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 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.
I 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.
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.