It’s taken me ages to write and share this post because it makes me feel very vulnerable. However, I think it’s an important thing, to share my experience with you. It’s the point of this blog for you to have a personal perspective on managing SAD and know you’re not alone. I think it’s really important to realise that SAD is never in isolation, which is what I hope to show you. And if you’ve been through similar experiences, I hope this will help you and show you that you will recover.
This post is loosely based around my experience of medication to manage the condition, particularly antidepressants. Around it, I’ll tell you the real story of my last five years of managing SAD, acute and chronic stress, and my tentative recovery from burnout. It’s a long one, and might not be the most engaging thing you’ve ever read! But thank you for being here, for taking time out of your day to visit my blog. 🙂 If you’re feeling in a vulnerable state, please come back and read it when you’re feeling stronger, since some of it may be triggering for you.
Once upon a time..
Up until a few years ago, I successfully managed my symptoms using light therapy. You know what? I was kind of proud of this. I felt like despite life’s many ups and downs, I had this condition nailed. Silly me, right?
Then I went through an intensely stressful couple of years. After some difficult years I ended my nine-year relationship in 2012, losing my home and racking up thousands in additional debt in the process. This wasn’t a clean break; the emotional and practical ramifications went on for well over a year afterwards. A few close friends had moved away, so I felt the loss of my trusted support network and my family live in other cities. At the same time, I had a lot of job-related stress and was going through a long and painful restructure that ultimately resulted in me being demoted. Neither was that straight-forward; the after-effects of that restructure were felt by everyone for two years afterwards at least.
Through all of this, I didn’t take time off sick. I was proud of that, too, you know? Feeling like I’d thrown my entire life up in the air, “but hey, I’m still getting on with life, still smiling, still working hard, still being there for others when they need me…” Wearing my stress like a bloody medal. Well, I discovered the hard way that there really is a limit to how long I can do that.
Stop the world, I want to get off!
Because I kept pushing myself through, my body eventually got sick of me and ground to a halt. I’d been getting progressively more exhausted, to the extent that I was dragging my body around and every movement felt like an effort. Keeping my eyes open was a battle. I was having dizzy spells and feeling like I was going to feint. My colleague later told me she’d never seen anyone look so tired as I had in that period. I just hadn’t realised I’d got so bad.
Mentally, I now realise I was shouting at myself and not listening to that, either. I was having thoughts of harming myself or just disappearing for a while. It wasn’t a desire to die – I just wanted to rest and for everything to be on pause… If I could have some time without stress for a bit I might recover my energy. Be me again.
Well-meaning people were telling me it was an exciting time; I had no real ties and could do anything. They’d love that opportunity. I felt like this was the worst feeling in the world for me, actually. I’m a person that likes stability and belonging. It felt like I was a huge failure.
And then one day in October 2014, I just couldn’t get out of bed. I mean this literally – I wasn’t able to move. The day before, I’d been sent home from work at lunchtime. I was feeling leaden, having dizzy spells, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I’d crawled into bed assuming I had a bug and some sleep would sort it.
So, I wasn’t expecting to wake up and not be able to move my body that next morning… It was very scary. Sleeping for another few hours, I had enough energy to get to the loo and call my boss. That exhausted me, so back to bed I went for another ten hours. And another ten after that… Putting my head on the pillow and closing my eyes felt like the most blissful thing ever!
A mental breakdown, burnout, depression, Adrenal Fatigue, Seasonal Affective Disorder at its extreme?…
After 36 hours’ almost-constant sleep, I managed to get to the doctor’s by taxi. I was diagnosed with depression and my doctor insisted I take antidepressants. As I challenged it, he told me, “well you’ve been doing everything else right, taking exercise, eating well, resting… what else is there?” I hated being put on them. I couldn’t figure out why I was giving myself such a hard time over taking them, when I fully support other people in taking them and being open about it. It felt like I was somehow letting myself and others down; admitting defeat. Such is the power of the stigma over antidepressants.
Meanwhile, I’d been seeing a nutritionist. My digestive health had been awful, I was losing my hair at an alarming rate, having skin flare-ups and I was exhausted. I’d had an intolerance test, which revealed a couple of foods I should cut out. While I’d cut them down, I was wary about eliminating such major food groups as dairy and wheat without guidance. So, off I went to a nutritionist. She warned that I was rapidly heading towards ‘adrenal fatigue‘ and needed to make changes.
I tried to reduce my stress levels and followed her diet recommendations. Things improved, but it was too little too late. She believes it was this, and not depression, that was the problem. GPs in the UK don’t recognise adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion as a valid condition, though. My understanding is that only endocrinologists and alternative practitioners give it any credence. Some people would call my experience a nervous or mental breakdown. As I suffer from SAD it could have been something to do with that too, especially with the pattern that’s repeated each October since.
To be honest, it really doesn’t matter what label we put on it. What all of these have in common and what it did teach me is that I needed to make some serious changes to how I live my life and how I look after myself.
Coming off antidepressants…
Because I wasn’t sure what had caused this episode and wasn’t entirely convinced it was depression, I felt I only wanted the medication for the six months of autumn and winter, and came off them in spring. Going on and coming off the medication wasn’t great to be honest. I had expected the initial side effects when I went on them and knew they’d pass in a couple of weeks as the medication got into my system. What I wasn’t prepared for was very similar side effects when I was coming off them.
For me, these side effects were things like headaches, trembling, pins and needles in my limbs, sweating, dizziness/vertigo and nausea. They were very distracting and didn’t make work and getting on with life generally very easy, as you can probably imagine! That was okay when I was going on them because I was still so exhausted I was sleeping most of the time and my doctor had signed me off work for a week, so the worst was over by the time I returned to work. But because I’d been unprepared for the withdrawal symptoms when coming off antidepressants, I was at work and had interviews, events, and an assignment to finish that week! Eek, lesson learned! 😉
My doctor had recommended tapering down over several months. But I’d preferred to taper over one month so that I’d be off them for spring and know ‘where I’m at’. I should’ve realised there was a good reason he suggested the longer time frame, but he didn’t warn me when he’d agreed it was fine for me to taper for the month. Anyway, I got through it and the improved nutrition and the lighter days were enough for me to feel like I was doing really well and getting ‘me’ back again.
What the heck is going on with my body??…
In October 2014 when I had this ‘burnout’, I’d experienced some really odd symptoms earlier in the month. I’d woken up and couldn’t stop trembling. You know when you get out of the shower on a winter’s day and you’re freezing and can’t stop shivering? Like that constantly. It was completely uncontrollable!
I was preparing for a job interview which involved a presentation, test and panel discussion at the time. So I thought it was that and it would pass. Nope – it lasted for over a week. It was horrible! So distracting and scary, because I didn’t know what was going on with me. I knew I felt a bit nervous, but I’ve had plenty of nerves in the past (driving tests, anyone?), and had never experienced anything like this!
The trembling eventually calmed down, but what took over was that my heart was racing like I’d just sprinted, or thudding so heavily as if I was placing great strain on it and it was too tired to do its work. Eventually it eased.
Recognising a pattern…
The next year, the same thing happened around the same time of year. Come early October, these symptoms just arrived again one day, out of the blue! It was worse this time, lasting for a month. I couldn’t understand it. Sure, I’d just gone through another life change. I’d taken voluntary severance from my job in the summer and had six months to find myself something new. I was having a high old time, doing freelance work, volunteering, taking trips and enjoying myself! Was knowing I needed a new job enough to trigger it? Why was it occurring at exactly the same time of year? Surely this was SAD-related?
Back to the doctor’s I went, but it didn’t make any sense to her either. I was this time given beta blockers, for anxiety. It was odd – I couldn’t understand it! I’d wake up with my heart racing. It would be happening even when I was quietly reading a book and had nothing particular on my mind. One day it was there, the next gone, and the next it would be back again. The beta blockers didn’t make much difference, and I was scared of taking them anyway, so that won’t have helped! My doctor wanted to do an ECG to check my heart; that showed it was fine, thankfully.
Feeling the stigma of antidepressants…
Confused herself, eventually my doctor told me I should go back on anti-depressants, to see if balancing out the seasons would help. That maybe I just needed a ‘mini dose’ to be myself and maybe when my serotonin dipped, I wasn’t actually myself. The particular type I’m taking (Citalopram) is apparently good for anxiety too. That’s what confused me though; I’ve never been a particularly anxious person. And I didn’t feel like I was down or worrying about things. Certainly not enough to cause these extreme symptoms!
I had a real fight with myself about taking antidepressants for the two years the doctor wants me to take them. This seems to be a fairly standard thing, talking to others. You go on for six months to start, and then if you need to take them again, you’re advised to take them for two years. I’ll be on mine for another six months at least.
So what was the problem? Well, it’s complicated, but mostly I was feeling the stigma. Things have improved a lot around mental health in recent years, but I still feel antidepressants are frowned upon, casually called ‘happy pills’. They’re seen by some as being for people who ‘can’t cope with life’. Some people express the view that they’re not needed and we all need to just pull ourselves together. I’ve heard all these opinions directly in the past and it can really worry you about taking antidepressants. I know it’s the minority of people with these opinions, but isn’t that the way? That we over-focus on these?
When I had previously been taking the medication, my parents had unwittingly given me messages that they disapproved of me taking it. Just little things like ‘well you need to get off them as quickly as possible’. We talked about this since and I know it came from a place of love and they just didn’t realise the messages they were giving about it. I also felt like if I’m taking them, then am I really ‘me’? And how will I know if the other things I’m doing to improve my lifestyle and self-development work are making a difference if my brain’s being chemically altered?
Is it SAD-related?
Three years, this has happened now, including the initial ‘crash’. Always in October. Last year (2016) was a bit later in the month as we had an ‘Indian summer’ and I thought I’d escaped from it. However, it wasn’t so bad this time. Still distracting, but I think because I now know it will eventually pass, it didn’t bother me so much. I was a lot more compassionate with myself too. That’s not to say it isn’t frustrating though, as I still don’t know what’s going on. I’m thinking it might have something to do with the equinox and a sharp change in light levels for it to be occurring around the same time each year. Very strange!
I bumped into my friend a while ago. He’s fantastic for me to bounce ideas with as he’s got a hugely inquisitive mind too and takes a very scientific approach in exploring how to help his SAD. He suggested it might be a drop in Vitamin D. This might make sense actually. I was found to be slightly deficient in the second year of this happening. That seemed odd to me because I’d had a career break and spent loads of time out in the sunshine, ensuring I had times without having sunscreen on.
So anyway – there’s another avenue for me to explore. I’m already supplementing Vitamin D, taking 400% RDA all year round at the moment, but my friend suggested I need a much higher dose for optimal levels. I want to cover Vitamin D in another post and I’m going off-topic, so I’ll not go too far into it here. Watch this space!
Learning to look after myself…
If I’m completely honest, I’m feeling impatient to come off the antidepressants again. Not because it’s bothering me to be on them anymore. I’m comfortable with taking them if I need to, but I’m not convinced that I do. The fact that the same thing happened last year despite being on them for a year makes me think there’s something else going on.
I have an inquisitive mind. I want to see if the personal development work I’ve done over the last few years, and continue to do, has really improved how I feel. It’s hard to know that when I’m still on medication. Maybe it doesn’t matter what’s helped. But I’d like to understand if the genuine well-being I feel now is a result of my own efforts, or a chemical alteration through the antidepressants. I’m sure it’s a bit of both, but I’d be interested to know for sure!
Feeling so grateful…
I’m very well aware, having had SAD since I was a teenager, that it’s a journey to understand how to manage it best for yourself. I felt I had it pretty well managed with just light therapy and then these weird autumn episodes hit. And life hit too, I guess!
I’m so grateful now that they did, though. I’ve learned a really important lesson from that morning when I couldn’t get out of bed.
I’ve done so much in the last few years to change my physical and particularly my mental landscape. We are all a product of our experiences. I might not have been able to control some of mine, but I can take responsibility for doing something about how they affect me today. Some really ingrained unhelpful thinking habits have taken a lot of work to unravel and improve. I’ve learned to be more compassionate with and to treat myself better.
SAD isn’t a condition that we manage in isolation. It impacts on – and is impacted by – every area of our lives. It touches every relationship we have. I can’t express enough how grateful I am for the support I’ve received through the years from my family, friends, colleagues and health professionals.
If you are one of these people and you’ve made it through this long post, then please accept a heart-felt thank you. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without your love and support. <3