SAD in the Studio

RamonaGravitarAnd on the 7th day, I got depressed.

 It’s raining as I write this post, which is a departure from my usual how to, what is, or inspirational ramblings. In the past, a rainy, cold, dark January morning would say “perfect writing day” to me. I’d have lit a candle or two and spent the day in relative darkness, writing away. Not today. A few minutes ago, I strung a length of white Christmas lights across the windowsill in front of my desk. A lamp is shining down on my keyboard. A soothing aromatherapy candle is burning on the shelf to my right.

I used to embrace the gloom; now I fight it. Let me explain how this happened.

A month ago, I put aside my regular life to move into the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for a three week residency. This was my third time at VCCA.

In 2012, I chronicled my experiences there and how it changed how I looked at my writing life in Postcards from Writing Camp, Part 1 and Part 2.

VCCA plaqueIn 2013, I wrote a confessional guest blog for Jordan Rosenfeld about being intimidated by the impressive names on the studio walls. Panic at the Artist’s Colony taught me to ignore comparisons and accept that, if I was there, I must belong there.

In 2014, I was a veteran. I drove down to Virginia on Sunday to avoid the post-Thanksgiving traffic and wrote in my hotel room. I was chomping at the bit. I had 18 days to complete the novel I’d begun at VCCA in 2012. I knew from years before how quickly those 18 days would go, but my past experiences had taught me about pacing and expectations.

VCCA W10I arrived on Monday, unpacked my stuff, and redecorated my studio—W10—and of course looked at the names on the plaques. I felt thrilled to be in august company. I settled in and spent the afternoon and evening hard at work.

Some changes had been made. The horses were gone. The herd of cows had been moved to other pastures. But the hills were still hilly, the studio was still private, and the time was still mine.

On Tuesday, it began to rain. Excellent, I thought, as my long narrow studio darkened. My desk faced a window that overlooked a field and a barn. The opposite window faced another studio. But I liked writing on dark dismal days, and I had an umbrella, and that night after dinner, some of the musicians in residence gave a performance in the TV room. They sang tunes by Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn, and when they started with the Beatles songs, we had a “Yesterday” sing-along.

I was in heaven. My happy place.

It rained again on Wednesday. And Thursday. Friday and Saturday. By Saturday, I wasn’t in heaven anymore. On Saturday morning, I shook out my umbrella outside W-10 and hesitated before opening the door. When I did, and saw how little light came in from the opposite wall windows, I thought, “Ugh.” It didn’t feel like my happy place.

I had 11 days left. I was making good progress, so I sat at my desk and tried to be diligent, but I felt distracted. I wanted to sleep—at 9 a.m., when I’m usually almost obnoxiously energetic. I turned on the overhead light, but I hated the glare. I piddled around, wanting to write, feeling the desire to be productive, hearing the lines I wanted to add or revise, but I had no energy. The bed in the corner of the studio seemed to have a flashing “Welcome!” sign.

This was not like me. Not just the sleepy part, but I felt sad. Glum. And tired. I’d slept like a rock in my nice bed in the residence, but my body seemed like a weight to drag around. I didn’t feel sick. Was I depressed? How could I be depressed?! I was in heaven.

I struggled through the day. On Sunday, the sun came out, and I was back to normal. Oatmeal for breakfast—yay! Walk down the lane—yay! My laptop at my desk—yay! I hit the ground running and made up for the lost time, sure and relieved that Saturday’s inertia was a fluke or fatigue.

On Monday, it rained. This time, when I saw the dark studio and felt the blanket of fatigue hit almost instantly, I knew something was wrong. I sat in my chair, swiveling back and forth, considering the light that eked in from both sides, and how my body seemed heavy and my brain felt dulled, and I thought about a friend who struggled with the dark days of winter. Another who could not write without natural light. And I got it.

I wasn’t feeling sad. I was experiencing SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder happens when a person with normal mental health experiences bouts of the blues in winter. SAD is related to light. Without adequate or regular natural light, a person with SAD has episodes of depressive symptoms. For some people, it’s an annual and debilitating condition.

For me, realizing I had SAD was a relief. I definitely had an issue. Once I understood what that issue was, I could figure out how to solve it.

At VCCA and other colonies, studios are provided as the primary work station. Bedrooms in a separate dorm-like building are for sleeping. Each studio also has a bed, and some artists sleep in their studios and skip the residence bedroom. I liked the change and always went to the residence at midnight or whenever I finished my day’s work. There’s no desk in the bedroom, so I never worked there.

When I realized I wasn’t being productive in my dark studio, I packed up my laptop and moved to the table in the TV room, where the concert had been held. The room had a full bank of floor to ceiling windows. Even for a SAD person, this was adequate light. I didn’t have all of my notes and research materials, but I wrote on my laptop and made it work for the day. It wasn’t ideal, but it solved the immediate problem.

The next day, the sun came out. It stayed out, mostly, for the duration of my three weeks. I happily moved back into my studio. On the single dismal morning that followed, I wrote in longhand at the table in the TV room. By the time my 18-day residency was over, I’d achieved the goal I’d set for myself—completing the full draft of my novel—and learned I might have a light-related mood problem.

VCCA nameWhen I signed my name on the doorframe, I did it feeling doubly accomplished.

Now I am at home, sitting in a dark room, facing a dismal day, writing about being unable to write on a day like today. If the holiday lights and lamp don’t keep my mood up, I can move downstairs to my dining room, where a wall of windows lets in more light. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try some other location or some different solution, because I’m a writer and a writer has to write.

Have you ever suffered from SAD? Any tips, advice, or shared experiences would be much appreciated.

 

23 thoughts on “SAD in the Studio

  1. Years ago I thought I had SAD. In early September, when light took on that golden glow, I became anxious and depressed. I could feel the exact moment it began. Then the start date moved backward to August, when Texas sun is hard to escape. And it always stopped in October, when the clocks were turned back to standard time and darkness came earlier. I held my breath each year, waiting for it to hit. Then it stopped, but underlying depression didn’t. Took years to get the meds right, but when that finally happened, last fall, I rushed to the computer and started writing a story (a real one, with a plot and everything, not a blog post), and did it happily for the first time in years. If I deviate from the meds, I’m too busy sleeping to write (or cook). I feel best on cold, rainy days. Don’t know how I’d do if I were faced with a string of them, but I’d like to find out. Fat chance. I write best in coffee shops, though, possibly because I’m dressed and wearing lipstick and sitting in my office, feeling professional, possibly because I’m surrounded by enough activity to stimulate my spacey little brain. Possibly because the pumpkin bread there is exceptionally good. That’s not much of a tip, is it? If what you’re experiencing is related to light, there are special light boxes that can help. And meds. Meds aren’t necessarily the first resort, and lots of people say they’re a crutch, but they’re better than slogging around, not writing. I attended critique group for three or four years without writing anything except, finally, a couple of stories that came out of nowhere, until the brain chemicals were properly balanced. End of TMI.

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  2. Thank you for sharing, Kathy, and it’s not TMI–just the opposite. If my friends hadn’t talked about their struggles with the winter blues, I might still be wondering what is wrong and still struggling to handle it.

    So much of writing success is a mental game. Find the right place. Find the right time. Find the right equipment. None of that has to do with the stories in your head, but with getting them down someplace. I’m VERY pleased to see you figured out a way to write. Meds, lamps, coffee shops, pumpkin bread–whatever works!

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  3. I don’t suffer from SAD (at least I don’t think I do), but I definitely feel more energetic on sunny days. And I love that the days are getting longer now.

    I believe there are lamps and/or lightbulbs you can get that imitate daylight. I think they’re called “full spectrum bulbs.” That might be a good option. It would be worth a try anyway.

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    • I know about those, Joyce. For the one day I thought I needed it, adding light solved the issue. I don’t like overhead lights and hate fluorescent, so we have a lot of lamps. Doing that, and facing a window, is all I’ve needed. As for sunny days, my issue then becomes tamping down my desire to go outside!

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  4. Here in Buffalo, NY, where I live, many suffer from SAD, including one of my cousins, so from some strong observation, I can advise: get a professional consult. Ask your doctor for a referral to get proper treatment– a light-box may be part of that, and the cost could be partially covered by insurance. If you had a lung infection or bi-polar or another illness, you wouldn’t try to treat it on your own, would you? Take this seriously, and get the info and help you deserve.

    I would add that getting outside, through whatever act of will it takes, for even ten minutes can help. We see less light and experience less connection to it from inside than outside, even on seemingly gloomy days. Best of luck to you– you’re already ahead of the curve in figuring this out.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Exploding Mary. I have a couple of friends in the Boston area with the same issue. I was looking at light boxes online. There is a huge range of styles and prices. Who knew?

      I am an avid go-outside-for-20-minutes-every-day person! As I mentioned to Joyce, it’s a struggle to stay indoors on sunny days.

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  5. I think Pittsburgh gets an average of 65 “sunny” days a year, so I can definitely relate. We just got over a string of rainy, gray days. And it’s cold. I don’t know if I suffer from SAD, but I’m definitely happier when the sun is out and I don’t have to dress in fifty layers to go outside (okay, fifty might be an exaggeration, but there are Too Many Clothes involved for dressing in winter). I get mopey after too many days of gray – and irritable. What helps me get through the winter is our wood stove. Light a fire and I am a happy girl, curled up, basking in warmth – reading, writing or napping.

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  6. Actually I am like that. whenever I want to start is very difficult but when I force my self and start, words will find own way… I am a Farsi language writer. sorry about my English. Hope you understand what I mean.

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  7. I have a friend who is severely effected by SAD. She moved to a high rise with a ton of huge windows and has special lights to help her. Here, we have had a wettest, gloomiest, grayest winter I can ever remember. There are days when I want to sit in a chair and sleep. Getting out and about has helped a lot – talking to friends and meeting with my critique groups has helped reinvigorate me for writing. But the winter months remain the toughest!

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  8. My son and I both have SAD to varying degrees – his much worse. Norman Rosenthal is the psychiatrist who basically coined the term and has a wonderful book on the subject, Winter Blues. He recommends using light therapy – you can get lightboxes of various sizes that emit a specific spectrum of light. You set the light to go on first thing in the a.m. or at the breakfast table.

    This winter, I found a wonderful PORTABLE lightbox from Lightphoria. We sit it on the breakfast table while we’re eating in the a.m. It has a detachable cord and a little carry bag, meaning you can take it with you and use it in case the next writer’s retreat doesn’t have a room with lots of windows – or in case there’s no sun shining through those windows. It definitely seems to be helping us. Although I’m sure a bigger one would be more helpful, this one is handy enough to actually remember to use it!

    Here’s the link at Amazon: http://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/B004JF3G08/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o06_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

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  9. I’ve been lucky and never suffered from SAD. Perhaps I avoided some of the problems because I routinely get up before dawn to begin work, so the delay in the day starting doesn’t get to me. However, when I also had to work until after dark I did feel put upon.

    My (much) better half, Jan, does have a strong SAD. She does not get up until the sun does, unless there is a special reason. Her theory, which sounds good to me, is that it is not a disorder, our perversion of the natural rhythms of life is the disorder. She is just following mammalian instincts.

    Perhaps her idea will help you frame those depressing days in a different light.

    ~ JIm

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    • That’s interesting, Jim. I am an early bird and wake up before dawn every day, and I love that dark time of the morning. Mine kicked in mid-morning, when I expected the sun to come out.

      Today is glum–overcast and dismal–and I’m having a normal, productive morning. I think my episodes may come after several dark days in a row? I’m glad Jan recognizes what works for her. Life is a constant learning experience, isn’t it?

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  10. Ironically, I found your blog on SAD right after the Summer Solstice. Already I’ve had the thought come to me that now the light is going away. I have to remind myself that it won’t even be noticeable for months, but it’s happening. Perhaps you’d like to see the blogs I wrote last January while I was home writing. “Why My Christmas Tree is Still Up” and “Over Ten Hours of Daylight Today!” You’ll have to scroll down to these. http://gailpriest.com/category/blog/ But I know how you feel.

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