Stealing fire from the gods to beat the winter blues and big pharma: A happy review of a SAD box

Strapped down and receiving a good healthy dose of less SAD
Strapped down and receiving a good healthy dose of less SAD

It takes eight seconds for light from the sun to reach our rock; although if you live in Britain you might question that figure. In fact you might snort: “Ha! Eight months more like!” and grin inanely like a child expecting validation before realising that even if it did take eight months we’d just be getting our sunshine a bit later. Like receiving our Christmas cards in September.

Although saying that – and assuming we’re not reducing the speed of light itself – it’d be a hell of a lot colder here as at current speed/distance light would travel from the Sun to Pluto and back 430 times in eight months which is using the figure for the farthest distance the two bodies get from each other as Pluto has an eccentric orbit which means that sometimes it’s closer than Neptune but by then I’d realise I was staring off into the middle distance whilst eating the skin next to my fingernails and the distance between my date’s body and the barman’s would be rapidly decreasing.

And yet, if it did take eight months for light from the sun to reach the earth due to a decrease in the speed of light then the International Space Station is breaking the light barrier by a couple of thousand mph as we speak…

Ouch. Giving myself a headache with maths isn’t why I wanted to talk about the Sun. No, you see I finally came to the conclusion that if I was ever going to cheer the fuck up then I needed to bring the sun closer to my face. Like, one astronomical unit closer.

“These definitely help,” said the girl in the pharmacy as she scanned the barcodes on my vitamins. I’d asked her if she could excuse my ignorance and explain the difference between Vitamin D and D3 as the former is a lot cheaper and more readily available. She’d said something about D3 being the sort we get from UVB rays, the kind that people are really after when they buy vitamin D, and not to pay any attention to the RDA because she knows someone who takes 10 times that and they’re fine and swear by it.

The tick in my eye went and rather than ask her to elaborate I decided I should Google the information when I got home. I should have asked her what she was implying; did she mean help as in a person purchasing D3 is undoubtedly after a mood kick or because I’m such a sour faced bastard that even a cursory glance is enough to spot the fact I’m climbing up the walls like a spider on Benzedrine?

I love the sun as much as any cold blooded reptile. I love basking in the park with a selection of cold beers safe in the shade and a like-minded comrade to mock how young people can’t hold their liquor these days and dress like buffoons. Spring arrives and with it birdsong and green leaves; women’s legs and the brilliance of our yellow dwarf. Suddenly I feel that if an articulated lorry were to jackknife across the central reservation towards me then I might actually bother to duck.

I’ve been taking vitamin D for a few months now along with cod liver oil as I read somewhere that’s it’s good for the brain and I’m scared of the Alzheimer’s that killed my Nan last year. A little while ago I wrote about the treatment offered by our GPs when they spot depression and low mood; anxiety; feelings of worthlessness, or excessive or inappropriate guilt; poor concentration and agitation; blah blah; blah. I’ve gotten about a fair bit in the six years since I decided to approach a doctor about such matters so it’s been difficult to foster any kind of meaningful relationship with any one of them but only one ever mentioned light therapy and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

The Mental Health Foundation (a leading UK charity) reports that the NHS approximates 1 in 15 Britons as suffering from SAD between September and April. Also: “1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year with mixed anxiety and depression being the most common mental disorder in Britain.”

SAD, it turns out, has the same damned symptoms I’ve always sat there glum in surgery babbling at a kindly figure, hoping for guidance. Yet drugs are the knee jerk weapon of choice; treat the symptoms of the affliction rather than find a cure because there’s more money in a lifetime of prescriptions than a healthy society. Any honest doctor worth his stethoscope will tell you this much at least.

It’s a nightmare trying to get a medical professional to give you a straight answer in terms of a diagnosis – it’s almost as if they’re frightened they’ll be sued if they get something wrong. They’re all too keen to throw psychotropic medication down your neck and, what with so many of us feeling at odds with this and that, the waiting list is often so long to speak to a shrink that we’re all too eager to take that prescription for want of a better idea.

I had an initial assessment with a psychotherapist a few months ago and after a half hour of me laying my cards on the table she told me that I appeared to know what was wrong and why, so there was little help she could actually offer. She recommended I try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and I have my initial assessment this coming Tuesday.

But my point is, what if all this is really just a simple matter of not getting enough sun? It’s not that I had a particularly terrible upbringing, certainly nothing that can’t be shrugged off. I travelled in Australia a while back and despite once needing to live in a homeless shelter I don’t remember ever being unhappy. Antidepressants and CBT can be used against SAD but I wonder how many other people are there out there, shackled to the side effects of psychotropic drugs when light therapy is what they’d really benefit from?

So the other day I’m walking past an electronics store and there’s a sign in the window offering 25% off a 10,000 lux SAD light-box. I walk away and think about it, go about my business and the next day think about it some more. Then I decide, hell, sod it, what’s the worst that can happen? So I use part of my rent to pay for it and hope that my winning smile will placate my landlady.

It promises to counter the vicious effects of light deprivation without the need for me to resort to medication; to sort out my circadian rhythm and make me more alive, more quickly in the morning; to fire up those brittle synapses to make good use of the day so I’m able to catch some sleep at a decent hour rather than twist and turn uselessly through my demented half-dreams.

Of late I’ve been trying to fool myself into natural sleep with valerian root. The first time I tried it I took several times as much as the directions recommended washed down with a cheap bottle of pinot grigio and slept for more than 12 hours to wake slow and awful to feelings of horrible lethargy and weak irritability. Too fragile and zombified to grind coffee beans I thankfully had caffeine pills in my burgeoning bedside apothecary to unwrap my head from the dusty cobwebs and kick the afternoon off to a trembling, headfucked start.

But this morning I was better; different and more usual. Shocked into this world with a shrill alarm as I struggled with the perverse difference between my divine dream and the reality of Where are my trousers Jesus it’s so cold Why does my neighbour have to watch Dad’s Army at nose bleed volumes at this time of the morning?! I crawled across the room and retrieved the SAD box; getting back under the crisp bed covers I sat this new best friend on my chest about 20cm from my face. On came the light, white like how you imagine God will one day call for you, and I turned on the news; not for any interest in the art of politics but for the same reason you should study the flailings of the angry drunk on the last bus home; because you know that sooner rather than later fate will attempt to strike you across the face with a fist stinking of piss and cheap tobacco.

I lay there blinking, turning my head this way and that, and when the news turned to sport then that’s my cue to get dressed with Tom Petty on the stereo. I brush my teeth and do something with my Lego man hair, count the change for the bus and select matching shoes; then I’m outside.

You come out into the world arms back and head held high, a lung full of air and everything’s all right. This is how you get walking along the shore with your shoes in one hand and a girl in the other, this is the warm brain of a picnic in the hills or a ride through the countryside. You feel like the men Meursault watched coming out of the cinema across from his window, striding with the confidence of the hero in the film they just saw. You feel both connected to the strangers around you – like you’re all sharing the same view of this beautiful world – and disconnected from the judgement you all too often perceive as a sludge to swim though; day in, day out.

It’s like everything is bright and blue and marvellous. I notice people checking me out, girls and guys. You might say: “Yeah, you’re just noticing it more – you’re probably not getting checked out any more than you would normally!” To which I would respond with thanks. No, really – you’re too kind.

It’s early evening now and the sun’s gone down but I’m cheating with my shiny wee box. There’s the glowing rectangle in front of me with these stupid words flashing up and to my right there’s my fake sun, my on tap UVB, my SAD box.

Like so many things, it turns out I should have heeded the advice of my schoolmates: “You’re such a SAD bastard, Parlett,” they would infer; and what a tremendous insight that would prove to be, not just as a portent of my future mental state but also providing a telling critique on the whereabouts of my father.

All hail the bulbs, dear reader; for they hold the key.

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5 thoughts on “Stealing fire from the gods to beat the winter blues and big pharma: A happy review of a SAD box”

  1. Bright blue and marvellous? So,this is basically another drug?How exactly did you expect,living in the cold north was going to be any different? Not forgetting you’re a melacholic sod at the best of times:)

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