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Sleeping In Seattle: The Consequences Of SAD

depressionI recently mentioned my somewhat reluctant decision to relocate from Seattle when the right opportunity presents itself (A job and nice one bedroom in Berkeley, North Oakland or Boulder anyone? Anyone?).

While my move was precipitated by a layoff in February, I've known for a year that a relocation was necessary, regardless of my affection for my adopted city – despite my beautiful, relatively affordable apartment just two blocks from Lake Union and my peaceful, tree-lined neighborhood full of pretty houses brimming with gardens and backyard chickens. Even though I can walk everywhere, crime is virtually nonexistent and my landlord rocks.

The real reason I'm leaving Seattle is because I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and arthritis (due to a bizarre infectious disease acquired in Ecuador three years ago). SAD is thought to result from a shift in the body's circadian rhythms, due to changes in sunlight patterns (think of how certain mammals hibernate in winter). Shorter, darker days also increase the amount of melatonin, a hormone linked to the regulation of sleep and waking, released by the pineal gland. Perhaps my being a Southern California native is to blame (although I'm officially a resident of Colorado...it's complicated, I know).
seasonal affective disorderIt took me a long time to commit to a move to the Pacific Northwest, despite my love of the region, because I was concerned about the climate. But, like many before me, I was seduced by a record-breaking Seattle summer three years ago when the temperature soared into the upper 80s and the sky remained a clear, vivid blue. The job prospects appeared promising and an incredible sublet fell into my lap. I was in Seattle for the weekend for work and a month later, I was living there. It was like I'd hijacked myself.

My friend Chris has lived in Seattle since 1994. We were hanging out during my visit when I announced I was going to move. "It's not usually like this," he cautioned. I was busy gaping at Mt. Rainier in the distance.

He didn't lie. I've been waiting for the weather to be like that ever since. I was filled with anticipatory dread before my first winter, which is why I'd initially only committed to a sublet. It turned out to be the mildest winter Seattle had seen in years, causing me to mock the locals I'd met. "Just wait," they told me ominously (for a different viewpoint, check out my Gadling colleague Pam Mandel's ode to Seattle winters, here).

The last two winters – which have been harsh, even by Seattle standards – have kicked my ass. It's not the "snow" we've gotten; I love snow. But Colorado averages 300 days of sunshine a year, and it has a tolerable, dry cold. Seattle cold seeps into the bones, and summer is a negligible term for most of that season. I actually didn't realize I had post-infectious arthritis until two years ago, when the Fourth of July dawned wet and dismal, and my joints felt like they'd entered their golden years overnight.

Since then, I've experienced varying intensities of arthralgia in my hands and knees as well as low-level to serious fatigue. As a runner, this was problematic and my depression increased because I had turned from physically active, adventurous outdoor fanatic to couch potato. I often required daily naps, which wracked me with guilt.

Not until last summer, while visiting my former home of Boulder, Colorado, did I fully realize the impact Seattle was having on my physical and mental health. On my first morning, to quote a SAD-suffering friend, I felt like "someone had turned the world's lights back on." I marveled at the sunshine and warm air. I shocked myself by effortlessly doing a three-mile run – the first half uphill. Every day, I stayed outside until sunset. My arthritis had vanished. I felt like me, again: the spaz who can't stand to be indoors when the sun is shining. I was productive and active and a much, much happier person. I had the same experience while in northern Chile in August.

I returned to Seattle and wham! I morphed into the worst of the seven dwarfs again: sleepy, grumpy and lazy. Work circumstances forced me to postpone a move, and it seemed like every day it was either pissing rain or the sky was low and leaden. I had difficulty concentrating on work, and was irritable and overemotional. Desperate, I sought the care of an excellent psychiatrist, who combined talk therapy with antidepressants.sun

While getting laid off sucked, it was also a strange relief. The one thing tying me to Seattle was gone. The thought of leaving is disappointing, but life is too short to live embedded in the couch. The economy is picking up in the Bay Area and I've had some very promising job leads.

It's hard to admit that the color of the sky exerts such influence over your mood. However, I'm not alone; according to Mental Health America, three out of four SAD sufferers are women.

My advice: the sooner you admit it, the sooner you can get on with living. Whether you require phototherapy, antidepressants, extra Vitamin D, counseling, acupuncture, warm-weather vacations, or relocation, the bottom line is that SAD is very real and can have a devastating impact upon your quality of life as well as your personal and professional relationships and career. And, like a romance that's not quite right, it's not worth sticking it out. Me? I've decided that Seattle is ideal for the occasional weekend fling.

Signs you may be suffering from SAD (these symptoms are most likely to occur in winter, but some forms of SAD do occur during the summer)

  • Inability to concentrate or increase in irritability
  • Feelings of sadness, unhappiness, or restlessness
  • Fatigue and/or lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Increase in appetite/weight gain
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increase in sleep and daytime sleepiness
  • Loss of interest in work and activities you once enjoyed

Where to get help:

Talk to your health care provider, who can refer you to a specialist. For additional information and support, check out the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA) website.

[Photo credits:girl, Flickr user Meredith_Farmer; clouds, Flickr user CoreBurn;sun, Flickr user Warm 'n Fuzzy]

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, Learning, North America, South America, United States, Ecuador, Travel Health, Women's Travel

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