Thursday, April 2, 2009

A YEAR WITHOUT SAD

I don’t remember being bothered by lack of sunlight until we moved to the San Francisco bay area with its cold, dark, wet winters. That is where I heard about SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Every year my winter blues lasted longer and I felt worse.

In 1999, we took a trip to Hawaii in the winter for a week and I found that the sunlight and food charged me up enough to get through the rest of winter. Over the next ten years, I came to Hawaii for one to two weeks to make it through the Northern California winters. I found that the sunlight in Hawaii would last me about a month before I felt the overwhelming winter blues return.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal was the first to describe SAD and pioneered the use of light therapy. Recent research has shown that most people in the Northern US and Europe experience seasonal depression which makes it hard for them to wake up in the morning, hard to lose weight, and feel slowed down during the dark days of the winter. In the worse form of SAD, which affects an estimated 6% of the US population, it causes people a great deal of distress and difficulty in functioning in their lives and may require hospitalization. Another 14% of US adults have a lesser form of SAD, known as the winter blues, which makes them feel less cheerful, energetic, creative, and productive during the winter months compared to other times of the year. Bright light therapy, using a light box with full spectrum light, has proven to be an effective treatment. While in California I used a “light box” which helped tremendously. I heated a small room and flooded it with light and played Hawaiian music to shut out the cold gray world outside. Looking back at those endless days of winter, when I felt like my brain was dead and I was a zombie, I just tried to drink enough strong coffee to get the taxes done and survive until the sun emerged in the Spring.

I was lucky to have a lesser form of SAD, but each year it was more pronounced and lasted longer. Scientists at the University of Maryland have reported that airborne pollution is blocking sunlight causing a global dimming that has been increasing over the past 30 years. A 3 kilometer thick cloud of brown soot and other pollutants is currently hanging over Asia, darkening cities, killing thousands and damaging crops. Dr. Tracey Holloway, at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at University of Wisconsin in Madison, published research indicating about 12% of the pollution in the Western United States comes from emissions in Asia and Europe; in the Eastern US, up to 10% of air pollution comes from those areas. This may account for my SAD getting increasingly worse over the 10 years I lived in Northern California.

The best part of the winter for me was my sojourn to Hawaii, where I stayed as long as I could by finding affordable rooms off the beaten path in communal B&Bs on Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. I remember sitting at the airport in Hawaii, dreading my return to the sunless world of Northern California and wondering why I didn’t just move to Hawaii and what it would be like to spend an entire winter feeling energized and upbeat.

When the opportunity to move to Hawaii finally arrived, we picked Hilo because we found it to be the most affordable community on the Big Island, with the best access to fish, and an endless number of activities that we loved. I was initially concerned that the abundant Hilo rain might be an issue, but after two winters in Hilo and in spite of the rainy days, I have had absolutely no SAD. At this longitude, the only US state below the Tropic of Cancer, the sunlight comes right through the rain so my winter blues never arrived.

As Spring arrives in Hilo, Hawaii and the days get warmer and longer, it is hard to describe how wonderful it feels to greet the new season without feeling like I am coming out of a deep state of hibernation. The joy of living in Hawaii grows for me every day!

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