When the shortest day – which was this past Saturday, 22 June – comes upon New Zealand each year, my mood slumps. During the month or so around this whole period, I feel low.
It’s hard to get out of bed each day. The problems in my life seem more pronounced than usual. It’s as if everyone is tucked away happily hibernating, and I’ve found myself in a cold cave, on a lumpy rock mattress.
This is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, a type of medical depression that some people think is not real. “You just need to get outside more”, people will tell me. “Try being more social.” Even GPs I’ve seen have seemed apathetic when I’ve brought it up; as if the best medical solution is just to “wait it out”.
SAD is defined as a psychological depression that lasts for a season, normally in the winter months, and goes away during the rest of the year. My SAD is thankfully not debilitating. It doesn’t stop me going to work, nor does it cause thoughts of self-harm or suicide. For many people, SAD can be far worse than what I experience.
Yet there’s science out there that questions the validity of SAD. A major study from 2016 doesn’t claim seasonal depression isn’t real, but does confirm, “Merely being depressed during the winter is not evidence that one is depressed because of winter.”
Let me call fake news on this one. I’m living proof that SAD exists – and so, I suspect, are many of you. Depression is, luckily, not a mental health issue that generally affects me throughout the year. I don’t believe I have a chemical imbalance of serotonin in my brain. SAD is exclusively a midwinter phenomenon for me; the only solution for which, I’ve historically found, has been to leave New Zealand and go to a warmer part of the world for the season. Something I’ve been fortunate (or at least bourgeois) enough to do in the past, but not this year.
It’s more than just a lack of sunlight that causes my experience of SAD, which is why I’ve had no luck with light therapy; the artificial exposure of light via a special lamp to mimic the sun. SAD is first and foremost about the cold. I’m one of those people who, when a chill sets in, are completely unable to warm up. No amount of extra clothing will do it. I feel the cold hit my bones and freeze my body from the inside out.
The rest of the blame of my SAD I can put on the city I live in: Wellington. Our absurdly frigid little capital (a place I otherwise love). When living in Auckland in the past, a wintertime depression hasn’t really hit. It’s still a vibrant and happening city even when it’s a little cold. Yet Wellington is grim this time of year. It feels like there are 50 per cent fewer people on the streets. The wind chill bites you so hard you feel physical pain. Everybody is coughing, spluttering, and sick. It’s nearly impossible to organise anything social because your friends all cancel on you in the hours beforehand so they can stay home.
I’m from the South Island, where winter – despite being even colder – seems far more palatable. You can see real snow on the mountains, which adds a strong element of natural majesty to the season. You can very easily partake in skiing and similar activities without making a costly and time-consuming trip out of it. Public spaces like restaurants, bars, and offices are heated to a higher temperature to entice people out of their homes. It’s generally accepted that winter isn’t all bad.
Not so in Wellington. It’s grey and the heating is poorer than in the rest of the country (arguably because Wellington landlords are infamously stingy, but that’s another story altogether). There’s a real sense of malaise in the city – everyone is just waiting for the days to pass, yearning for something that’s not what we’ve got. There’s no seasonal beauty to enjoy in nature. Every day is a trudge, as if we are just waiting out our wet laundry that never seems to completely dry.
I only have one solution to SAD – bar getting on a plane somewhere else for a few weeks. The one thing I find helpful is telling people that my SAD is real. I explain how it affects me and others reciprocate with their own stories. This doesn’t solve the problem, but makes me feel less lost in this arctic discomfort. It allows me to experience something key in fighting depression: the recognition that you’re not alone in your struggle. The only way we can get through SAD, I argue, is if we all do it together.
• Lifeline : 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline : 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services : (06) 3555 906
• Youthline : 0800 376 633
• Kidsline : 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup : 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• The Word
• Depression helpline : 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth : (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.