I nearly dropped out of college during the fall of my sophomore year. I wasn’t enjoying my classes, and had little motivation to attend lectures or do the work. I dropped my fourth course late into the semester to lessen the load, but it still was overwhelming and frustrating. I knew that I was capable of doing the work (I had proven that with my strong grades the first year). I just didn’t want to do the work, and the guilt that ensued made everything worse.
I felt miserable pretty much all the time. Older friends, especially juniors, said they also had gone through the sophomore blues, and it was nothing to worry about. So, I didn’t. But I also didn’t do much other than hang out and spend time with my closest friends on campus. Time that I should have spent in the library studying or researching reports instead was used hanging out next door with my best friend or with dorm mates down the hall. Spending time with others allowed me to focus on something other than the misery, helping to relieve some of the mental anguish. The worst times were when I had to return to my lonely single dorm room. So, I avoided it as much as possible.
That next January, I returned from Christmas Break for Reading Period and final exams. Although I only had one actual test to take, I had to write two 20-page papers plus another 10-pager to receive my final grades. None of the work had been started, and I had two weeks to complete it. My progress during that two-week period was slow, and I was forced to stay up for the 48 hours leading up to the deadline cramming to finish.
After that miserable January, things improved on campus, and my mood with it. I started volunteering at an after school program in Trenton. I was accepted into the Wilson School and began taking policy courses. I even joined one of Princeton’s elite eating clubs and began making new friends. I found my “place” on campus, and the blues became a thing of the past… until I started teaching a few years later.
Journal articles, research papers, and whole books have been written about the challenges of being a first-year teacher. But mine was exacerbated by a deep depression. Although I enjoyed being with my students and believed in the work I was doing, I didn’t want to get out of bed most days and struggled to get to work on time. I lived in a beautiful apartment with a lovely garden in the back, but I rarely enjoyed them. After a few months of the misery, I knew something had to change. I sought out a mental heath professional and began counseling. It took a while, but eventually we figured out the issue. I suffer from seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD—no joke).
Seasonal affective disorder (also called SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. If you're like most people with seasonal affective disorder, your symptoms start in the fall and may continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, seasonal affective disorder causes depression in the spring or early summer. Definition provided by the Mayo Clinic
The day I received my diagnosis, everything in my life made sense. I struggled during the fall of my sophomore year, and teaching became really difficult in the autumn as well. There is something about the shortened number of daylight hours and weaker rays of the sun that has a physiological effect on my brain chemistry. I still don’t understand all the medical terminology or biochemical reactions that are occurring in my mind. I just know that fall is tough, and winter is usually unbearable. Christmas is the one bright spot in an otherwise miserable time. As soon as the winter solstice passes, the days begin to lengthen, and my mood improves slightly with each extra minute of daylight. By the spring equinox, I’m usually feeling like “my old self.”
Treatment for seasonal affective disorder includes light therapy (phototherapy), psychotherapy and medications. Don't brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the "winter blues" or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year. - From the Mayo Clinic
I see a therapist year-round. Typically, we meet every week during the fall and winter to talk through any situations that arise and threaten to destabilize my moods. During the spring and summer, we usually cut back to biweekly appointments, since the sun provides the extra boost that my mood requires. I also take medicine to help stabilize my emotions–usually a stronger dose in the winter than summer.
The decision to take drugs was an easy one for me. In therapy, I learned that many people who suffer from depression do not seek treatment from mental health providers. Instead, they self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shoplifting, or anything else that brings an immediate high and provides an escape from the sadness. I have witnessed the deaths of close family members due to drug and alcohol abuse. I knew that if I didn’t see a therapist and take the medicine that my psychiatrist prescribed, I also might find myself battling substance abuse.
Although I am doing everything I can to manage depression, it isn’t easy. It took about four months for my doctors to figure out the right combination of drugs and the appropriate dosage of each one. During that time, after my marriage fell apart, I was in severe mental distress and unable to live on my own. Those four months were the longest of my life, and I am grateful for all the people who helped me to get through it.
Depression is real, and it is painful, and it completely affects how you see yourself and the world. When the depression is great, and the drugs aren’t working, there’s little that anyone can say or do to help you to “feel better” or “get over it.” In my opinion, the tragedy isn’t that Robin Williams, a talented actor and comedian, succumbed to the overwhelming miasma that enveloped him and worsened with his Parkinson’s diagnosis. I know how close I came to being in a similar place.
For me, the real tragedy is all the people who walk around dealing with depression on a daily basis without seeking assistance. They think they are just “going through a funk,” or “having a bad mood.” There is much that therapy and medication can do to alleviate the symptoms of depression. I wish it weren’t so taboo in our culture to discuss mental illness and its treatments. I was planning to write this blog post long before one of our cultural icons took his life a few weeks ago. The passing of Robin Williams simply underscored the need to share my story and encourage others to seek treatment immediately.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great first resource for people dealing with any type of mental illness, including depression, adult hyperactivity (ADHD), anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Crystal Moore began her wellness quest in 2003 after being diagnosed with lupus. Her quest has led her to embrace yoga, faith, exercise, healthy eating, and relationships. Share her journey.