Volume I, Number 3: Stormy minds and wintry weather

Crazy for winter

BY RUSSELL POWELL

“I’m sick of winter”

We’ll be hearing that and finding ourselves saying it plenty in the next few weeks. But how serious is Seasonal Affective Disorder (with its Dickensian acronym, SAD)? It depends on whom you ask. “For those who have it,” says Dr. Dan Oren, a Yale professor of psychiatry who has studied the condition for twenty years, “it is very serious, and meets the criteria for a major disabling condition resulting in severe depression or even suicide.”

Oren, a former president of the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms, is in the vanguard of researchers studying SAD. In addition to teaching, he serves as medical director of the Center for Environmental Therapeutics (CET) Chronotherapeutics Consultants, “formed in 2004 to advise the hospital and managed-care industries on the implementation of light and wake therapies as adjuncts to drug treatment of major depression,” according to CET’s website.

New England Watershed Vol. 1, No. 3

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That the absence of light, particularly in winter, can cause depression, and that light therapy is an effective treatment, seem common sense. Light and its impact have been noted by scientists and artists for centuries. “It is chiefly the changes of the seasons which produce diseases,” Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, wrote more than 2,000 years ago.

Four centuries later, the medical encyclopeadist Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote De Medicina (ca.30 A.D.),”a compilation of received wisdom about diet, pharmacy and surgery in early Imperial Rome.” Several of his prescriptions for healthy living are recommended for treating SAD (and its milder version, “winter blues”), especially, “live in rooms full of light.”

Writers have long understood the power of light to affect the psyche. In 1623 in The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare wrote “a sad tale’s best for winter.” Then there is Ray Bradbury’s 1959 short story “All Summer in a Day,” in which schoolchildren on Venus forget to release a classmate from a closet during the one hour the sun shines there every seven years (it rains the rest of the time). Margot, the unfortunate victim of her classmates’ cruelty, is a “very frail girl” who looks like “an old photograph dusted from an album, whitened away” from her years without sun.

Painters have always been fascinated with light, evident in works by Joseph Mallard William Turner, whose “Steamboat in a Storm” (1841) and “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” (1831-32) can be seen at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, and “Rockets and Blue Lights,” at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts; or French Impressionist Berthe Morisot, whose “In the Garden” (1885) is part of the permanent collection of the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Table of Contents, Vol. 1, No. 3

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Light seems an obvious cure for SAD, but in many cases, says Oren, “people suffering from it don’t have the energy or the discipline to get out.”

For those who can follow it, much of Celsus’s ancient advice remains good today. Take massage, baths, exercise and gymnastics. Getting outdoors to ski, walk or run, or conditioning your body indoors, makes us healthier and happier. I never regret a walk or run—regardless of weather. The trick, I have learned, is not to think: just lace up the shoes and go before you can talk yourself out of it.

Change surroundings and take long journeys. A week in Jamaica is great if you have the time and money, but so is a resort in the Berkshires, a weekend in Boston or New York, a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont. Even a day or two away from one’s routines breaks up winter’s numbing pace.

Indulge in cheerful conversation and amusements. Host a dinner party. Visit a museum. Misery loves company because company helps alleviate it. The warmth of conversation can overcome ice and isolation.

Listen to music. A soothing treatment for depression any time of year.

“We thought we were immune from biology,” Oren says. “But while heating systems and air-conditioning screen us from the seasons, we still detect them.”

*   *   *

WE’RE ALL A LITTLE CRAZY, aren’t we? We’re crazy for love … chocolate … cats … running … it’s all about passion, really, and a matter of degrees. Even the sanest among us occasionally, briefly lose their heads.

But too much unfocused passion can make us temporarily become “all scribbly and go way outside the lines,” as Sybil Smith writes (page 23). Sometimes an excess of passion produces great art, like Emily Dickinson’s and Wallace Stevens’s poetry. Or complex, compassionate leaders like Abe Lincoln. Yet these individuals often suffer great personal pain to plumb and translate the stormy depths of human emotion.

Others experiencing these depths are less fortunate, lacking the temperament, skills or opportunities to retreat, or translate. They lie beyond our reach and often our understanding. How we, the larger society, treat them has always been a source of mystery experimentation–and controversy.

Our best intentions have often been overwhelmed by our own fears of losing touch with “reality,” leading us to deny the mentally ill their humanity. Dr. Pliny Earle’s humane vision in the late nineteenth century gave way to unconscionably crowded and cruel conditions at the Northampton, Massachusetts, Lunatic Hospital (page 8). More recently, shock therapy has come a long way from its crude, sometimes barbaric beginnings, and is used successfully to treat depression on a selective basis at the Brattleboro Retreat (page 12), though why it works is still not completely understood.

Our best strategy for treating mental illness, it seems to me, is always to remember just how close to the edge we all are–even for a day or season. So put on your hats and scarves and go out for a walk (or to a massage or to pump some iron), despite the weather. If you are stuck inside, curl up with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s How to Paint Sunlight, or bathe in the light of a Vermeer painting.

Turn up the Boss, the Beatles or Beethoven. Pencil in some dinner guests. Plan that weekend getaway, After all, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from living in New England, it’s that in the end, it is only winter. We’ll get through it together.


Russell Powell is editor and publisher of New England Watershed.

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