With the clocks going back this week, the season of S.A.D is upon us, and with that comes a surge in diagnosis. Seasonal affective disorder is type of depression that comes with the changing seasons, hitting at the same time every year, usually in the dark depths of winter. It's estimated to affect about two million people in the UK, and approximately 12 million across Northern Europe, leaving a vast number of Britons feeling fatigued, low and unable to cope with daily life.
Though I suffer from bipolar as opposed to S.A.D (I get several episodes a year, mostly of depression but also of mania), I find the winter months particularly hard to handle, especially February, the month of doom, when there is nothing to look forward to in terms of celebration but Valentines day (that alone is reason enough to feel depressed), and we've been trapped in darkness for near six months.
Every winter I prepare myself for the inevitable torture of February, pre-empting the incoming sadness by booking a sunny holiday for the first couple weeks to top up on my vitamin D, and making sure I'm in the most stable position possible before it comes around. Regardless, I still find myself in the same black hole every year, but thankfully the joys of spring sun are just round the corner, and by the end of March I'm usually back to my normal self again.
However, harder still than dealing with the illness itself, is dealing with the diagnosis of mental illness. It's one of those things that you just think will never happen to you. It's not talked about, hidden in the closet by many people who suffer from it, and it's difficult to understand: as opposed to a blood test result that says you have diabetes, mental illness is harder to diagnose, and consequently harder to accept.
I myself have suffered from bipolar for near 10 years and the hardest part of the illness for me was accepting my diagnosis and adjusting to life with bipolar. One of the most difficult parts of dealing with diagnosis is the lack of proof - you question every judgement made because there's no solid evidence that you have what you've been diagnosed with. Many mental illnesses have similar symptoms, so there's always a doubt in your mind about whether what you've been diagnosed with is exactly right, and as a result of that, you question the treatment you are prescribed as well. This can set you back in learning to live with and control your illness.
The first couple years after I was diagnosed with bipolar, I was convinced the doctors had got it wrong. Approximately 5.7 million people in the US are said to have bipolar - that just seems too high a number to be true, and there have been questions raised as to whether doctors are diagnosing the illness too quickly. This meant that I, quite stupidly, decided to continue without medication and without medical help. Error. I was ok for a while, mostly because I was fortunately in a relatively high state, but soon of course, things spiralled out of control and left me in a position where I was incapable of doing anything. Recovering from that position is tough, and what's frustrating is that I could have prevented finding myself in that place to begin with.
Even now after years of coping with the illness, I find myself still questioning my diagnosis. It's natural not to want to deal with the truth, to convince yourself that actually you're fine rather than acknowledging that you're stuck with a lifelong illness. But as tempting as it is to say you're healthy and 'normal', it's not safe and it's not clever. Acknowledge your diagnosis early on, accept it for what it is, and focus on how to move forward, rather than looking back. Easier said than done, but it will save you time and energy in the long run.
So how can you move forward? Aside from seeing a doctor and taking medication, there are several other ways that you can keep in control through the cold winter months.
Stock up on vitamin D, the happy drug, and if you can afford it take a relaxing holiday somewhere sunny, even if just for a few days, the change of scene can do you good.
Focus on the little positives - I keep a diary when I'm feeling low of the good things that happen in my day - some days are quite pitiful, listing things like 'ate an ice cream' or 'saw a puppy' on my list, but it's good to try to hold on to the positives, however slim they may be.
Do things that you know make you feel even marginally better - I have a list of comfort films that I pull out especially for my depressed days as they're guaranteed to make me smile, even just for a second.
Try to keep active - I know that sounds ridiculous when you're feeling unable to get out of bed, but if you can do any kind of exercise, it will help, even if it's just a 5 minute walk to the supermarket.
And most important of all, don't shut yourself off from the support of others. There are undoubtedly people out there who are in a similar position to you, or who want to be there for you. Reach out to them, whether it's online, in person, or over the phone. You don't have to talk about it, just talk about anything. We're social creatures and interacting with others will help comfort you and lift your spirits.
So if you're one of the unfortunate souls that get burdened with S.A.D this winter, acknowledge your diagnosis, face it head on and just know that you're not alone.