Lighten up| December 1, 2021
This darkness is beginning to penetrate my bones and take away all the cheer I have inside…
As told to Devorah Grant
"Chedva, come on! It’s time to get up, you’re going to be late for school again!” I groan and roll over. It might be almost eight a.m. but it sure doesn’t feel that way to me. A thin shaft of light peeks through the edges of my curtains, and for the tenth time this week I think: I hate winter.
It’s not even winter yet, actually. It’s the end of October, the leaves are just starting to turn orange, and when the sky is blue, the leafy carpet of colors beneath me can even look beautiful. But then comes five p.m., the light fades, and I’m left with this constant feeling of blueness that no one seems to get. Sure, everyone talks about how they love vacation, and hate the feeling of frostbitten fingers or having to carry an umbrella. But I truly wonder if anyone gets this down. This feeling of wanting to drift away in my bed until the sun comes back up in March. Of feeling just plain old miserable. Ugh. Did I mention I hate winter?
Eventually, I drag myself out of bed and head off to school. I have friends and work to focus on, but somehow my mind keeps wandering and my body feels sluggish, as if I’m desperate for yet more sleep. By the time I get home, I feel like a dish rag.
“How was your day, Chedva?” my mother asks, foil trays in one hand, baby Shimmy in the other. I grunt in response, forage in the fridge, then beat a hasty retreat to my bedroom with a yogurt. Some days I stay in the kitchen and chat with Mom while she puts up supper. Right now, I have zero energy to talk to anyone. I’m done. And I forgot to get a spoon. Sigh.
I plop down heavily on my bed and stare miserably around my room. It’s a nice space really — white walls, pink bedding, and a desk all to myself. But my eyes keep getting drawn back to that big window, all black, all dark. What’s wrong with me? I ask myself. I have no answer, but I know that this darkness is beginning to penetrate my bones and take away all the cheer I have inside…
It’s Sunday, and Pinny’s knocking on my door. “Chedva! Chana Malka’s on the phone!”
It’s my day off, and Chana Malka is calling to confirm plans. We agreed to go to an indoor ice skating rink which just opened nearby, and I was pretty pumped about this… yesterday…
“Tell her I’ll see her soon,” I shout, turning back over and snuggling under my blanket again.
Eventually, I yank myself out of bed at 11, hastily throw on my clothes, and check my bag. Camera? Check. Cash? Check. Gloves? Check. Good mood? Um, maybe not. I want to do this, but there’s a stronger gravity than usual pulling me down. I debate going back to sleep and canceling, but I also know how much FOMO I’ll have if Suri and Chana Malka do this without me. I notice how I had ten hours sleep last night and still feel tired. What’s with me? I wonder, for the millionth time. Am I sick? But the answer eludes me, and I just don’t know. I just. Don’t. Know.
I do go ice skating in the end and have a great time. I’m glad I did and my mother is, too. I chalk up my morning tiredness to laziness, and organize my stuff for school on Monday. Still, when I look out my window that evening, the blackness makes my stomach feel funny again. What on earth is this all about?
It’s three weeks later when my mother decides enough is enough. I’d arrived late to school twice, and skipped a whole day once as well, and she tells me that she’s concerned.
“Chedva, it’s not like you to act this way, you’re usually so conscientious. Is something going on at school?” There’s actually a part of me that wants to have something to blame it on, something which makes sense, but how do I describe this heaviness that comes, and how these grey mornings and greyer afternoons are taking it all out of me? I try explaining it to Mom, and don’t feel I do it justice. She says she’s going to think about it. Not even sure what there is to think about, though.
Grr. It’s official. Mom wants me to go to the doctor. She’s been looking up my symptoms and thinks I might have some hormone deficiency. “Fine, I’ll go to the doc,” I mumble, “but make the appointment on a school day, and not before ten, please!” Mom frowns and goes off to find her phone.
“We can do some blood work and see if Hedva needs any specific vitamins,” Dr. Thomson says, mispronouncing my name, as usual, while I shiver in the cold seat. “But I think there might be something else going on over here.” My stomach turns. “Have you heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder?” the doctor continues. My mom shakes her head as things somersault inside me. A disorder?
“Very common nowadays, affects about five percent of people,” says the doctor. “Its symptoms mimic a low-scale depression which impacts some people in the winter, especially when there’s not much daylight. Google it and see what you think.” Doctor T scribbles the initials “SAD” down on the back of a prescription pad, and pushes it in our direction. “We’ll delay doing blood tests until you’ve looked into this. It might answer a few of your questions.” Dr. Thomson returns to click-clacking on his computer keyboard, while my mother and I walk out. But instead of heading straight to school, we go home.
“I want to get to the bottom of this,” says Mom, in her determined voice. She pulls up two chairs to the kitchen table, opens her laptop, and we start to look it up: SAD.
It doesn’t even take five minutes for us to agree with Dr. T’s diagnosis. “I’m literally a textbook case!” I say wryly to Mom. She laughs and continues scrolling:
“Signs include low mood… tiredness…irritability… loss of pleasure in normal activities… in fall and winter…” Suddenly, things start to make sense. “No wonder I’ve been struggling like crazy to get out of bed in the mornings!” I say to Mom. “Maybe this can buy me an excuse to go in late every day!” Mom laughs. “Not if I have anything to do with it, you won’t! What we need to do is see how we can manage this. Meanwhile, it’s time for you to be getting to school, honey.” I groan, but inwardly I’m feeling a little relieved. This isn’t some crazy sickness, and it is, apparently, quite common… The question is, will knowing what it is make things any better?
A few packages arrive in the mail for me over the next few days. “Ah, perfect!” Mom says enthusiastically, when she sees the pharmacy box. “It’s the Vitamin D I ordered for you, Chedva, it’s the sunshine vitamin.”
“The sunshine vitamin?” I say, with barely-disguised annoyance. “You’re saying this is really meant to help?”
“You can’t know until you’ve tried, Chedva,” Mom says, determinedly. “Take one over the next few weeks and let’s see if it helps.”
I open the box and remove some tiny yellow pills. “Well, someone’s certainly tried to make them look sunishine-y,” I mutter. Mom ignores me.
The next package to arrive is a “SAD light.” It promises to help “relieve symptoms of SAD through mimicking the affects of sunshine.” Spotting a pattern here? To me, it looks just like a light, but Mom says to put in on my desk and keep it on after school while I do homework. Can’t hurt, I guess. Mom also says that some people are affected much more seriously than I am, and have to take anti-depressants to help them in the winter. For now, we’re trying the light and the vitamins. We’ll see how it goes…
A few weeks pass and, yes, the SAD light is definitely bright, and I’m taking my vitamins religiously. The days are as dreary as ever, but I’ve signed up for an exercise class, which is meant to help boost my serotonin levels. (Since when have I started talking like a biologist?!) Keeping myself busy definitely helps. I’ve also started noticing how sensitive I am to lights in general — my classroom has horrible blue fluorescent lights and Dad jokes that I should take my SAD light to school. I’m not sure that would go down very well…
My life is not majorly changed now that I know I have SAD. It is still hard to get up in the mornings, and hey, I’m a teenager, I like my sleep! But I do think being aware of what the problem is, and taking these small steps to help it, have made these dark days feel less of a drag. Chances are, winter is always going to be a bit harder for me than other people, and I don’t think that’s going anywhere fast. But understanding that, and helping myself along in whatever way I can, has given me a bit more oomph to get out of bed, and do things, even if I don’t feel like it.
If five percent of the population is struck by “SAD,” it’s a pretty common “disorder” that probably affects at least one person you know. So from someone who’s been there, done that: If you spot the signs, tell them to look up “SAD.” It’s one step toward a little more light…
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 888)
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