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Calling BS on SAD

Scientists have identified today as the peak of winter-induced depression. Ariel Leve on why seasonal affective disorder does a disservice to those of us committed to year-round despair.

01.24.10 11:18 PM ET

Scientists have identified January 25 as the most depressing day of the year, and it's probably because people with seasonal affective disorder are reaching the peaks of their suffering.

I’m all for suffering. And I know I shouldn’t begrudge other peoples' suffering. If it makes them happy, why should I care?

SAD sufferers are tourists in the misery world.

But I do. Because whenever I hear someone say that they suffer from seasonal affective disorder, I immediately discount them as qualified sufferers. If you’re going to suffer from something and call it a disorder, it should at least have the potential for dire consequences. A kidney failing. Or being unable to leave the house for 30 years. What are SAD sufferers at risk of? Oversleeping. Craving carbohydrates. Oh, and negative thoughts.

OK, some people aren’t used to negative thoughts. But then why not just say you’re depressed? Like a normal person. I met someone the other day who said she has SAD.

“It’s a real disorder,” she said, “Believe me.”

I didn’t. Afternoon napping doesn’t count as a symptom.

There are several reasons I’m suspicious of SAD. For starters, the acronym is too cute. What are the chances a disorder just happens to spell out the precise sensation that it causes? Also, it’s seasonal affective disorder, but the only season it applies to is winter. No one gets SAD in spring. I’m convinced the acronym came first; it’s a made-to-order disorder.

SAD supposedly kicks in as soon as the days get shorter and it begins to get dark at 5 o’clock. I don’t understand this at all. I panic when the days start to get longer. It means three or four hours of extra daylight to fill. It’s a lot of pressure. In January, you can be in for the night at 5 p.m. and no one cares. But in June? It’s like the middle of the day. I feel like a loser when I’m in for the night and the sun is still out.

As for how to treat SAD, a light box is usually what’s suggested. SADsters swear by the mood-changing power of the light box. An effective “bright-light therapy session” would mean being exposed to a light of at least 3,000 lux for about an hour a day, three times a week. This will ward off the blues.

You know what else will ward of the blues? A big bucket of money. I bet if someone put that on my desk, it would instantly brighten my mood.

I went to a Web site based in the U.K.—the leading supplier for medically proven SAD lights. There was SAD Research, SAD help, SAD accessories, and so many SAD lamps to choose from and instructions on how to work out which SAD lighting was appropriate, I could feel myself sinking with every passing second.

I had to turn off the computer and sit in the dark to recover.

Not to mention that I was surprised they even have SAD sufferers in the U.K. It’s not like in America where everyone expects you to be up all the time. People in London are thrilled with the one hour of daylight that appears every other day. And in the U.K., “blues” are another story. Someone has to be dying of cancer before they’ll get the blues.

Since today is the most depressing day of the year, you’d think I’d be thankful to be around more of my people. Sad people. But I’m not. SAD sufferers are tourists in the misery world. They show up around November, despair, and depart in April. Those of us that are year-round sufferers aren’t given a reprieve when open-toed sandals return.

Are people so desperate to suffer from something? I guess so. It just seems like if you’re going to suffer it might as well be from something worthwhile. Why not get a job that you hate? Or better yet, get a job that you love and have it taken away. And given to someone you hate. That kind of suffering has merit.

This winter I’ve decided I’m going to try to make an effort to be more accepting. More open-minded. There’s plenty of room in this world for everyone to suffer in harmony. Still, I was curious as to where SAD came from.

A search for the origins of SAD led me to discover there’s another SAD—social anxiety disorder. Now this is a much more authentic disorder. It’s been around longer, too. It might have saved Julius Caesar. Social fear dates back to 400 B.C. I bet if there was a SAD-off competition and two people had to debate who was sadder, the person with social anxiety disorder would win. They’re not just sad, they’re sad and alone.

No light-box will cure that.

Ariel Leve has been a journalist and columnist with The Sunday Times Magazine since 2003 where she has written investigative features, in- depth interviews and over a dozen cover stories. Her humorous weekly column, Cassandra, ran for five years, appearing first in the The Guardian, then in the Sunday Times. " It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me" gathers together these pieces and will be out April 13, 2010. Visit her at: www.ariel-leve.com