Fun in the Sun

You’ve heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), haven’t you? It’s when people get depressed and miserable, bulk up on carbs, and can’t do their lives well. But only during the months with the least sunshine, and usually when it’s cold. It’s seasonal because it goes away without therapy as soon as the days get longer and the weather warms up. And because it comes back every winter. There are a few unlucky people who have the opposite problem: they can’t handle summer and all that sunshine and warmth. But for most of us who are SAD sufferers, it’s the short days of winter that are the bane of our year.

Unless you are in the behavioral sciences or have SAD, you might not know that there is a range in how it affects people. Some people virtually shut down; they can’t bring themselves to go buy the necessities of life such as toilet paper. I once met someone who reported being unable to do any work on the job. The person would just push papers around and try to look busy, because concentration was impossible. That’s full-blown SAD. But there a lot more people who have Subsyndromal SAD (SSAD), and who can still do their lives in winter. But they feel so-so to outright lousy the whole time, and they also are prey to various negative symptoms. In the bad days of January and February, after snow, snow, and more snow, I experienced a recurrence of an odd symptom of SSAD that I have suffered off and on for years. A check of sites talking about SAD and SSAD shows that my symptom still isn’t listed. Which I find strange because it’s so distinctive:

Addiction to video and computer games.

In bad winters, I have been known to stay up late at night playing endless games of Tetris and Dr. Mario. I do mean endless, too. Breaking away from them is very difficult. I have won at all levels and seen all the celebratory hoo-hah, yet in the grip of this winter mood still started all over again. Now that the Nintendo era is over in our house, I have substituted computer solitaire and Freecell. I had to take a dread oath to discontinue Freecell a couple of winters ago. The dread oath worked for a while, and then I had to take another one. Throughout the remainder of winter, there was an itch to go back to that comforting, mindless pursuit. By spring, the urge was completely gone. In summer I don’t even think of these games.

I wonder why this winter addiction symptom doesn’t get reported and studied? I call it addiction because there have been days when I’ve spent virtually all waking hours—and many when I should have been sleeping—playing Freecell or solitaire. And during those hours, I was not necessarily enjoying playing. In fact I often was exhausted and telling myself I would quit after this current game was over. But then, even as the confetti was being sprinkled across the computer screen, I hit the Play Again button. Oh, man. That’s addiction. There’s an initial rush of pleasure, but then I have to win another game. In winter I am about as helpless as a lab rat with an electrode in its brain.

The saving grace of having SSAD is that it only happens in winter. As the sunlight returns, the symptoms wane. Some winters I am able to avoid all this. I spend whole days outside hauling branches and beating back dormant poison ivy and my exposure to the available sunlight keeps me okay. But it’s always an iffy thing because of the wind and the cold. And this year, the three-to-four feet of snow. This is sad. And SSAD. But it’s finally March, and my addiction nightmare is over, for this year anyway. Maybe next year I’ll redeem a promise to myself and go snow tubing. It’s either that or head for someplace that has palm trees.

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