A Howl from the Wolf of Winter Blues
Listen to the real scoop on seasonal affective disorder.
Posted Feb 11, 2016
Whoever would have imagined our Elizabeth's transformation into a foreboding spirit that rules the winter night? I guess a recent publication denying the existence of seasonal depression got the better of her. Follow her dark tale about clinical fact cast as folklore. Both can't be true at the same time, right? Wrong? —Michael Terman
I may get minor billing in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental DIsorders (DSM), but I think I should have a chance to write my own blog instead of having so many people give tepid, secondhand accounts of me. After all, I am powerful. A snap of my fingers can make people so exhausted, they crawl under the covers. A toss of my head directs dieters straight to banana walnut muffins. And when I'm on a roll, the residents of penthouses may forget their fancy cars and careers, and jump.
Usually, I attack individuals all at once with my winter muscle. I overwhelm them, sometimes forcing them to use their vacation time for what is really sick leave. Stigma and I are a team. I knock 'em out, and she keeps them quiet.
Of course, stigma is increasingly busy these days with all the new diseases pharmaceutical companies are coming up with. Binge eating disorder has been especially taxing for her. It didn't exist before the latest edition of the DSM was published in 2013. Now it is the most common eating disorder in the US, and Shire will make a lot of money selling meds for it.
But let's return to me, my favorite subject. Sometimes I sneak up on people. Slowly, I give them one symptom at a time, trying to see how long it will take them to recognize that I am here. Yes, I am here to dominate their waking moments until spring dissolves me with sunshine like the awful magic moment in a commercial for dish detergent.
I snuck up on Abigail this year. Abigail is a plucky social worker who works with heroin addicts, ex-offenders on parole, and homeless people. She's smart, and she doesn't flinch. I like that in my victims. I try to pick on people with metal even though there's a vicious myth that I only pick on sissies. Trust me, I do pick on sissies, but I prefer people made of sterner stuff. It's more of a challenge to bring them low. If I had to work on easy pickings, I'd get bored.
I used to plague Abigail every winter with a constellation of symptoms. However, she got wise to me. Then, as soon as I'd arrive, she would start with the light box. I'd try to make her lose interest in things she liked to do, or think of suicide. However, I couldn't
Once Abigail even had a session of light therapy in an airport when she was flying to her niece's bat mitzvah. I never suspected she would schlep a light box to an airport, so I innocently went there to dampen her mood and energy level before the big event. God, did I feel like a vampire coming face to face with a cross — and I left like a bat mitzvah out of hell!
A Folk Tale
They're coming out with better and better crosses these days, and that's something I'm concerned about. In fact, I'm going to devote a whole post to that sometime. But what bothered me especially today is that a graduate student and two faculty members from Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, just published an article saying Seasonal Affective Disorder was a folk tale. A folk tale! I nearly choked. They even belittled me because I didn't have my own category in the DSM, and was only a specifier. As if I were an afterthought, a tagalong, for Major Depressive Disorder!
Then I looked at their biased selection of references, numbered straw men! And they were using the polka dot theory of causation. That's when you don't look at a wide enough range of variable x or variable y. You conclude that there is no correlation between x and y because in your tiny sample of the range, there truly is no correlation. All there is are polka dots, a red rectangle filled with polka dots. You overlook the fact that if you look at a wider range of latitudes — and if you tested subjects at more than one time point across the year — you would find that my presence indeed varies as a function of latitude and season.
In other words, if you just look at Canada or Europe, I'm pretty much everywhere to some degree. You have to go farther south to escape my clutches. The US is a perfect example. As you make your way from the central states down south, you are less and less likely to bump into me. By the time you get all the way to Florida, I rarely show my face. Latitude really matters to me. I'd rather give people a miserable January mood in New York than Key West.
But the investigators really didn't give themselves any latitude with latitude. It was as if they were concluding that height isn't correlated with gender because they look only at people between 5 feet and 5 feet and a quarter inch tall.
I'll admit, I got bent out of shape when they said I was a "folk theory." But then I thought how much more influence I would have on people if they didn't know I was lurking in the shadows. Why would they bother to get light boxes if I were a folk theory? Who would understand them if they had troubles? Then I felt good, and brought out the champagne. Researchers like that are tough on my ego, but good for business. I can deal with it. After all, I am the one, the only, the truly magnificent Seasonal Affective Disorder!
So now you've been introduced to Elizabeth's erudite but dark alter ego, and grasped the serious implications of denying seasonality based on a study that asked the wrong questions. Check out Bruce Bower's review in Science News, where three SAD researchers — Kelly Rohan, PhD, Michael Young, PhD, and yours truly — lay out some of the arguments that dispute the validity of the Auburn study. —M.T.
Elizabeth Saenger, PhD, is a Harvard-educated psychologist who helps people help themselves live the way they want to, sometimes with style and originality.
She often teaches clients useful skills, from negotiation to how to cope with depression, individually, or in groups. These skills enable clients to solve problems later without her.
Thus her real job is to put herself out of business.
Elizabeth serves as Director of Education at the Center for Environmental Therapeutics.