Better to light a candle

In the fall of 1986, I moved to Montreal from my small town (pop. 900) to attend McGill University. I was 18 years old.

The first six weeks passed quickly in a blur of excitement. I went home for Thanksgiving right around this time of year (in Canada, Thanksgiving is typically the second weekend of October) and all was well. After my return, I started to have difficulty sleeping again (I had been afflicted by insomnia that summer. It began the night before my last high school exam; my parents were preparing to move to Ottawa, the closest city to us, so my childhood home was disappearing just as I was moving out on my own for the first time. My body was anticipating lots of change ahead.)

That fall, I only slept every other night. I began to crave tons of carbs (the cafeteria toaster got a workout!) and drank tea and huddled in my dorm room.  I felt tired and sad and overwhelmed. My major was French Language and Literature, which–since Montreal was a french-speaking city–meant some very intense study. To do my work in the evenings, I had to look up nearly half of the words I read. It was difficult, especially given how depressed I was feeling. And, I was spending my days inside one building on campus.

By Christmas break, I felt strongly that I wanted to go home. But I didn’t really want to give up. (I’m stubborn that way.) Once I gained some perspective, I decided instead to switch to a major that offered more variety and exposed me to other areas of study: Modern Languages (Spanish and Italian, since French didn’t qualify for this major as one of Canada’s official languages.) This allowed me to take art history and linguistics and psychology, and generally explore the campus and its buildings with more windows! This turned out to be a good move for me and helped alleviate some of the academic pressure I was feeling.

I survived the winter through grit and determination, prayer, cups of chamomile tea, a loud fan (to block out the noise from the bathroom across the hall), and classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays that started mid-morning so that I could get some rest even if it took me most of the night to fall asleep.

When spring came, the sadness and exhaustion magically lifted. Suddenly, Montreal was alive with beauty and opportunity. Jeremy and I went on our first date. We walked for hours in that city and fell in love. My difficult year was a distant memory. I decided that I must have survived the homesickness of my first year of college and that I would now be ok.

Around mid-October of 1987, Jeremy and I were still in love and I had moved to a cute apartment across the street from his in a great area of Montreal with some close girlfriends. But one day, I crashed emotionally. I couldn’t understand it. What was wrong with me? Why was this happening again?

By Christmas exams, I was so depressed and anxious that I couldn’t keep anything down. I had lost a ton of weight. I spent the darkest night of my life in my apartment in Montreal, feeling so trapped and terrified that it felt like someone was literally pinning me down in my bed, telling me that there was no point in going on. I was terrified, but somehow with Jeremy’s help, God’s help, and a lot of perseverance, I made it through my 2nd year of university.


half birthday

My very sweet roommates threw me a half birthday party (January 18th) because they were never with me on my actual birthday (July 18th). I had fallen asleep in early evening as is pretty typical in the winter, and when I awoke to this cake, I was very disoriented. I thought perhaps I had been asleep for months! Such is the exhaustion and anxiety of the SAD sufferer.


When spring came, I again felt well. And this time, when fall came, we were not as surprised when I started to go down. In January 1988, Jeremy came across this article in Time Magazine. Entitled Dark Days, Darker Spirits, it talked about people in Alaska experiencing symptoms of seasonal depression due to the lack of light. Jeremy handed the article to me and said:
I think this might be what you have.

At the time, as the article says, “research was in its infancy.” How then, would I find some help? I wrote to Dr. Norman Rosenthal at the National Institute of Mental Health (he was the pioneer of the research being done at the time), and to someone in Canada doing some light studies in Winnipeg. Not wanting to wait, I made an appointment with the Head of Psychiatry at Jewish General Hospital. I walked into his office with the article in hand and said, “I think I have this.”

His response: “I’ve never heard of it, but if you come back in a week, I will tell you what I find out.” Remember, this was the head of psychiatry at the largest hospital in downtown Montreal. And, he had never heard of SAD, because the diagnosis was so new. But he was kind and I was determined so I just went home to tough it out for another week.

When I went back a week later, he showed me that SAD (seasonal affective disorder) had literally just been added to the Diagnostic manual (DSM). And he had found out about a hospital in town that was trying light therapy out with a few patients. Would I like to join that group?

Yes! I was so excited about this new possibility that I told nearly everyone that I would be going to Mercy Hospital starting the next week to sit in front of a light box. I got some funny looks, and later found out why: Mercy Hospital was a big psychiatric hospital in the style of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I guess telling people that I was going to be a patient there was not the best idea. I didn’t care because I was so thrilled to have an actual name for the desperation I felt!

At the time, researchers believed that the effectiveness of light therapy was impacted largely by the time of day you did the treatment. So, I had to be at Mercy by 7 am for my two hours of therapy before heading on a bus to a day of classes. With no car, Jeremy and I took two metros and a bus to get there each weekday morning. We approached this big hospital in the dark each morning, often in falling snow, to see people dancing through lit windows. To say that it was an eerie sight would be an understatement. It took guts of steel to knock on the locked door and go inside.

The first thing they did when I arrived for my light treatment was to draw blood so that they could test my serotonin levels. It was such validation for me when they told me that my serotonin levels were indeed very low. I began to feel that perhaps I was not crazy after all. (By the way, typical onset of severe SAD symptoms is seen in people in their early 20s.)

The light therapy meant sitting in front of a box like the one below for two hours. It did feel good. The light was like sunshine pouring into my brain, and as I stepped out into the actual daylight of early morning, the contrast in strength was significant. Unfortunately, the benefits of doing the treatment were somewhat outweighed by the stress of the long, cold trip getting there in the mornings and by the setting. For someone who was struggling with anxiety and depression, being in a locked ward with patients who were struggling with much more significant mental health issues was very difficult.

After a month or so, I found out that I could rent my own light box and use it at home! It wasn’t cheap, but it was a step in the right direction.


my first lightbox, circa 1988

My first lightbox, circa 1988


There have been many modifications made to light boxes over the years, thank goodness. (You can even wear one in a visor around the house if you find that convenient; my vanity won’t allow me to put that one on.) If I had the money, I would immediately change all of my overhead lighting to full spectrum light. The studies are so clear on the impact of natural light on human productivity, that I wonder why most businesses and schools don’t install them everywhere.

If you want to be a real nerd and read a ton more about this, click here to download the pdf of an article entitled, “The Effects of Light on the Human Body.”

Sunlight tans skin, stimulates the formation of vitamin D and sets biological rhythms. Light is also used in the treatment of disease…Light is potentially too useful an agency of human health not to be more effectively examined and exploited.

Studies now indicate that it doesn’t seem to matter as much about the exact start and end time for doing the light treatment. For me, first thing in the morning for a half hour seems to be helpful, and Dr. Emmons recommended that I do another half hour right around late afternoon, when the sun is starting to go down and my energy and mood are going down with it. Warning: If you do it in the evening, you may not be able to get to sleep at your regular bedtime!

We have three lights (accumulated over the years) in our house right now. One is a box style, and we have it strapped to the ceiling in the basement. The light it emits is significantly warmer and brighter than any of the other lights we have down there. We have a big industrial lamp looking one in the family office. Jeremy puts it on when he wants to be able to stay up late working on a project. Works like a charm.

I think everyone could benefit from a light box in the winter. Light therapy is also reported to help with PMS, hormonal issues, and jet lag.

This Canadian research study is one of the most recent of several well-designed studies which when viewed together suggest that light therapy is an effective treatment for depression, roughly equal to medications in strength.

My next purchase will be a dawn simulator that mimics the sunrise and sunset by gradually increasing and decreasing the light in the room. This helps regulate melatonin levels and ensures better sleep. Getting up in the morning while it is still dark is one of the things I dread most about this season, so that would be a real boost.

And that’s my story of being a guinea pig for light therapy in Canada. I’m grateful that I can now do light treatments in the comfort of my home office. The light box I have now uses blue light, is very portable (so it travels well) and has a timer for automatic shutoff.

Guess it’s not 1988 anymore.


Light box

Phillips GoLite P1 Blue Spectrum Light Therapy Device