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.