Dr. Rob and The Light Box: A Torrid Love Affair

Last week I received a light box from my mother (click here to learn more about its hypothesized mechanisms of action) as a birthday present. It’s only recently that I’ve acknowledged that I might be going through a low-grade depression. Before that it was I’m not depressed, I’m just…cranky, in a funk. Yes, that’s it! A little bit down is normal, no biggie. Once publishers decide to get their heads out of their asses and buy my book, I’ll be fine. It’s ‘situational.’

This last part may be true, and you’ll hear professionals use the term ‘situational’ when someone is adjusting to a stressor. The error that many people make, however, is to assume that because there is an outside cause, no intervention is necessary. It’s normal, so why do anything about it? In other words, if I shoot Dr. Steve, be sure not to treat the wound, because it would be normal for him to bleed. Hopefully to death.

Despite outside circumstances playing a role in my mood problems, I decided to take a more active approach to my mental health. Medication seems a bit extreme right now, given that my emotional state isn’t horrendous and this is a recent development. Since I’m not writing prescriptions myself I always encourage people to defer to their prescriber, but for me I use an ‘Intensity/Duration’ model for medication. How strong and for how long have the symptoms been there? It’s not all that intense yet and still new, so I’m sticking with therapy, exercise and, as an experiment, the light box.


I sat on the couch with the light box (which I named THOR, or ‘The Helper of Rob’) for my first session. It turns out it’s not a formal light box, but a Philips goLITE BLU, a battery-charged panel with a screen about the size of an index card. I plugged it in and stupidly stared at the screen as it started up, only to have a blast of blue light penetrate my retinas from only three inches away. Then it mysteriously shut off and stared at me. Smugly, as if to say, “I’ll help you when I’m good and ready.”

I looked at the instructions and apparently you are supposed to let the light hit the side of your face, not stare wide-eyed into the panel like a fucking moron. You’re also not supposed to use it if you have eye problems (which, ironically, the machine just caused) or suffer from Bipolar Disorder. It appears the manufacturers are concerned about potentially pushing users to a manic state*.

The manual indicated that you can use THOR for 15-45 minutes per day at varying levels of intensity. For my first run, I decided to go with just 15 minutes at the minimal amount of light. Positioning THOR about two feet from the right side of my face, I turned the machine back on. I looked forward and waited to turn from a grouchy, anxious, waiting-for-a-book deal shrink into a mental giant who sees nothing but unicorns, lingerie models and rainbows and has bluebirds pulling off his sheets every morning as the sun winks at him and gives a rousing thumbs-up.

After one minute, I was bored and still pissy. I took out my pretentious iPhone and played Scrabble. Then checked Twitter (follow me here). Then email. Then watched a YouTube video about people in the south who think there’s a leprechaun in their neighborhood. Ten minutes and still nothing.

When the timer on THOR sounded to indicate that our time was complete, I realized I was still the same person, only now with a headache from the light. Stupid fucking machine. Why does God hate me!? Then I remembered what I tell my new clients who wonder why they might not feel better after a first session. Therapy is a process, not an event. Mental health and instant gratification are, unfortunately, mortal enemies, so patience is not just a virtue, it’s a requirement.

I’m going to keep working with the machine for a few weeks to see what happens. And Advil. If Simon and Schuster call tomorrow THOR may get shelved as I drink myself into congratulatory bliss, but for now I’ll let him do his thing.

* Contrary to popular belief, the manic state of Bipolar Disorder isn’t always about excessive happiness. Rather, the gamut of emotions are experienced at a more expansive and intense level. Many people are extremely irritable when they are manic, especially when people recognize the expansive mood and begin to question it.

30 Responses to “Dr. Rob and The Light Box: A Torrid Love Affair”

  1. Alex says:

    Rob, just in case THOR goes into retirement, let me know your ebay link, maybe it’ll be worth something when you’re the next Dr. Phil, lol

  2. Did your mom buy THOR on an infomercial? Light isn’t going to save you, but I give you a big A for the effort. By the way, if you start seeing Unicorns, I’d like to join you in that circus… and I can’t believe you like scrabble.

  3. Keith M says:

    Our parents must attend the same meetings. Upon finding out about my most recent misadventures with bipolar disorder (because my life wouldn’t be interesting enough without a little spice) my mother decided I needed a light box, offered to buy me one, and insisted I brought it up with my doctor.

    Also, thank you for “getting it” with regards to the expansive moods. A lot of people do the whole “can’t be that bad! At least you’re euphoric!” thing and it drives me crazy. -er. Crazier.

    Anyhow, I hope it works for you. Good luck!

  4. Tracie says:

    Good luck with the machine! I regularly use one to help combat SAD, and it’s been quite beneficial for me. I tried one of the “natural sunlight” lamps a few years ago to no effect, but eventually my doctor suggested that I try light therapy again. She tipped me off to a few things that helped the treatment be more effective for me. First, I was using a crappy light supply; I ended up getting a “Caribbean Sun” lightbox with a 10,000 LUX rating and it worked much better. (I don’t know much about the goLITE BLU except for a review on Amazon indicating that Philips suggested you use the BLU for half the time you would use a standard 10,000 LUX box because it emits only blue wavelength light.)
    Secondly, I used to do light therapy at night when I’d game. I’d turn the box on for an hour or two (dumb!) and didn’t see the kind of results I was expecting. After trying an online version of the morningness-eveningness questionnaire, it suggested that I do my therapy around 6:30AM. It sucked to get up early and immediately shove my face into a bright light, but I started to feel the difference within about a week. No unicorns or lingerie models, but then again I did buy the basic unit.

    My fingers are crossed for good news on the book. Here’s hoping for congratulatory bliss in your future.

  5. Pete says:

    Is your happiness/irritation contingent on getting published? If so, why? And should it be?

  6. Amber says:

    I love that you call your little light therapy box Thor. That is epic.

    I hope things start looking up soon Doc. If they don’t just text me and I’ll make you feel better with all my Wisconsin trip stories!

  7. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @Pete: there are some other things that are going poorly, but your point is valid. The external validation of publication is a piss poor reason for depression. Fortunately I haven’t crossed that line fully (yet), although I am not practicing what I preach to the fullest.

  8. Shay says:

    “This last part may be true, and you’ll hear professionals use the term ‘situational’ when someone is adjusting to a stressor. The error that many people make, however, is to assume that because there is an outside cause, no intervention is necessary. It’s normal, so why do anything about it? In other words, if I shoot Dr. Steve, be sure not to treat the wound, because it would be normal for him to bleed. Hopefully to death.”

    I particularly like this part, Dr. Rob. I hope things turn around. We’re all in this together. As always, pimped out on Facebook.

  9. LC says:

    Hang in there! I look forward to everything you write, and I know I’m not the only one. I rarely comment on anything, but I thought I’d pop in here and say that so you would know. I am a musician, so believe me, I get it. Mental fortitude is a constant requirement, even after you reach that currently illusive goal. But I fully believe you deserve to, and will be, published! I apologize that I have no uncles in the publishing world, otherwise I’d hook you up.

    At least you have a real job! :P

  10. Josh says:

    Great post. Loved the part about staring into it. It made spit coffee on my keyboard.

    I find it hard to believe that your book isn’t getting more play. Your sit is crazy awesome.

  11. Rach says:

    Rob, I don’t think you’re supposed to stare into it. I usually use mine when I’m reading blogs online, angled at me… but I could be wrong.

    I like the name Thor. Brings up images of vikings and whatnot.

  12. nikolina says:

    Well, the occurrence of depression and disorders is higher among the great isn’t it X-)
    I hope you feel better soon Dr Rob.

  13. Bren says:

    Light therapy is actually helpful to people in the far north… who experience 24 hours of darkness for months on end. I can’t remember where but I heard of a study that relates depression and anxiety to lack of sunlight. I think it goes with the idea that if it is constantly storming and raining more people are depressed.

  14. Marie says:

    Good nutrition can really help too. Not that you don’t already know that. :-)

  15. BL1Y says:

    Gotta ask the obvious. Rob, how’s the sex?

  16. Rob Dobrenski says:

    The light box and I are taking it slow, and I’ll thank you in advance for staying out of my personal affairs.

  17. BL1Y says:

    Asking me to not comment about your sex life when posting about being depressed is like me asking people not to hypothesize about why I lost my job when I write about spending more time playing Desktop Tower Defense and Mafia Wars than doing actual legal work.

  18. TDK says:

    @BL1Y:
    Were you asking Dr. Rob how has his sex life been affected by his depression, or were you joking about him and the light box?

    @ Dr. Rob:
    Can I ask your sexual orientation?

  19. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @TDK: BL1Y is a very good writer and a jokester, so I’d guess the latter. Also, if you read my stuff, the answer to your second question should be pretty obvious.

  20. TDK says:

    Fair enough. I’m only asking because watching the video made me think you might be gay. There was something about your eyes that made me hopeful. Anyway, I’ll keep reading to get to know more about you, as you suggested. Good luck with your book deal.

  21. [...] « Dr. Rob and The Light Box: A Torrid Love Affair [...]

  22. Anonymous says:

    Well said, sir. Good luck with the light….

  23. Twizzle says:

    Excellent content, great read…

  24. Sanda says:

    Excellent Article! I personally really enjoy your writing. This is a great website. I will make sure that I stop back again!.

  25. Annette says:

    as always, a day late and dollar short but two quick things (1) that big lightbox in the caribbean sky probably works a lot faster (2) I hope you are/have explored audiobooks. You’ve got the right voice for it (both written/spoken). I’m a fan of the Modern SCholar audible series personally… in any case, light box with salt water. Nice site. Look forward to the book.

  26. [...] first part of the title should tell you all you need to know about my affair with the Light Box (aka, THOR, The Helper of Rob). Like me and Success, sometimes it’s just a poor match. [...]

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