This winter, I’ll be talking about my battle with Seasonal Affective Disorder in a biweekly column called Diary of a SAD Girl. You can read the first two installments here and here.
You can have my seat on the train, the money in my pocket, my umbrella, the last cookie, the literal shirt off my back. Really, you can have it. I’ll get another one or I didn’t need it in the first place or you need it more than I do and I’m happy to live without it. I’m a Giver. Capital “G.” When I was in fifth grade, I met my first homeless person — a man with a beard wearing army fatigues, begging for coins near the Lincoln Memorial — and I handed over all my souvenir money. That’s when it started, I think, the Giving thing, and I’ve never looked back. My therapists over the years have shared plenty of theories about it, but the simple truth is that giving makes me feel good. Life is wild and precious, like Mary Oliver said, and we only get one shot at it, and what am I doing with all this stuff anyway?
The problem is that while I’m really good at Giving, I’m terrible at asking for what I need. Maybe it’s because I grew up Southern and learned early on that women’s desires are not as important as men’s desires, and that God made me to serve, not to be served. Or maybe it’s because I was raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder who conditioned me to believe that my most basic needs were frivolous at best, and an unpardonable burden at worst. Or maybe it’s because depression, and all the messages I’ve internalized from the media and politicians and church over the years, have tricked me into thinking I kinda suck and sucky people shouldn’t ask for things due to sucking. Or maybe it’s because I’m an empath and I understand in my deep heart what it would cost for someone to do something for me, or what it would cost them to say no.
When I was a little kid I earned some tickets to an Atlanta Braves baseball game for (lying about) reading a bunch of book over the summer. My family didn’t have much money, so snagging free passes to anything was a huge deal, and my dad loved the Braves. He gave me a crisp twenty dollar bill when we arrived at the stadium and before we even made it through the gate, I’d bought an official Braves batting glove and plastic batting helmet. We didn’t know it was Batting Glove and Helmet Night, and that all kids under the age of 12 were getting those things for free. I thought about it in the first inning and the second, worked up the courage through the Braves’ next several at-bats, and finally, during the seventh inning stretch, I asked my dad if I could have a little extra money to get a special souvenir, one that every other kid in my school wasn’t going to have just for showing up at the game.
If I live to be a thousand years old, I will never forget the heartbroken look on his face when he said, “Honey, I just can’t afford it.” What he didn’t say — but what I knew — was how angry he was at himself that he hadn’t checked the special giveaways before he let me buy the glove and helmet; and how sad he was that I felt disappointment on this rare night out at a real live Major League Baseball game; and how frustrated he was that he couldn’t even spare ten dollars because we needed that money for gas to get back home. It devastated me to devastate him. I wished the words back in my mouth, prayed he’d forget it, promised myself not to ask for anything ever again.
Probably my inability to ask for what I need is a little bit of all those things. It’s no way to live, I know. It’s not noble. Being a giver who is unwilling to let herself receive love from other people is a disastrous combination of personality traits. And I do need things! I need my girlfriend to hold me close sometimes and promise me I won’t feel how I’m feeling right then forever. I need my dear friends to laugh with me and listen to me and wrap me up in the light of their hearts when the world is too dark for me to cope. I need advice from my sister, encouragement from my co-workers, a safe place to land from my family. Sometimes I just need someone else to decide what to do for dinner.
When I started thinking about how to fight my Seasonal Affective Disorder this year, I made the terrifying decision that I would tell the people closest to me what I needed from them to help me fight my battles. I made that decision because I’ve tried to fight SAD all by myself for a decade and have never been successful. I made the decision because I’ve come to believe that my one wild and precious life will never be full if I don’t proactively, aggressively dismantle my childhood hardwiring. I made the decision because the people I love give me a gift when they show me how to love them. They give me a gift when they ask for what they need. And probably they feel the same way about me.
I asked my girlfriend to do all her ready-for-bed things earlier in the night because I always go to sleep before her — and need more sleep than her, especially in winter — and if she gets up and down out of the bed to do those things, I wake up more. She was so happy to do that for me, and she did a dozen other little things, too, once I asked her for that small thing. She pre-opens her nightstand drawer where she stores her laptop, so she can move it in and out of there without making any noise. She wears bluetooth headphones when she watches football on the bedroom TV, because it lasts so late into the night. I asked one of my best friends to take long walks with me in the park on Sundays, and to hold me accountable for doing it, and she said it was her absolute pleasure to be give me companionship and exercise and vitamin D-filled afternoons, three things that are essential for me for fighting SAD. I asked my closest friends to spend last Saturday celebrating my 37th birthday with me, and they took the train and drove in from other states and my sister even flew to New York, to turn an afternoon brunch into an all-day lovefest that ended with whiskey and midnight pizza. All these beautiful, brilliant queer women, loving me, loving me, loving me, seemingly unburdened by my needs.
It’s helping. Two days a week, I still end up face down on my bed by 6:00 in the afternoon. My creative energy is harder to tap into, and flows more slowly and dries up more quickly than it does during the spring and summer and early fall. The bone-ache of sadness is here — I’ve cried in every restaurant in Astoria in the last month — and so is the anxiety. So far, though, and for the first time ever, it doesn’t seem insurmountable. My SAD has always felt like a tidal wave I was destined to be crushed under; right now, it feels like regular ocean waves. I’m fighting it one crest at a time, falling down sometimes but not always, and knowing a life raft will be there if I need it, knowing someone will come. Not because they have to, but because they want to. Not because they sensed that I was drowning, but because I finally realized it was okay to call out for help.
I think all the time about how you somehow always seem to give me exactly what I need exactly when I need it without my needing to ask for it. I hope to be that for other people someday, but in the meantime, I’m glad you’re getting better at asking. Because nothing makes me happier than making people happy, especially the people that make me the happiest (like you!).
Love you, friend. <3
I love you, Punky!
You have such a lovely soul, Heather. Thank you for sharing.
On a broader note, I truly appreciate this site for its willingness to openly discuss (and normalizing without downplaying) ‘mental health issues’ (for lack of a better term). The people who write for and comment on AS have really helped me to work on de-stigmatizing my own issues/diagnoses/whatevers. I am grateful.
this is a deeply sweet series that I’m really appreciative of.
sidebar, did anybody ever recommend ‘Will I Ever Be Good Enough?’ to you? It’s my favorite book about parents with NPD, and is specifically about mothers & daughters.
and up with friends who go on long walks with you! I have been making this request of friends a lot lately, partially because MH and partially because I can’t go running right no because of plantar fascitis, it’s been so enjoyable.
Whoooo boy this is so me it was like a punch to the gut. Like, I had to stop reading and get up and walk around because I almost started crying at work???
Came to read about SAD because although I’ve never personally experienced it since I’ve always lived in sunny/warmer places (Florida and California respectively) Heather’s writing is always super compelling. Wasn’t expected to be sucker punched by childhood poverty flashbacks.
“If I live to be a thousand years old, I will never forget the heartbroken look on his face when he said, “Honey, I just can’t afford it.”” I had almost this exact experience but with attending a birthday party at a movie theater. My Mom worked really hard to make sure we didn’t ‘feel’ poor, so moments like that really stand out. Like shame, anger, disappointment, and sympathy for your parent all in one. And although I now (try to) refuse to feel shame for my past, remembering those moments makes me suddenly seven years old again.
I also have a lot of trouble asking people for things, I’d never really made that connection before. Although I think that might have more to do with me feeling like I don’t deserve love/good things.
This whole piece is super great, thank you for sharing.
I went to a job interview today and I brought my usual big messenger bag.
It’s a very beautiful Ravenclaw scarf made from the wool of frolicking babysheep from the Scottish countryside.
And it is riddled with holes.
When did I get clothing moths? How did I not notice?
I did, actually, but I still haven’t done anything about them.
And when you don’t care for things, they get worse.
And then,the things you love, they leave you.
And then you get very lonely.
And then you become very,very busy.
I brought the scarf, because it goes so well with the new trenchcoat, but I couldn’t risk anyone seeing the holes, so I took it off on the train.
A little time later, I sat in the office, surrounded by very nice potential new superiors, and I guess we were all very charmed by one another, but then I saw my CV
laying open before the chief, and all I thought was,
“I hope no one notices the holes.”
They are very small.
Just a few here and there, a semester then, a month, or two, or five in between.
Here and there.
Here, actually, right now.
The fabric stretches, is flexible,one wouldn’t notice,really, one doesn’t notice.
No one does.
So, I smile with my new trenchcoat across my lap, in my new jacket, the new shirt, all of which still feel very strange on my skin, and there is my scarf in my bag.
The bag which is slightly too big for a job interview.
The bag is kind of odd, actually.
“I hope no one notices the holes” is a pretty dead-on descriptor of going through life in general. Thanks for this. <3
I don’t know you, but I love you for the beauty you bring into the world. Keep on keeping on, Heather. You’re one of my favorite parts of AS. My girlfriend has really bad SAD too, and sometimes I’m at a loss for how to help her. This column makes me sad and happy at the same time because it’s so pertinent. Your chronicle of your struggle is helping people.
Thanks for writing and sharing, Heather. I’ve been dealing with SAD for a few years now, and it is validating to hear that other people have similar experiences. I’m lucky to have a supportive network of people whom I’ve reached out to more purposefully this winter and it is helping. Also, to those new to SAD, I highly recommend getting a happy lamp and adding it to your tool box of anti-SAD strategies. Just 15 minutes in the morning can be beneficial.
I hope you know just how much joy it gives us to make you laugh with a story or hopefully feel warm with a hug.
It is truly a pleasure to be able to thank you for being such an excellent friend.
Heather thank you so much for being willing to share so much about your struggles with SAD.
One of the most insidious things about depression is how isolated it can make you feel. So while I certainly dont wish this kind of sadness on anyone its still a relief to know I’m not the only one.
When I was sixteen or so, my mum bought me converse for christmas. A year or two earlier I would have been over the moon, but I felt they were super dorky for some reason. THey were plain black, and I realised they were expensive, and I just felt bad, so christmas afternoon, I wound up the courage to tell my mum. I didn’t want her to have spent so much money on a present I didn’t like, when returning them would be so simple. Turns out she couldn’t return them, and I can still feel the sick feeling in my stomach seven years later. I cried so many times that winter. I could have just shut up. I absolutely hated myself for it.
My mum kept them for a couple of years then when I was 21, she gave them to me again. I’ve worn so many holes in them now, but every now and then I go back to how awfully ungrateful I felt, and how disappointed my mum must have been on christmas day. I hope I’ve blow this way out of proportion. I hope she thinks of how much I liked them later on rather than when she first gave them to me.
Not relevant, just feelings I got from this article.
A similar thing happened to me when I was a kid. I’d begged and begged for one of those fold-up scooters, and my mom eventually surprised me with one. But when I was it I was racked with guilt that she’d spent the money. I realized she was right when she told me it was just a fad and I’d stop using it once the novelty wore off. I think she was able to return it, but that ungratefulness and guilt stayed with me.
Let’s talk about vitamin D!
I had a vit D deficiency diagnosis a few years ago and it suckkkkkkkked. I live in Arizona! we get a LOT of sun.
Here’s what I learned:
-The federal regulations (U.S. RDA) for vit D at 400 units per day is based on research from the 1900’s and is the amount needed to prevent rickets, but has not been updated for more recent (reputable) research.
-Most ppl cannot get enough vitD from sun exposure alone; supplements are needed.
In summary: everybody should take 2,000 units of vitD3 daily, regardless of climate/sun exposure.
reference: Linus Pauling Institute.
And I made a screen cap!
IOM recommendations are lower, based partially on the evidence showing that non-white (don’t remember specifics, probably African-American/black non-Hispanic but it could have been collapsed) do not benefit and may in fact have poorer outcomes at higher serum levels. (You can argue about what outcome measure you should look at, though…)
So, if you’re considering taking more than 1,000 IU/day, might want to get a blood test first to see where you are. It’s fat-soluble, and you can end up with toxicity (really quite unlikely, but possible). If you take a multivitamin or calcium, there is probably some vitamin D in there too. Consider it personalized medicine versus population-wide benefit vs. risk curves.
Thanks for the reply! Is IOM Institute of Medicine? I heard that vitD toxicity is pretty difficult (which is nice b/c usually fat-soluble vitamins are easier to take too much of!). Here’s the quote from the Linus Pauling Website:
“Overall, research suggests that vitamin D toxicity is very unlikely in healthy people at intake levels lower than 10,000 units/day ( refs 233-235). However, the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine conservatively set the tolerable upper intake level (UL) at 4,000 IU/day (100 mcg/day) for all adults (Table 3).”
They’re saying that IOM recommends no more that 4,000 units per day, not 1,000 units.
But yes that getting serum levels checked is the sure-fire way, and melanin levels affect outcomes.
For most ppl, they do not get enough vitD because the US RDA is too low and they believe they are getting all they need from sun exposure. There are many websites that describe a ‘vit D deficiency epidemic’ for these two reasons.
The health clinic practitioners I visited, for example, said they get a few ppl PER WEEK with vit D deficiency, which is counter-intuitive for living in a place called “the Valley of the Sun”! So most ppl aren’t getting enough, rather than taking too much, seems like.
Yeah, toxicity is rare but if you get someone who takes a multivitamin with 1,000 IU, calcium with 600 IU, 2,000 IU in a stand-alone supplement, and then drink fortified milk and OJ, hitting 4,000 is feasible. But it’s still something to be aware of, and it’s good to question whether you should be taking something before taking it. Especially if it’s a non-prescription supplement, as the regulation is pretty weak. I have a history of deficiency, and there have been years I’ve needed it, and years I haven’t. High-dose prescription is a good idea for treating actual deficiency just for the quality control.
IOM’s recommended adequate serum level range is lower (20-50 ng/ml with over 50 no longer enthusiastically recommended), not their TUL, which was probably not clear. There was a vitamin D :::: partay:::: in the research world for a while where everyone was “more is better! more is better!” but many people and some institutions have pulled back from that idea. There are still some people who are heavily invested, and it’s entirely possible that perhaps there will be something substantial will eventually be found consistently enough for the recommendations to shift back.
Yes, thank you, I’d second that.
No more than 1000 units per day, and the sun thing isn’t true either.
Half an hour out in the sun at noon in the height of summer in shorts, t shirt and sandals are supposed to cover the daily dose.
So realistically that’s about one or two hours outside in a T shirt on a regular day.
80% of the Northern European population are Vitamin D deficient, btw., because of very little sun, but also because we tend to be stuck indoors more.
This is so interesting/helpful. Thank you.
So I sent your last article to my girlfriend and I am sending this one to my sister. They are both coping with different forms of something similar to what you talk about. I think you’re amazing and thank you for sharing your story.
Heather, this is so great and amazing, and so much of it is so relatable. We are all so lucky that you’re sharing this part of your life with us.
Asking for help…damn that’s a big one. I’m learning the power of this, too. Heather I’m so glad to hear that you are making progress and feeling better! Keep fighting forward!
Bit by bit, you are doing the necessary work, and your efforts will compound. The action it takes to share these thoughts is powerful in and of itself. All the very best to you.
Thank you for sharing this with us. I have struggled with depression and I can relate to much of what you are saying about learning to ask for what you need. I have had a hard time asking for help and always considered it some type of weakness if I had to ask for help.
One of the good things that came out of my most recent bout of depression is that I have gotten better at learning to rely on others and not see this as a form of weakness. I especially appreciated it when you said “So far, though, and for the first time ever, it doesn’t seem insurmountable.” This gives me hope for my future bouts with depression. Thank you again for sharing with all of us!
I love these words.
Thanks for sharing, Heather.
I can relate to not wanting to ask for things. I’m not sure what it is for me, or why, but even for small things I’m left feeling guilty and stressed.
I’ve also dealt with SAD for a couple years, but it’s only this year that I’ve really realized what it is. Coupled with a past eating disorder and self harm tendencies, even though my depression pit isn’t too dark, it can get pretty bad. This year I’ve had some success with taking Vitamin D and B12 and keeping in touch with my friends a lot, but I’m a little bit scared for once winter break for school starts.
“I’ve come to believe that my one wild and precious life will never be full if I don’t proactively, aggressively dismantle my childhood hardwiring.”
You so succinctly described so much. Thank you.
Great piece Heather! It rings so true to my own issues that learning to let go and unlearn the past is half the battle in conquering one’s present demons.
If I didn’t constantly live under the scrutiny of my former self I would probably be a lot happier. Good Luck as you continue the journey!
On another note, is the opposite to SAD a thing?? Like Summer Depression?? The last 2 years my depression/anxiety has really ballooned in the summer months. Which is kind of stupid because I grew up in Australia in the heat, and now I live in Europe?! Australians in Northern Europe are supposed to be particularly susceptible to SAD but I love winter. When I put on a big coat, beanie and scarf and walk around cities all lit up I feel like I’m prancing through a romantic film.
You’re definitely not alone, says here that summertime SAD accounts for 1/10th of all cases.
I have had a harder time in the summer, but for me I think it is maybe more situational than seasonal. Summer is when all my friends leave and for the last few years it’s been the time of year when I have to go through visa renewal hell/job hunting uncertainty.
I’m with you, I find the summers much harder. It’s half situational (people leave town for weeks, sports things stop, I feel like I should be making the most of the time and I’m missing out) and it’s half because I hate being too hot and burn incredibly easily, so leaving the house becomes a massive task of lathering myself up, feeling sticky with suncream, sweaty, grumpy, probably dehydrated and just generally uncomfortable for weeks. Regardless, the winter is the time for me.
thanks guys! I read the link Rachel and its quite interesting.
I guess I’ll see what next summer holds, whether it’s a thing for me of if its more situational factors.
I do feel like there is big pressure here to ‘make the most’ of any good weather, and I would feel horrible and guilty for staying indoors on weekends in the summer, even if I felt totally broken from the week. I remember the first really rainy horrible sunday we had in Autumn I was soon happy because I could snuggle down on my couch and watch netflix and be a vegetable and there was no guilt because there was no reasonable expectation that anyone would leave their house and do anything.
That’s exactly what I was thinking about yesterday as I pondered this! I also put a lot of pressure on myself to enjoy summer. This year our winter is off to an unusual start – mostly dry and occasional blue skies – but it tends to be grey and damp for 3 solid months. So once the sun comes out I feel like I should be outside every minute soaking up all the summery things I could be doing and then feel like I failed at something if I don’t.
I am so grateful for this! Thanks for giving me the courage to ask for help.
Hi Heather, I hope you are well and thank-you for writing such an interesting article. I also suffer from SAD but for the past couple of years I have used a SAD light to combat my symptoms. Have you ever considered trying light therapy during the winter months? I did a lot of online research into finding a SAD light that would be most beneficial to me and I am so pleased that I did. Of course, different people find different things effective but light therapy really helped me out when I was struggling to cope. Please take care of yourself. :)
This was such a punch in the gut – mainly because it rings so very true for me as well. Thank you for sharing your journey with us and, through that, helping others on your journey. I’m sharing this article with M right now so that I can hold myself more accountable with her support. I’m so happy that you’ve found ways to seek out support and feel okay about it. You inspire me and I just adore you.
How typical of a capitalist society that sharing your money and resources, whether material or emotional, with others rather than hoarding everything just for yourself i.e. being a “giver” is pathologized as a harmful and unusual personality trait when all of us should act like that.
thank you, heather <3
Thank you so much for this post & this series. I have the lightbox, I take calcium & just reupped my Vit. D. I am still stuck in Bad Brain mode but am riding it out.
It’s hard to ask for help and I too have to break out of my childhood hardwiring. I love reading your posts Heather.
This is beautiful and important and I am so grateful for your bravery and honesty Heather, whoo.
Also, “I’ve cried in every restaurant in Astoria” is so good because my girlfriend is always crying in restaurants (an empath as well) and beating herself up over it but it is so so okay to do this. Everybody poops and everybody haz feelz.
Send love & warm thoughts your way, Heather!
I don’t suffer from SAD, but I think I can apply the bit about asking those closest to me how to make things easier for me by changing some of their habits when I have my bouts of anxiety/depression, so thanks for sharing that!
I just read this poem called “Percy Wakes Me” from Dog Songs by Mary Oliver (which I just received as a gift from a dear friend I met through Autostraddle!) and it was so beautiful and so perfect for this article I had to share it:
Percy wakes me and I am not ready.
Now he’s eager for action: a walk, then breakfast.
So I hasten up. He is sitting on the kitchen counter
where he is not supposed to be.
How wonderful you are, I say. How clever, if you
to wake me.
He thought he would hear a lecture and deeply
his eyes begin to shine.
He tumbles onto the couch for more compliments.
He squirms and squeals; he has done something
that he needed
and now he hears that it’s okay.
I scratch his ears, I turn him over
and touch him everywhere. He is
wild with the okayness of it. Then we walk, then
he has breakfast, and he is happy.
This is a poem about Percy.
This is a poem about more than Percy.
Think about it.
I highly recommend the whole book for anyone looking for holiday gifts for an animal lover.
Mary Oliver is my favorite. This is perfect, thank you.