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'I just wanted to pull the covers over my head and hibernate'

Writer Una Brankin, who suffers from SAD, has found a way to get through the darker months

Published 03/11/2015

The term SAD wasn't in the common vernacular when I started to experience it. I've always been sensitive to light - and the lack of it. In countless childhood photos, I'm squinting even on duller days, and I could never stand the harsh light of multi-bulb overhead fittings at home, or awful neon strip lighting in shops.

But the first time I felt the full force of SAD was at university. I didn't mind the shorter autumn days so much; I like the changing colours and walking through the falling leaves. It was the cold light of winter and the very early darkness that got to me.

I remember looking out the window of my lodgings at the stark trees and relentless grey in the morning, and wanting to pull the covers over my head and to hibernate.

Somehow the gloom affected my energy levels, too. I'd get sleepy in lectures and tutorials, not taking in a word. And when I got home to the house I shared with other students, I would hate having to stand and cook under the horrible fluorescent light. I'd survive on sausage rolls or spaghetti hoops on toast; anything quick, so I could escape upstairs to read by lamplight.

I hadn't the budget then for the ambient lighting that's readily available now, so I made do with one 60 watt bulb at my bedside.

That was fine; it was the daylight that got me down. I think my father's the same. He's a semi-retired farmer and at the first glimpse of sunlight, he's off like a shot outside to the yard or shed, to sit with the dog. Come winter, he's stuck to the range in the kitchen, with a longer face than usual and duller eyes.

It was only when I left university and started to work in Dublin, that I discovered many people in the media talking about feeling "stressed" from work and suffering from SAD. I associated stress with annoyance, and didn't think I'd ever really felt what they were on about. But SAD rang a bell, and when someone suggested putting a light-box in my room, to simulate natural light, I thought it was a great idea.

It wasn't. It made the room look like the inside of a sunbed and made me feel worse. It got so bad, I went to the doctor, who prescribed anti-depressants. At the time, I thought that was taboo, so I took St John's Wort instead. Then, the game-changer for me was moving flats to one with an open fire, which I lit every day for the welcoming glow - something I still do in our ancient cottage. I bought lots of antique lamps and warm amber bulbs, and hung fairy-lights around the mirrors. I discovered scented candles and made an ordinary city centre flat into a welcoming cocoon that I looked forward to coming home to.

The St John's Wort helped me face the mornings and the dank days, while books on positive thinking helped banish the seasonal blues. I still don't like the short days of winter; I would rather hibernate or move to the sun for the duration, if I could.

But I do love the excuse to cosy up the house and luxuriate by the fire, in soft throws and rosy light.

Belfast Telegraph

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