November 3:  (Sun)light Makes Me Better


NaBloPoMo 2019

Happy Standard Time Change, friends!

How do time changes affect you?  What about the shorter days here in the higher northern latitudes this half of the year?  I don’t have seasonal affective disorder, but no question, the absence of light affects me.

I grew up in Colorado (really, I know you could not possibly know by reading this blog), taking the sun for granted the whole time.  Blogging makes me read more, which makes me more honest.  I’ve been bragging to my friends lifelong about 320 days of sunshine per year in Colorado; turns out it’s more like 245.  But it’s still more than the US average of 205.  (Arizona has 299; Chicago has 189.)


Utterly anomalous, then, that I decided to go to Northwestern for college.  I already wrote this summer about my campus visit—rain, rain, and more rain.  I never saw the sun that whole weekend.  But maybe it was the lake, viewed from the student center, that called me—that vast blue expanse, a smooth surface concealing untold life and tumult beneath.  There was no other school for me; I was meant to be there, sun or no sun.

Fall quarter freshman year, recalled now by a typically skewed mid-life memory, was a BLAST.  Independence, new friends, beautiful campus (deciduous trees with fall colors other than yellow, YAY!), being a small intellectual fish in a much bigger, much more diverse and interesting pond—I was in heaven.  Going home for Christmas, once I overcame the stark reality that life had clearly continued without me (what?), was also joyous. I caught up with old (HA! ‘old’ at age 18) friends and curated more items to bring back to school.  Life was sweet!


So two weeks into winter quarter, I really had to wonder why I felt so down.  Mopey.  Low energy.  Sad.  Not severely, but noticeably.  I remember the moment, walking south on Sheridan Road in front of Tech, the giant engineering building (third largest building under five stories after the Pentagon and the Kremlin, they told us on the campus tour—found no reading tonight to verify this).  I looked up at thick gray-white clouds blanketing the sky.  I saw everywhere bare branches, orange and maroon leaves long gone, and only dirty snow, ice, concrete sidewalks and holey asphalt on the ground.  I had not seen the sun since returning to school, and I realize now as I write, there was simply no color anywhere outside, other than the bright neon Columbia jackets my friends and I wore in those days.  So of course I felt sad!  I think that was the day I started hating the climate here.  After that I never worried about my mood in the winter, grumpy as it was.

Fast forward about 17 years:  Winters were taking their toll: waking to blackness every morning, getting two little kids ready and out the door by myself, working indoors in a windowless office, and coming home again in the dark to the same little kids, hubs, and chores.  Maybe I was getting more cranky than I realized (she says innocently)?

My infinitely patient and loving husband was, finally, completely and justifiably fed up.  For Christmas, perhaps out of desperation, he bought me a dawn simulator, which may have saved our marriage.  It’s basically an alarm clock dimmer, which you can set to gradually turn on a bedside light to simulate the rising sun.  For the past decade or so, pitch black mornings outside have given way to a soft, emerging glow of light in my bedroom sanctuary.  By the time the audible alarm sounds, my surroundings are already warmly lit by the full spectrum bulb that came with the device—it really is kind of like dawn.  And I kid you not when I say that I am a much happier person all day—all year—for it.


Since this realization, I make sure to get by a window every day in the winter, even on cloudy days.  Any light is better than none, and it makes a huge difference for me and everyone who comes in contact with me.  With age I have also gotten better at noticing how my environment affects me.  It’s a slow and continuous awareness.

The sun always shows itself eventually, my friends.  Maybe you’re like me and a dawn simulator or light box could improve your life.  It makes me think, though—meanwhile, how can we all be a little light for one another?



Ode to My Dawn Simulator


NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

Did you notice the photo on my post Gratitude Again?  That was the view out my office window around 5:30pm last week.  These days I appreciate the winter dusk a lot more than years past, mostly because the physically hardest years of training and my kids’ lives (for me) are over.  My intern year I rotated in the medical intensive care unit (MICU, or MICK-you, or just ‘the unit’ for short) in November.  Usual days started by 6am, and finished whenever my patients were stable enough for me to leave, usually past 7pm.  I really never saw the sun that whole month—not from outside, anyway.  Every third night on call, my resident and I covered the whole place.  The longest I ever spent in the hospital was 5am until 10pm the following night—41 hours straight, only to be back again the next morning at 6.  And that was nothing compared to the generation of doctors who trained before me.  Thinking back on it now, I can still feel the saturating fatigue, the utter hopelessness of ever seeing the call room, let alone lying down on a bed.  Thank GOD those days are over.  They weren’t all bad, though.  Residency was one of the hardest things I’ve done, and it was also intensely rewarding.  The friendships I made those years, the unique shared experiences—I carry these with me also.  They made me strong and gave me confidence.

But if I thought getting up in the dark during intern year was hard, somehow doing it as an attending with two little kids was even harder—go figure.  The sleep deprivation of working motherhood is a completely different animal from that of residency, its toll multiplied on family.  The blaring alarm clock, the utter blackness of the bedroom, the contrast of cozy warmth under the blankets with the cold still air above.  They all conspired to make me peevish, sullen, and supremely unpleasant to be around every morning—an additional cost to my soul every time I lashed out at the kiddos out of my own exhaustion.  To borrow a phrase from Vee over at Cute Kids, I might well have died of a bad mood or something worse if that situation continued.

So Husband staged an intervention: He bought me a dawn simulator for Christmas.  It’s an ingeniously simple device: An alarm clock with a built-in light dimmer that comes with its own full-spectrum light bulb.  All you have to do is connect it to a bedside lamp.  Then you set sunrise time, as well as duration of rise (I set mine to 6:45, 15 minutes).  Every morning for the past 7 years I wake up naturally from a steadily brightening, gentle and warm glow from one corner of the room.  It’s infinitely more pleasing; no blaring involved.  Of course now I have my iPhone ‘by the seaside’ alarm as back up, especially for this month as I stay up too late writing blog posts.  And I’m not a morning person in general, so no Mary Poppins songs bursting forth with domesticated mechanical birds on my windowsill.  But life is infinitely more tolerable between Halloween and Easter each year now—for all of us.

Thanks, Husband.  Ya done good.