I always assumed that winter was another thing that I was bad at—like mornings or group sports or understanding spy movies. But if it wasn’t my forte, it also wasn’t my fault, I told myself. It was my mother’s. She was, and remains, terrible at winter. I grew up in Toronto, where parka season can span from Halloween to Easter. In the third grade, I dressed as a bunch of concord grapes for Halloween, and my mom safety-pinned the purple balloons to my snowsuit. She always worried I’d be cold, because she always was. When I came home from school between the months of October and April, my mom would hand me a sweater upon arrival, the way a sea captain might offer a passenger a life preserver upon boarding a ship. Winter, in my family, was a survival game.
By late August, when other people were still barbecuing and wearing linen, my mom, who is French-speaking, would gravely declare: “Je fais le deuil de l’ete.” (I’m grieving the summer.”) No time like the present to get a headstart on winter depression. And by the time winter made its legitimate debut, my mom would swaddle herself in so many layers—woolen capes, fleece, Gortex—you’d think we were living in a snowbank. She’d don the kind of spongy thermal socks most people sport with ski boots (she never skiied) and paired them with Moroccan babouche slippers for puttering around indoors.
In her defense, my mom’s antipathy toward Canadian winter is her birthright. She is originally from Morocco and spent the first 20 years of her life without making the acquaintance of a snowflake or a wind-chill factor. I, meanwhile, spent my childhood hearing (and fantasizing about) the splendor of a winter-free life.
Seasonal Affective Disorder [SAD], it turns out, is a term defined and coined by another African who immigrated to North America. South African psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, PhD, moved from sunny Johannesberg to New York City in 1976 to do his residency in psychiatry—and sank into a depression. “When I moved, I changed both my latitude and my attitude,” Rosenthal says. “I had never experienced weather like that before. And I felt completely slowed down. It was a shock to my system.” After three years in Manhattan, Rosenthal moved to Bethesda, Maryland, and, interested in the seasons’ power over mood, focused his research on the biological effects of light at the National Institute for Mental Health. In 1984, he penned Winter Blues, which he calls, “a survivor’s manual for people with SAD.” (The fourth edition was just released in October.)
Unlike a more mild winter funk that might leave you less energetic or productive—just generally sluggish and prone to cravings for, say, gnocchi and cookies—SAD is considered a subset of major depression, bringing feelings of anxiety and despair that can be debilitating. “For clinical purposes,” Rosenthal says, “a full-blown case of SAD is one where there is impairment of functioning.”
Sunlight inhibits the production of nighttime sleep hormone melatonin. So during sunless winter days, we’re pumping out the nap-inducing chemical until around midday, often causing hypersomnia, making us (ok, me) want to take to our beds at socially unacceptable hours. Antidepressants such as Wellbutrin are often prescribed for SAD-ness, but the most common solution is bright-light therapy: Today’s devices typically use blue-wave technology designed to simulate a sunshiny summer sky, which can help adjust our circadian rhythms, suppressing the production of melatonin and activating the production of feel-good daytime neurotransmitters seratonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Light-starved SAD sufferers partake in “light-seeking behavior,” says Rosenthal, who describes case studies of people wandering aggressively lit supermarket aisles by night, perching themselves under plant lights, or seeking out the consoling glow of the office photocopy room.
In the early '90s, my mom and I diagnosed ourselves with SAD. On a particularly grim winter day, the sun having barely made a cameo in weeks, we checked our way through a sort of are-you-SAD list, and festively concluded that we were members of the club. (I don’t recommend this approach: A doctor or therapist should make the diagnosis.) In an attempt to self-medicate, my mom bought a microwave-sized light box that emanates a blinding 10,000 lux—the light intensity medically required to combat SAD. She decided that we would spend at least half an hour a day under its mood-hoisting glow. She usually turned it on at dinnertime. (We didn’t know this then, but evening-hour sessions are ill-advised; SAD patients are counseled to bask lamp-side in early morning to best enjoy the treatment’s energizing effects). So, while other families dined by polite track lighting or tender candlelight, we looked like we were eating on a tanning bed.
To complete the mise-en-scene, she also brought home a motion-activated plastic cardinal that would sing and nervously twitch its ruby head every time we’d approach. In mid-winter, as heavy white clouds hung over a comatose Toronto, our house flourished into a mini Copacabana, complete with sunshine and birdcalls.
One evening, after my mom flicked on our lamp, beaming around us like the footlights at Carnegie Hall, my dad, squinting, said, “Claude, this is extremely bright.” Born in Toronto of Eastern European ancestry, he had the annoying good fortune of not suffering from SAD—something we attributed to his masculine insensitivity. “Well, you’re not supposed to look directly at it,” my mom replied. “We like it.” She reached for the salt, exciting the cardinal to perform. My dad stopped complaining. Thereafter, he wore his sunglasses to dinner.
Many (barely-endured) winters have passed since then. By my mid-teens, I began, much like my mom, to live in fear of the first frost, admiring the lifestyle of the bear or the Boca-bound senior citizen and adopting a wake-me-up-when-it’s-over approach to the crisis (I mean, season). I’ve hatched many schemes, most involving permanent relocation to an always-sunny somewhere with a Golden Girls-style lanai.
Turns out, blaming my issues on my mother was not just the usual adolescent finger-pointing—I am not just conditioned to hate winter, but genetically wired for it. “SAD runs in families,” says Rosenthal. And Hani Iskandar, PhD, a professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University (he moved from Cairo to Montreal in the late ‘70s and counts himself among what he dubs “the SAD people”) posits that my North African ancestry may also be to blame. “Most SAD people are from ethnic groups from sunny places. They are very vulnerable. Lack of light makes them feel weak.”
A study conducted in 2002 at Columbia University found statistical evidence that blue-eyed people suffered milder symptoms of SAD than the darker-eyed among us. “Blue irises admit far more light into the eyeball than darker eyes, and this may serve a protective function against depression in winter, when light levels decrease,” says professor of clinical psychology Michael Terman, PhD, the director of Columbia’s Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms and author of this fall’s Chronotherapy. “Darwin might say that with human migration north, the evolution of blue eyes maintained behavioral health over the dark half of the year, providing a competitive advantage that came to dominate the gene pool.” Brown eyes, on the other hand, function as Venetian blinds or velvet ropes, denying entry to the light and all its mood-adjusting benefits.
A 2008 study at the University of Virginia, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, revealed that it’s not just the color of your eyes, but a special photo pigment in the eye called melanopsin—involved in regulating the body’s circadian rhythms—that pre-disposes people to SAD. The seasonally disordered are prone to carrying melanopsin mutations, which causes them to require more light than the non-SAD, and may help explain why some are, say, inspired to traipse the IGA aisles in the wee smalls.
When my mom and I attributed my dad’s relative invulnerability to SAD to his being a man, our theory was uncannily accurate. Three to four times more women than men suffer from SAD. “If you think about it, males went out hunting and females stayed home and tended to their young,” says Rosenthal, “so it may be that in the winter, it was adaptive for men to cope with the seasons, while females didn’t have to.”
Considering I have the Godfather of SAD on the line, I take the opportunity to get some counsel on how I might better deal with the season. “Get yourself a light box. Or two. In the middle of winter, I use more than one light box—I try to replicate the effects of my vacations in the Bahamas.” He also advises me to purchase a so-called “dawn stimulator” by my bedside so that I can rise gently to the tender pink flush of a summer morning, and encourages me to trick out my apartment with large light fixtures. “You do not want teeny weeny light fixtures,” he continues with his final imperative. “And get yourself a copy of my book.”
Last fall, as days shortened and grouchy, steel-wool clouds quilted Toronto skies, I began to feel that familiar need to sit shiva for another summer gone. But, still clinging to optimistic summer, I resolved to win the game this year. Instead of adopting a faux cardinal or legging it to Rio, I checked myself in for a $20 half-hour light-treatment session at downtown Toronto’s Elmwood Spa (for maximum results, they recommend that I pair spa sessions with daily, at-home light-therapy.) In robe and slippers, I was escorted toward the pantry-sized light treatment room, adorned with a couple of armchairs, SAD-fighting floor lamps, and an assortment of thriving plants. As an exceedingly intense glow beamed over me, I felt like the ficus basking to my left, bathed in the kind of sharp, celestial white light usually associated with sitcom journeys into the afterlife. The other terry-swathed spa-goers wandering past on their way from sauna to hot tub treated me to a look suggesting I might need to seek the intervention of more than a sunbeam.
Perhaps, I concluded, I should stick to self-medicating in private. I acquired a Phillips BluLite box and began breakfasting under its glow for 30 to 45 minutes. After just a few days sitting lamp-side, popping Vitamin D like Judy Garland on uppers, I did feel a bit less like spending the next six months unconscious.
But if today’s light boxes are petite (my Phillips is smaller than an iPad), they are positively Flinstonian compared with the newest SAD-fighting device out on the market. In 2011, Juuso Nissila, PhD, a Finnish researcher at Oulu University partnered with a former executive at Finnish mobile-phone empire Nokia, to found Valkee—a company fashioning sci-fi-like earbuds equipped with tiny lightbulbs that beam into the ear-canal and, supposedly, into the brain itself. According to Nissila and his colleagues, the brain—not just the retina—contains light-sensitive opsin proteins. They claim that at least 18 regions of the brain are photo-sensitive—the same parts that serve as HQ for seratonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. “We believe that the central light-triggered processes for mood enhancement are taking place directly in the brain,” Nissila says, “and by delivering light through the ear canal, it has a much shorter distance to travel than it would if it had to travel through the eye, to reach the mood centers of the brain.” Because of the brief travel distance, daily Valkee treatments are also brief—only 12 minutes long. You don’t have to sit by a lamp like a geranium; you can plug in and grab your light fix pretty much anywhere, without anybody shooting you concerned glances. Valkee is approved for medical use in Europe, but has yet to be approved in North America. I emailed Columbia’s Terman to ask what he thought about this new treatment: “Madness. The data are uncontrolled and do not meet clinical trial standards. The action of light in the ears does not connect to inner clock function. Fie on them!”
But being no stranger to winter-related madness, I got my hands on a pair. On a particularly gloomy day, I considered giving Valkee a go. I tell a friend about it first. “You mean you’re planning on putting on earphones to light your brain? Because there’s no light outside?”
“Right,” I said.
She replied: “That just all sounds so…sad.”