by Gilles Charette
I can’t stand winter. It’s not really about the snow and cold – though I’m not really a fan of that either. It’s the short days, the lack of daylight. I count the days until the Winter Solstice because then I know the days will slowly get longer again.
About 15 years ago, I went to my doctor complaining of low energy, lack of motivation, increased appetite for carbs and sweets and feeling emotionally fragile – like it wouldn’t take much to make me weepy. There was nothing “wrong”: I had a good job, great family and friends and a relationship I was feeling good about. And still I felt sad. Blue. Low.
My doctor observed that I’d been almost exactly a year since I’d come in with the same symptoms. That’s when he raised the possibility that I might have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). When I mentioned it to my mother, she noted that I’d been like that for years, withdrawing and feeling down around the same time each year, usually beginning in November and reaching a peak in February.
According to The Cleveland Clinic, between 10 to 20 percent of North Americans suffer from some sort of seasonal depression brought on by the shorter days in winter. An additional 4-6% suffer from a more extreme version of the “winter blues” called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The current theory is that the disorder might be related to insufficient light and the resulting hormonal disruptions caused by the pineal gland.
Once I was diagnosed, I began light therapy, and I became more aware of the different factors that contribute to my own feelings of sadness during this time of year. Most years, the light therapy and some other strategies have done the trick and I’ve been able to manage well enough.
But there have been years that have been really tough, and usually at the prompting of my husband, a friend or family member, I see the doctor to be put on an anti-depressant for a while. These can be vital, life-saving drugs, and they have been really beneficial for me.
But the side-effects can suck. Especially the sexual side-effects, because for me, those are what made it hard to adhere to the medication (pun intended). I was fortunate not to experience erectile dysfunction while on the meds – in my case, I could get hard, and my drive was ok, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t cum. Seriously, to the point of chaffing and nada. Nothing. Seriously frustrating. This wasn’t the good kind of ‘endurance’. I mean, we’re expected to get hard and cum on command right? Just like porn? Thankfully, I have an understanding partner who was ok with me giving him all of the attention. But it limited any extra-curricular activity for a while because I didn’t want to deal with the frustration of not cumming and having the guy wonder if it was something he was doing wrong.
Despite this, for me it was worth taking the meds to feel a little less fragile. And thankfully I was able to get off of them after a number of months.
Living with SAD, even though I know what I need to do to look after myself, by the time that I’m feeling blue it’s tough to get motivated to do simple things like walk to the cupboard to take my vitamins, or wake up in time to sit in front of the light box.
Making some strategies part of my regular routine are vital for getting me through the season. Some of these have been determined in consultation with my doctor, so they may or may not work for you. Best to check first.
1. Light therapy. Typically I start using a light therapy device in November and stop toward the end of March. I use it while I have breakfast. The theory is that our circadian rhythms get messed up with the change in the amount of daylight – so if we can regulate them, it will help ease the symptoms.
2. Vitamins. Working closely with my doctor, I take a fairly large dose of Vitamin D daily. I’ve also begun taking B-12 injections (a consequence of being vegetarian and having issues absorbing B-12) which I hear can have benefits for people dealing with depression. We’ll see.
3. Winter break – Having something to look forward to, or a project to work on, is important. I tend to take a couple of weeks of vacation to a sunny destination in February, the toughest part of the winter for me. This helps to get me ‘over the hump’. When a trip hasn’t been in the budget, I occasionally hit the tanning salon for some simulated sun (I know, I know… sun damage, wrinkles, potential for skin cancer… but for me, the benefits outweigh the risks).
4. Exercise – I’m inconsistent here. I’m not a gym guy, but I practice yoga so I take classes when I can. Sometimes the extent of my exercise is walking the dog, but inevitably I feel better when I feel like I’ve done something good for my body. 5. Staying connected – It’s easy to isolate myself when I’m feeling blue, and hard to reach out. I’ve found that what helps is to make plans in advance, because I’ll be more likely to follow-through. Because ‘in the moment’, if I’m invited to do something, it often seems too hard, and easier to stay home on the sofa.
I get that many of these things aren’t available to people – light therapy devices can be expensive, winter vacations are a luxury that many can’t afford, and not everyone has a relationship with their health care practitioner that will allow for these conversations about mental health. But there are some things that almost anyone can do to make things better.
Those are my strategies now, but I can’t assume they’ll always work for me. I’m always looking for new ways of getting through the season (until I can afford to spend my winters in the sun!)
So help a guy out… what do you do to survive the ‘winter blahs’? Any tips on managing sexual side-effects?
Gilles Charette is the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Coordinator at HIV/AIDS Regional Services (HARS) in Kingston. He lives in bucolic Prince Edward County with his husband and labradoodle where he daydreams of skipping winter altogether.