Doc What's Up?, Personal Essays

Down With Sad

Considering the weather, the cold, and this seemingly never-ending winter, I thought this was an appropriate essay to share with you all today. This was originally published in Doc, What’s Up?

It’s early November and I was tossing and turning in my bed in an attempt to get much needed sleep. I couldn’t let go of my thoughts about SAD or what the medical field calls, Seasonal Affective Disorder. After all, this time of the year was the beginning of the downslide for us SAD suffers now that the shortest day of the year was rapidly upon us.

I tried to come up with a new twist on my troublesome problem because living in the cold, dark Minnesota winter was a recurring fact of life for me and my patients. As I lay there dreaming one winter night, a placid image of hibernating bears, safely nestled deep in their snow-covered cave, came to me.

Perhaps SAD was a remnant of the hibernation instinct, which, in some individuals, is so strong that it causes severe depression. Actually, if you follow this line of thought, the hibernation instinct itself would not cause depression, but our cultural taboo against laziness would. Imagine—with 50 thousand years or more of conditioning, your body says: “NOW IT’S TIME TO GO TO BED…” What would you tell your family? How would you explain it to your boss? Who would pay the bills while you’re getting your forty thousand winks?

Anthropologically, it makes obvious sense. We didn’t always work eight to ten hours a day nor did we have the resources to do so. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that free men and women worked more than four hours each day.

Not so long ago, most people this far north of the Equator lived in small villages or clans. Barter and collective cooperation was the necessary way of life—for survival’s sake. We worked hard, long hours tilling the soil, through the planting season and finally to harvest. All that hard work thinned our protective body fat but we gathered it back during the winter. Survival demanded that we paid close attention to Nature, so our intuition was more highly developed than today. Our survival was completely dependent on our abilities to adapt to Nature’s changes. The consequences otherwise were gruesome.

Back then there weren’t outdoor floodlights as the days began to shorten. In fact, it was less than a hundred years ago that electricity lit up our households and factories so that we could continue into the night with our work or shenanigans. We came indoors and played or talked by the fire or an oil lamp. Or we simply retired to our huts, houses or hovels and went to sleep right after sundown. Like any member of nature, we were dying as the seasons do, lying fallow. It’s a natural cycle, why wouldn’t we be a part of it? All through the late autumn and winter, while lying fallow, we restored our bodies, loved our families, told our stories, built our relationships and most of all, we slept!

Everyone went to bed without guilt. We worried about next season’s crops, not our next promotion or the pile of bills. By the coming of spring, we, like the plants and other animals, had prepared ourselves to be reborn.

Instincts are mighty. Some are impossible to ignore. If indeed, Nature is telling us that it is time to rest, then resistance against Nature’s rhythms and systems inside of our bodies murders our most basic and intuitive selves. It has nothing to do with will power or the mind. Compound our resistance to follow our nature with a cultural environment that makes it a felony to follow our natural animal instincts and—who wouldn’t be depressed?

SAD sufferers who are wealthy go to the equator for the winter. Their doctors even tell them to do it. But what about the middle class and poor working stiffs?

I was still tossing and turning in my November attempt at sleep as my mind shifted to the Russian playwright, Maxim Gorky and his play, The Lower Depths. It portrays the lives of poor Russian working class people in the basement of an apartment building in Russia. They were the lost souls, the mentally ill, and the destitute creatures of G-d, who, in the play, comes to bring them hope. The setting is late winter and the tenants live communally in the chill of the basement. Yet, even with the cold, no one complains of having SAD. Obviously, they have a lot to be depressed about, but instead, they hibernated—together.

There was the answer! Why couldn’t SAD sufferers get a 90-day work release prescription from their psychiatrists, be eligible for Workman’s Comp and sign up for the Hibernation Renewal Center? We could rent out basements in Minneapolis that are made up of large open spaces and paint the walls with snuggling bears contently hibernating. The floor could be one big mattress. It could be lit with dim lights and soothing new age music, with a soft snoring rhythm, could be piped in.

We could stop fighting SAD and surrender to it instead. Go with the natural hormonal flow and hibernate the winter away! We’d have to get labeled from DMS IV, but it would be easier than fighting Nature and a whole lot more fun!

Where do I sign up?

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