Mark vs Cancer

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Let There Be Light!

A very curious thing began happening to me a few weeks ago: I began craving sunlight.

Initially, this was a subconscious phenomenon. I found myself staring at pictures of sun splashed beaches, and salivating over photos from our trip to Costa Rica. I lingered at windows where filtered sunlight radiated ephemerally through bleak winter skies. Amidst these yearnings, I did a number of unusual things: painted one of my windowless exam rooms a sunny yellow and the other a vibrant green; spent $100 on a poster of a luxuriously verdant golf course; cancelled a half-day's worth of patient visits when I briefly glimpsed sunbeams glinting off the ubiquitous snow.

Negative things were happening as well: an infuriating insomnia (see my preceding post); a unsettling nervous tension; a pervasive restlessness. I found myself dreading my job (which I actually like), and I had the unnerving sensation that, as I walked into the hospital out of another dreary gray morning, the door sliding closed behind me was a stone rolling shut across a tomb.

Last Sunday night was another sleepless night, which dragged into a bleary-eyed, frantic Monday morning. By that evening, as I sat in my windowless office, completing a dishearteningly large stack of charts and documenting a series of disconcerting patient encounters, an epiphany struck me: I had not seen ray of sunlight all day. In fact, I had barely seen a drop of sunlight all month.

And not only that, but I was acutely (if mildly) depressed.

That realization first depressed me even further, but by the next (sleepless) morning, I began to fit the pieces together: could the insomnia, the anxiety, the depression be a consequence of decreased sunlight exposure? Could I be suffering from a variant of Seasonal Affective Disorder (with the appropriate acronym S.A.D.)?

Could the decreased sunlight exposure be causing my body to produce less endogenous melatonin, which thus threw a wrench in my normal circadian rhythm, which caused the insomnia, the restlessness, the anxiety, the depression, and so on?

Why have I not gotten any sunlight? For starters, this interminable Wyoming winter has left our town blanketed in snow, subzero temperatures, and a gritty gray haze for the last six weeks. (In fairness to Worland, everyone here says it's been an unusually bitter winter, just like it has been for Colorado.) Also, I've never spent a winter at such a northern latitude--not a whole lot further north than Greeley or Provo, but enough to stretch out the nights and shorten the days more than ever before. (Ty and Jeff: could this be why the Russian soul is so deep and dark, because they're so far north they never see the sun?) Next, my office and exam rooms have absolutely no natural lighting; the nearest window is through a door, around a corner, and down a hall, and I've rarely had the chance to escape my close confines, if even for a minute, during sunlight hours. Lastly, I've spent the last six weeks seeing patients either miserably sick with the flu or suffering from their own seasonal depression, both of which are insidiously contagious.

My illumination (or lack thereof) had the ring of truth, so Tuesday I put my theory to the test. I cancelled a lunch meeting and walked outside into cold but bright noon day sun. With hat, gloves and jacket on, I leaned against my car, closed my eyes, and turned my chilly face towards the sunlight. A warmth crept through my eyelids and under my skin, and in a few minutes, I had to smile and then laugh, an unforced, radiant joie de vivre that felt like exactly the medicine I needed. This chuckling and sun-soaking continued for a a few minutes, until the staring lady in the adjacent car nervously strapped her frightened child into the carseat and sped out of the parking lot. :)
The rest of the day and week have gone much better, as I've made a point to be outside with direct sunlight exposure as much as I can. More than anything else, the weather has lightened, even to what I might dare call a February thaw. (Please don't snow again!!!)

And I don't think I have S.A.D. What is Seasonal Affective Disorder, anyway, other than a name some psychiatrist gave to the observed phenomenon that some people get sad and anxious when they don't get enough sunlight?

What I find most interesting is that my body and subconscious mind figured out this problem long before I became aware of it, and even prodded me towards a "cure" through my sunlight craving. This is a perfect example of the natural, spontaneously healing that our bodies are capable of, and which can cure most human ailments. But that's another post . . .

I don't need medicine. I don't need counseling. I just need dang sunlight.

Another week in Costa Rica should do the trick.


Danalin said...

I think that's very interesting, Mark. When I was attending Ricks College I heard a lot about S.A.D. My first year came and went without any indication of it. My second year was a different story. I was serving as RSP and we were told to be aware of S.A.D. among the girls in our Relief Society during January and February. Well, those months brought many tearful young women to my door. I heard about all sorts of problems - over and over and over again, mostly from the same few people - until I started to feel super sad myself.

Suddenly my own life seemed riddled with problems beyond my control and I started to feel despair. I talked to my bishop at a meeting and he gave some counsel and then I talked to my mom who told me to go tanning. Weird advice from a loving mother. I was at first annoyed because I felt very justified in my despair, but I decided to give it a try.

Now, natural sunlight would have been very nice, but was nowhere to be seen and hadn't been for quite a long time. I made an appointment and stuck myself under the 'cancerous' lights of a tanning bed (not the first time and not the last). I came out feeling so refreshed and that feeling crept into a little bit of joy until the despair was pushed totally out. It was a miracle to me!

Here in Washington at almost every apartment complex are free tanning beds for the residents...for just the same purpose. You know all of the physiological reasons behind it, Mark. I don't, but I do know that we need sunlight, some people more than others, and that our bodies are very amazing things.

I feel that we've had enough sunny days here in Washington this winter that I don't need to employ any local tanning beds, but that trick is up my sleeve if ever the occasion warrants and I'm not afraid to use it!

Dad said...

Well, I'm not sure I'm buying it, but at the same time I don't think I have been in a situation where we dont' have sun for a prolonged period of time. So I guess I don'thave any empirical evidence to the contrary, one way or the other.

However, a guy I home teach has been inside most of the winter due to being handicapped and he hasn't been able to get out. He has gotten considerably weaker and just is exahuste dall the time. His Dr. told him that he needed more sunlight and that once he was able to get out he would be okay and get better. His issue seems to be more physical then mental in nature but maybe it is both.



Tankfos said...

I am a believer in the sun. When I was recoverying from my surgery and I was stuck on the couch for 9/10 of the day, nothing brighten me up like going outside and sitting in the sun. I think it was a combination of sunlight and the fresh air. It can work wonders for a man's psyche.

Angie said...

Okay, I know this isn't entirely related, but your post reminds me of the scene towards the beginning of "Joe Versus the Volcano" when Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is super depressed, and one of reasons why he can't keep working at his job is that he spends all day under these nasty, green florescent lights.

"I...I...I...I... can feel them sucking the juice out of my eye-balls...Suck! Suck! Suck! Suck! Suck! Hhhllllllllp..."

Maybe he just needed more sunlight, too. (Sorry, I guess that's not very funny if you haven't seen the movie...)

Anyway, I'm glad Spring is just around the corner. I hope it comes quickly for you guys.

Jeff said...

Being a Arizonan, the amount of sunlight I get has made me the happiest man in the world. As for Russians, Mark, don't even try to comprehend the depth and darkness of their souls, because it will never work. It's like an earthworm contemplating a hike down the Grand Canyon.

Tyler said...

It must the troll genes that I inherited from Dad (see his comment) but my moods don't seem to be affected in any significant way by sunlight or lack thereof.

I like sunlight and in most cases would prefer it to cloud cover, but my emotions don't seem tied to it.

Mark, maybe you need to follow Dana's advice and getting a tanning bed for your house...:)