Trigger warning: discussion of depression, suicidal ideation.
The greatest trick depression pulls is convincing you it doesn’t exist; that the baseline misery it enforces is normal at best or irrelevant at worst. Even when you know, rationally, that self-blame is itself a symptom, still you second-guess yourself. You think the problem is something else: that you’re fundamentally lazy, or melancholic, or both; that you’re simply not sleeping properly, or exercising enough, or taking the right vitamins. The idea that these deficiencies might be symptoms rather than causes crosses your mind, but you don’t take it seriously; it feels too much like giving up, like letting yourself off the hook. You want there to be something concrete you can do to improve things, a button to press or routine to enact that will suddenly make things better (not that things are wrong, exactly; the fact that you’re constantly tired and sad and anxious and mentally composing suicide notes at the grocery store while simultaneously berating yourself for being so melodramatic because obviously, you’d never really do something like that, is neither here nor there), and if there isn’t – if there’s nothing you can physically do – then that means you’re powerless, or possibly broken, and who wants to have either of those things confirmed?
So you don’t say anything. You move through a world whose gravity seems to pull you down with greater force each day. However much you sleep, it isn’t enough. Your temper frays. You never feel replenished; only drained, as though some vital well at the heart of yourself has run dry, and nothing you do has the power to fill it back up. One by one, your appetites fade: you can’t read, or write, or eat, or shower, or dress – do anything, really – without feeling like the world has vampire teeth in your jugular. Your joys are either tepid and flat or, very rarely, brief and manic. Nothing feels real. You wonder if you’re a sociopath, because shouldn’t love feel stronger than this? Or maybe you just made terrible choices, and everything is all your fault: maybe you just have to live like this forever.
And then, one night, you burst into tears for a solid ten minutes while reading a story that’s set at the beach, because you miss the sun with a visceral ache, like something that’s been pulled out of you, and for the first time, you seriously consider the idea that there might be a tangible reason for all of this. Sure, you’d thought of it before – you knew what Seasonal Affective Disorder was, even brought it up with the doctor the one time you went in to talk about depression, when they shrugged and said maybe, but also gave you some brochures about free counselling and the option of going straight to pills – but the fix seemed ridiculous. Buy a magic science light, as though a fucking lamp could possibly solve your problems. But you’ve been exercising every day, taking iron and Vitamin D and magnesium supplements for months; the recognisably post-natal aspect of your depression stopped a while back; by every external measurement, you should be in an excellent place, and yet you feel worse than ever. You’ve tried everything short of an anti-depressant prescription, and if that’s going to be the next port of call, then why not give the light a shot first?
So you buy the light, plug it in at the desk you haven’t properly used in months, and sit. It’s bright and warm, and something in you relaxes. You start smiling. Within twenty minutes, there’s a tingling sensation all along the skin of your neck, familiar and alien, and it takes you a while to place it: this, for you, is happiness. You used to feel it outside, in the sun, on hot summer days, and always assumed it was a purely aesthetic reaction, your body responding to the beauty of blue skies and warm skin, but in this moment, you realise it’s so much more than that. You don’t just miss the sun; you need it, and suddenly it’s here again, for the first time in what feels like forever, and oh.
It’s like waking up from a coma. You clean the fridge, then clean the kitchen – tasks which, even hours ago, felt utterly insurmountable. You dance to music, just because. You play with your child, and not only doesn’t it drain you; it delights you, and you no longer feel like such a broken mother. You sleep better. You start to write again. You keep up the exercise, but now, the high you feel while moving doesn’t instantly drop away when you finish. You tell a friend, still struggling to believe it, and she tells you that exposure to sunlight is linked to seratonin production: the chemical that literally controls your ability to feel happy and energised.
You use the light every day. After two weeks, you start reading novels for pleasure, a practice you’d more or less stopped, and which had stated to feel like pulling teeth. (It doesn’t, now. It feels like coming home.)
You are whole. You have SAD. You have a magic lamp.
And it’s going to be all right.