Seasonal Affective Order

The use of the word ‘disorder’ in articles about mental health points to the idea that if only someone could be cured of whatever ‘disorder’ they have, they could be happy living in modern society with no problems. This is contrary to the idea that modern society can be the cause, or major contributing factor, of mental illness. I tend to think of aspects of life in anthropological terms. I have no education or training in anthropology, but I wonder what life was like in our hunter-gatherer days. After all, we have barely, if at all, evolved since those times, yet we do so much which ignores the impulses our evolution developed to keep us healthy.

One phrase that I especially dislike is Seasonal Affective Disorder. I don’t think there is anything disorderly about being affected by the seasons. What would our hunter-gatherer ancestors be doing in winter? I imagine they would have been working hard during the summer and autumn gathering food to store for winter. Then they spend winter sheltering from the cold, munching the stored food, expending little energy as there isn’t much food out there to gather anyway, sitting around a fire, telling stories, making love, and looking forward to spring.

What I can’t imagine them doing is forcing themselves to wake up before dawn every day, venturing away from the safety and comfort of the tribal winter home, expending energy doing things which do not directly contribute to their or their family’s wellbeing, are not amusing, entertaining or stimulating, hidden away from natural daylight, before returning to the home after sunset, with nothing to show for their efforts.

This is not to say they wouldn’t be productive. They could be making new spears, bows, arrows, baskets, discussing what they have learned in the past year, figuring out what they will do next year. A time of preparation, intimate communication, and social bonding.

Someone who has less energy at this time than in the warmer months would not be seen as having a disorder. It would match the demands of the season perfectly, even having an advantage over someone who wants to go out wandering during the day, risking hypothermia and getting lost in the dark because they misjudged the time of the sunset. In this scenario, the person affected by the seasons is perfectly normal, and could even act as a source of wisdom for the rest of the tribe. At the turn of the season, he feels a change in himself, and prepares for the human equivalent of hibernation, maybe encouraging others to get ready for the coming cold period.

The word ‘disorder’ seems to be applied to anything that is different enough from what is generally accepted as normal to affect someone’s mood or behaviour in a way that is at odds with the demands of modern society. But we are still as human as the hunter-gatherer. You can’t turn a dog into a cat by teaching it to climb a tree. Ignoring emotions is, as anyone with experience of mental health issues knows, potentially damaging psychologically. In that vein, we cannot simply ignore a biological impetus just because modern society wants to do the same stuff all year round.

Dog in a tree

Meow!

At the same time, we cannot ignore society just because our evolution hasn’t caught up. As human beings we are very adaptable, as long as we can work out what needs to be done. Working fewer hours during the winter, so that you can get up when it’s light and get home before dark, perhaps. Maybe saving money during the rest of the year to use during this time. After all, if hunter-gatherers stored food for winter, it makes sense that we modern humans store money to buy food in the winter.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I would like to see the end of labelling perfectly normal traits as disorders. The very word ‘disorder’ is discriminatory. It’s like saying, “You do not function correctly,” rather than, “Your needs are different from mine.” It also points to a kind of authoritarianism. “If you don’t follow our rules you will be punished.” Disobedience results in stigmatisation. I believe we can learn something from everyone. By shunning people and labelling them we deny ourselves valuable lessons, and deny them the right to be who they are.

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Why I’ve been telling my colleagues about my depression

Warning: Swearing and references to self-harm.

 

This week I returned to work after three months off with depression.  I’ve had it for over twenty years, since my teens, and it comes and goes.  Since my last stint on anti-depressants, I tried to maintain normal mood variations, but I had been struggling for a couple of years with low moods and suicidal thoughts.

My father had come to my house to help with some DIY.  He was expected, but I really felt like slashing the arteries in my wrists.  I boiled the kettle, made tea, made no eye contact, unable to hide the misery I was feeling but not wanting to express it either.  He said something about sanding and varnishing my new skirting boards and was quite surprised when I shouted, “Fuck the fucking skirting!”

“I’m only thinking of you,” he said.

“I don’t give a shit about the skirting!”

I’d had a throat infection so he said, “Is the cold getting to you?”

“It’s not the fucking cold!  I’m depressed!  I’m suicidal at times.”

I broke down and wept into my hands.  Dad, ever practical and helpful, was at a loss.  He hugged me until I had relaxed a bit and asked me what I needed.  I said I didn’t know.  He didn’t like to see me distressed so he left me to be on my own.  I had been sleeping late in the day so I asked him to call my GP in the morning and get me an appointment.  I got back on the anti-depressants.

Acknowledging how I really felt was a big relief and seeking help was an important step on the road to recovery.  From past experience, I knew better than to think I was well just because I felt better than I had been, but I allowed myself to enjoy the high that came from the release for as long as it would last.

Nearly three months later I had another low period, but still wanted to return to work, as I wanted to get back into a routine.  The doctor increased my medication and said to give it another couple of weeks to allow it to take effect.  I am now on a ‘phased return to work’, which basically means I can choose my hours until I feel better.

My HR manager and supervisor have been really good.  I can take breaks whenever I want, I have finished early because the long days were more of a struggle than I expected.  I was told I could work much shorter days, but to me that seems pointless when I am trying to get back to normal life.

I was welcomed back.  I had been missed.  People obviously ask what illness I had, so I tell them.  Depression.  I’ve been fairly open about it.  I’ve sought out colleagues I’m friendly with to have a chat.  Anyone else who has asked, I tell them.  I’ve had various responses: sympathy, understanding, misunderstanding, indifference, related stories, curiosity.  I don’t want sympathy; it makes no-one feel better other than the sympathiser.  Someone asked, “Are you all better now?”  Clearly someone who doesn’t know about depression.  Someone asked with interest how it affected me, and I found myself trying to summarise without going into detail.

I tell people because despite increased awareness of mental health issues, there is still some stigma attached to it.  Even I tried to deny it myself in order to carry on regardless.  I’m not completely open about it.  I’m a very closed person on the whole.  I just wanted to say what I had as if it was something like diabetes.  It’s a condition.  It’s manageable and treatable.  It probably won’t go away completely.  But, most of all, there is no shame in having it, and if anyone feels that things in life are too much to bear, have the strength to admit it and seek help.

I’m still a long way off being well.  There are a number of things I my mind I need to address.  I am grateful for the help I have received and maybe could have used my time off work to sort things out, but just having that time as a respite has done me a world of good.  Now I still need to seek further help, and I imagine there will be times when I simply can’t face work.  I am fortunate that my employers will allow enough flexibility to aid in my recovery.