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A few weeks ago, when the skies began to turn gray, my Lit Hum professor began class by scanning the eyes of her 15 scholars to gauge the day’s vibe. After picking up on a general sense of apathy—gloominess, for some—she asked what was wrong. With no specific reason for our lack of energy, we remained silent, and she joked, “’Tis the season!” Those words stuck with me.

Growing up, I had no patience for how English teachers read into the obvious signs of weather in literature as indicators to how the characters feel. Sunny means happy, and cloudy means sad, third-grade me would recite in my head. But I know that a lack of sunlight is more than a mere literary device that reflects a character’s emotions. For me and others with Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s a cause.

I was raised in Florida and never experienced the grayness of winter firsthand. I wore shorts and flip-flops year-round until Christmastime, when I eagerly busted out the only pair of pants I owned. I grew up only knowing how to apply sunscreen, not how to apply light therapy.

People from sunny places who move to grayer ones often end up with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and many don’t identify it right away—I didn’t know until six months after I left Florida to attend high school in New Jersey. I remember sitting in my tiny dorm room day after day, waiting for answers as to why I felt so tired, upset, and generally unmotivated. Once winter was in full swing, the doctors were able to validate their hunch. Ultimately, the wait was worth it and confirmed the diagnosis.

One of my first thoughts upon hearing I had SAD was, “Why is the acronym so tacky?” SAD made it sound as though I were battling something as fleeting as the weather itself. I could imagine opening up to someone I loved, confessing, “I have SAD.” Then, I could imagine them wondering whether I had attended a proper grammar school.

However, an even more prominent thought was, “Really? That of all things?” To me, it sounded like a cop-out diagnosis. Tell me I’m depressed. Tell me I’m anxious. Tell me I have anything but this—a condition that sounded so simple that a third-grade English teacher could predict my mood by glancing out the window.

The hardest part of it all was that I blamed myself. I figured that a simple change in mindset should be able to keep the skies from ruling my emotions. How weak must I be, I felt, to let something as simple as weather keep me from feeling happy. Of course, I wasn’t being fair to myself. Just as I wouldn’t blame someone else for having depression, I couldn’t blame myself for my SAD. To battle this condition, I turned to treatment.

My roommate in high school joked that I looked like an alien. Before class for around twenty minutes every morning, I sported a visor that reads “Feel Bright Light” with a cartoon smile underneath the woven lettering. Mounted under the visor was a light which shone emerald-green rays directly into my eyes. Eventually, I upgraded to a lamp-like box which emitted light instead of my fashion-forward visor. I remember hearing that light therapy can have effects similar to a cup of coffee, and the energy I feel after sitting there each morning validates that. It may not be a flawless cure, but it makes a substantial difference.

To me, this is good news. This is quite possibly one of the cheapest (it’s a onetime purchase) and easiest (all I do is sit there) ways to treat sadness. Of course, light therapy isn’t the perfect fix, but it can make a huge difference if used consistently. I’ve also learned the importance of sleep and exercise in battling the blues when skies are gray, especially once light therapy gave me the energy to devote to those things. Now, I challenge those English teacher expectations: On a good day, I am the girl walking through New York City with her head held high, despite the gray skies, shattering expectations.

Oftentimes, people don’t know what SAD is or why a giant lamp sits on my desk. If nothing else, I want you to know that this condition exists. The city is stoic, but you’re not alone—everyone else is just pretending to always be okay. Especially to my fellow first-years, check in with yourself amidst the homework, clubs, and work studies. Don’t overlook wintertime sadness simply because Lana Del Rey hasn’t written a song about it—your feelings are valid and warranted. They can also be treated, especially when we come to accept that they are often out of our own control.

The author is a first-year in Columbia College. She plans on majoring in creative writing with a focus on nonfiction but is simultaneously aware of her tendency to change her mind.

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seasonal affective disorder winter mental health SAD seasonal depression