My Southern CA Winter Depression

John McManamy Health Guide
  • It's autumn here in southern California. Citizens are braving sub-70 temperatures to stock up on winter gear. The local clothing stores report a run on heavy weave Hawaiian shirts. At coffee shops, patrons are requesting less ice blended into their frozen frappuccinos. The other day, I spotted a convertible with its top up. From San Diego's North County to the Mexican border to East County, millions of us are hunkering down for what we know will be a long and harsh and brutal winter.

    I've talked to people here who vividly recall the Winter of '88, which went on for days.

    Believe it or not, people here really do notice a change in the seasons. Both of my housemates now have their light boxes out of summer storage, and, no, this is no joke.

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    I moved to the southern CA in early Dec 2006. Coming from New Jersey, I simply assumed I had been transported into the land of perpetual summer, but that is not quite true. I am living 3,500 feet up in the mountains, where the winters are cooler than what the surfer dudes along the coast enjoy, though with skies far brighter.

    Pure, undiluted mountain sun.

    Almost immediately, I was walking a lot - usually at least an hour a day - delighting in the 50-60 (and often 70) degree sun on my face. In nothing flat, despite the fact that I was dealing with a marriage breakup, I actually started to feel a lot better.

    In New Jersey, I had been a prisoner in my house for at least six months of the year. Summers were like stepping out into a molten steam bath, and winters had a way of ceasing all molecular motion in my body. Heaven help if spring and fall turned in substandard performances - a rainy October there in 2005 coincided with my worst depression in years.

    People associate winter depression - or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) - with locales that actually experience winter. Places like New Jersey. And, indeed, SAD is far more prevalent in northern climes.

    But there is more to SAD then simply winter depression. More accurately, SAD can be described as sensitivity to seasonal changes in natural light. Despite the benign climate here in the San Diego region, we are still a long way from the equator. The days are noticeably shorter now, and the sun traverses the sky in a decidedly lower arc.

    Those with bipolar are particularly vulnerable to these changes, microscopically so. Hence, the light boxes in our household.

    Paradoxically, I find myself getting more sun during the winters here. The summers in the mountains are a bit too intense for my comfort. Down the mountain, in San Diego, ocean winds dispense a "June gloom" that takes the edge off of the sun. Up here, we get it full blast, in the 90s, unfiltered by clouds or smog. Thus, during the hottest months of the year, I find myself venturing out of the house less often, and for shorter periods of time. But, about a week or two ago, that all changed.

    I am writing this at 11:00 AM Sunday morning. The clouds outside are breaking up, revealing a brilliant cobalt sky that dramatically contrasts with the cozy grotto ambiance beneath our roof. The temperature is a brisk and invigorating 60 degrees, and a rare rainfall has brought out an intoxicating bouquet of alpine scents.

  • This is my time. My housemates feel just the opposite. For them, winter means less light, not more. They are compensating by flicking on their light boxes, by blasting their eyes at close range with searing artificial light. A walk outdoors won't do the trick for them.

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    For me, the winters here are different, a welcome break from my enforced indoor summer hibernation. I am emerging from the dark into my season of light, one that will last into spring and early summer.  

    Life is good. Different strokes for different folks.

Published On: October 05, 2008