By Shirley M

While Marja was enjoying the benefits of cold weather naps, my mother was treating me to early morning sunbaths. As a baby, she would lay me down on her bed early in the morning (before 9am), directly under a shaft of sunlight coming through the window and I would enjoy sunbathing in the buff. The idea, of course, is that the sun light will help with vitamin D production and absorption of calcium, important in the formation and growth of bones. I imagine this was the beginning of my sun worship.

I didn’t recognize my devotion to sun until I moved to the United States. There is a perfectly good explanation for this: Brazil, where I come from, enjoys so many sunlight filled days I took it for granted they were a given anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, southeast Michigan has many cloudy days. On average, southeast Michigan has only 178 sunny days per year and most of those days do not happen in the winter.

Once I moved here, I started feeling tired and had difficulty finding the energy to do my work. At first, I thought that the stress of moving to a new country, where I had no family or friends and starting my master degree in a language that was not my birth language, had taken its toll on my body. But no matter what I did, the lack of energy would not go away. At some point, someone suggested I might be depressed. Was I depressed? I didn’t feel sad. I felt annoyed that I didn’t have the same energy as before. It would become a problem sometime in the middle of winter when I would feel sleepy and had to force myself to do what had to be done each day. By then I would be unconsciously “medicating” myself with sweets, carbohydrates, and caffeine. By spring my energy would start coming back and I would feel a certain euphoria in watching flowers and trees bloom and hearing birds coming back to town. But the level of energy would never equal what I had in Brazil. It took me some years, but I finally discovered my problem: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The concept of SAD was developed as a consequence of Dr. Norman Rosenthal’s own experiences when he came to the USA from South Africa. He realized he was not alone in how he was affected by the seasons, and he and his colleagues’ research discovered that lack of light was the cause.

During the 1990’s, when I discovered SAD, the disorder was well known in the USA, the concept and research having been published in the late 1980’s. But in Brazil, where people do not suffer from a lack of sunlight, my family was initially skeptical. Thankfully, my cousin who did his post-graduate work in Boston, was able to confirm that I was not making up the condition.

SAD can be managed by light exposure from a special light fixture, but I realized this special light fixture doesn’t give off as much sunlight as a stroll outdoors. Even on a cloudy day, there is more sun light outside than can possibly be reproduced indoors. But, of course, we spend a lot of time indoors, especially in winter, so my solution was to design our home to invite sunlight in. We don’t have curtains or window treatments, our master bedroom gets a lot of sunshine in the winter, we have light fixtures on the ceiling of every room in addition to lamps, and my boudoir (the room where I have all my stuff) is painted a warm creamy yellow that mimics sunlight when the lights are on.

As Marja suggested in her article “Babies Napping Outside in Freezing Winter Temperatures”, the best way to get used to winter is to have fun outdoors. This is true for people who suffer from SAD – going outdoors and exercising can relieve the symptoms. As a matter of fact, any exercise, outdoors or indoors, helps in generating energy. Of course, when you are already feeling tired and sleepy, the idea of exercising is not very welcome.

Mostly, I have to remember that it will happen every winter and that I have to be aware of signs that my energy is lagging and plan my life accordingly. I have to do the things that help myself. I have to accept that some days during winter are not going to be very productive and that some winters will be better than others. I’m lucky to be married to my husband who is not only understanding, but also patient with me (and always reads and helps with my articles).

Lately, I have been sitting in a chair next to the window after breakfast, enjoying a sunbath while reading the news of the day or answering emails. And yes, I do have mercy on our neighbors and have my sunbath fully clothed!

Sources: Rosenthal, Norman. Winter Blues. 1998.