Living with mental illness in the bleak of mid-winter

January 16, 2013 | Viewpoints | Number 2
Elizabeth Wall |
Elizabeth Wall, left, with the teddy bear she received from the First Mennonite Church women’s Bible study group and her light therapy box. Right: Theresa Driedger has some practical suggestions for dealing with seasonal depression.

On the first Sunday of Advent, I played ‘In the Bleak Mid-winter’ as the offertory. The poignancy of the title brought to mind those who live through harsh Canadian winters unable to choose to go south to warmer and brighter climes, and perhaps face the bleakest of winters. My friend Liz tells her story below. –Ev Buhr, Alberta Women in Mission president

I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in addition to depression, so getting through long, cold winters is an extra challenge. I had been doing better of late, but last year I got a new health crisis: My husband and I were both diagnosed with cancer within a few weeks of each other in the fall. Both our prognoses are good. His prostate cancer and my breast cancer were both caught early and are treatable, so the news has not been devastating. Still, it is certainly a serious wake-up call, and has brought us together as we take care of each other during illness and uncertainty.

Once we made the news public, our friends, church and work communities flooded us with love, prayer and support. Our families did, too, but because they don’t live nearby, these expressions of support from our intentional communities really mean a lot. Support came in the form of visits, calls, messages, housecleaning, rides to hospital, pre-paid organic food, homemade soups and treats, a teddy bear, flowers and a candle, to give us serenity, comfort, companionship, hope and beauty. Simply knowing that people care and were praying for us has been so valuable in keeping our spirits up. I am also grateful that three women in my extended church family at First Mennonite, Edmonton, who have experienced breast cancer themselves have shared with me the faith that has sustained them. I have experienced very little anxiety throughout this whole journey because I know that whatever happens to me, it is all in God’s hands.

I am grateful I can rely on medical services and workplace benefits, and I need to take responsibility where I am able, but ultimately I can also let go and trust God to work things out for the good. This brings me a great sense of peace.

Thinking of this as a journey helps me to overlay the stages of my latest illness onto the church’s liturgical calendar. At the end of the church year, I learned the diagnosis: the old, familiar self I was used to would have to make room for the new normal: living with cancer. With the church I celebrated that Christ is king and lord over all. It is Christ who has the victory in all circumstances and over all domains of life. Surgery came during Advent, along with the anticipation of the “new me” that would emerge. In Epiphany, I am walking outside in the morning, to benefit from sunlight and moving in God’s creation. The call for God’s people is to “Arise, shine; for your light has come . . . the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1).

I pray that whatever the future brings on this journey will be for God’s glory.

Elizabeth Wall of First Mennonite Church, Edmonton, is a theology student and retreat centre employee.

Tips on dealing with seasonal depression

By Theresa Driedger

Winter blues or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is brought on by the low light of winter. Things people notice are low mood, change in sleep patterns, low motivation and lack of interest in things that they used to find enjoyable. Treatment involves both counselling and anti-depressants that are prescribed by a doctor.

An especially bright lamp is often used in the morning for 30 minutes and sometimes in the evening as well. These are available online or from a medical supply store. If you don’t have a SAD light, you can turn on all your lights in your home when you rise in the morning for that little boost to wake up.

Melatonin helps you stay asleep and is de-activated by daylight. Vitamin D and Omega 3 fatty acids are also indicated for mild depression. During Canadian winters, our food travels long distances and likely doesn’t supply all the nutrients we need, so a multi-vitamin supplement is often useful.

Exercise is very important, even better if you do it outside, because even if you turn on all the lights in your home, it is not as bright as outside on a cloudy day in winter.

Theresa Driedger, a member of First Mennonite Church, Edmonton, splits her time as a psychologist between Alberta and Rosthern, Sask.

Elizabeth Wall, left, with the teddy bear she received from the First Mennonite Church women’s Bible study group and her light therapy box. Right: Theresa Driedger has some practical suggestions for dealing with seasonal depression.

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