommended buying daylight-simulation light bulbs. Iím willing to give it a go, but does it mean Iíll end up walking in sunshine from my bedroom to the bathroom, even in the middle of the night? The good news is that even one of them will make a difference, especially if positioned over my desk where I like to think I spend some productive time.

And if all else fails, thereís always Prozac, of course. This is almost guaranteed to work because it gives the body the serotonin it lacks, and so should automatically cheer you up. The only downside is that if you take Prozac you officially become a nutter - at least in my book - and thatís a seriously depressing thought.

But whatever the chosen remedy, SAD people like me should choose not to suffer in silence, nor to accept oneís fate or to consider it too inconsequential to worry about. Human beings can only try to deal with the ailments placed before them. You canít expect someone suffering from SAD to ignore ways of alleviating it, any more than someone suffering from a headache should refrain from opening the cupboard in search of aspirin.

It is surely the height of arrogance, and a demonstration of a profound lack of empathy, to assume that something you canít visualise and donít experience yourself isnít debilitating to others. SAD is real enough for me, and real enough for many others.

Now, where can I buy one of those light boxes?

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