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For SAD People Everywhere,
There's a Remedy at Hand
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
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unmotivated, withdrawn and doom-filled.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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Now, where can I buy one of those light boxes?
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