When I was a child, I dreaded autumn, my biological calendar could sense the first significant shift in day length in September of every year. The romanticized falling of leaves, yellowing of grasses and withering of wildflowers did not sit well with me. Those jaundiced colors were my warning signs that I would soon fall from joy.
The school environment would make me wish for summer all over again. At home, the noisy household shifted. My mother had already finished most of her canning projects and the garden was now ending its peak fruit and vegetable productivity. There was less work in the garden, marking a shift in our focus to the commencement of school. We did not have backpacks in those days, all of our schools provided classroom textbooks, pencils and paper upon arrival. The new school clothes were already in our closets and the picture day outfit, haircut and lunchbox checked off the list. We children were in soldier mode, ready for the new season.
Watching the trees carefully, the cottonwood gave me the first clues. The roosters became sloppier at reporting sunrise and the horses were more spirited with the changing winds. My father looked through the glass doors facing west. I would join him. It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I learned that he would also secretly mourn the ending of summer. Perhaps we were the only ones in the family with this sentiment.
Over the years, I would learn to manage what turned out to be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). At the time, it was a new listing in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders associated with the “winter blues.” Despite the skepticism regarding this disorder, blood work showed that there were a myriad of symptoms present to verify my solar-deprived body. My immune system was compromised, I became apathetic, I slept long hours and had appetite changes. It’s as if I was going into hibernation like other wildlife.
Determined not to dread autumn every year, I swore I would learn to not only deal with it, but love it. With the help of doctors and other sources of support, I shifted my home environment and my lifestyle. Success came in unexpected ways.
Light therapy. Back in those days it would cost several thousand dollars to get a full spectrum light to imitate what the sun could give me. This was a by-prescription-only device. Since the daylight hours of autumn and winter were reduced, a lamp was required to extend my exposure to specific light rays.
As diurnal creatures, sunlight hits our pineal gland, even through our eyelids, to trigger wakefulness in the day. The absence of sunlight creates melatonin in our bodies to help us sleep. I produced too much melatonin. Fortunately, we built a special lamp at home that would be fired up in the dark hours of morning to help me awaken. Today, these SAD or Happy lamps are available at much lower costs by makers such as, Verilux, and Circadian Optics. Therapy has come a long ways.
Gardening year long has been the best therapy. Reserving special coats and shoes for winter, spending time outdoors in the winter was an important source of calming practice. Collecting driftwood for garden art on the beaches was a treat, and fell in place as a creative outlet for shifting the sense of lost energy. Physical activity was always a part of the equation. Some days I had to force myself out the door.
The older I have become, the issue of too much melatonin has receded naturally with age. My body now creates just enough. Autumn is the time of the last sunflowers, a new set of crops, calendula petals and the movement of birds and squirrels. Autumn is the beginning of the celebration season, candlelight dinners, aromatic teas and baked goods. The fallen multicolored leaves on the hiking trails of my favorite walks, are a brilliant mosaic of color. I made peace with this cycle of life.
In Santa Cruz County, California, the first day of August was 14 hours, 4 minutes long. The last day of the month was 13 hours, 2 minutes, so the length of the day was 1 hour, 1 minute shorter at the end of August. At some deep level of our human body we sense the coming of a new season.
As we enter September, it is my wish to join the rest of the natural world, and slow down. Summer vacations have ended, school has resumed and it seems as if we are constantly defying nature by adding on more activities to our schedule. More traffic. More consuming. The contradiction is ignored because we have a family or a business to run.
If we could make one change to help us all bring balance and joy in the changing season, I would say this: relax. Find the time.
Contributed by local news sources