“This vitamin D work better, ”I thought bitterly to myself, tilting a brown plastic supplement bottle in my hand. A tiny pill rolled in my palm. It was a tiny yellow droplet, golden like the sun, that I hadn’t seen in ages.
It was mid-December 2019, right in the middle of winter in the Pacific Northwest. Even though we were only two months into the rainy season here in Washington (with seven months to go), I felt like the almost constant rain had washed away all the joy and motivation I had left in my body. .
“Most people in the Pacific Northwest are woefully low in vitamin D, and that’s part of what contributes to a bad mood,” Seattle-based therapist Cami Ostman told me. “In my observation with clients, part of the problem is the lack of connection we have with others when it’s dark. Winter lasts so long. It kind of closes life for us.
Living so far north, the sun will not rise until 8 a.m., and near the winter solstice, it will set at 4 p.m. Overlay those minimal daylight hours with dense gray rain clouds and some days it’s like the sun hasn’t risen at all.
That winter, I knew I had problems when I couldn’t get up, let alone participate in my usual hobbies like hiking or gardening. I had caught SAD, a seasonal affective disorder, which affects 10.5% of American Washingtonians this time of year. It is marked by most of the symptoms of depression, including listlessness, lack of joy, decreased energy, and a general feeling of disgust.
“When hope and stimulation is washed away, like in winter or during the pandemic, whatever we would do to deal with the stress, whatever you could normally do to stimulate all those happy chemicals like oxytocin in your body, all of these things are taken away, ”Ostman said.
This is exactly how I felt. No gardening, no hiking, no happy hour with friends. I felt trapped inside my house with nothing to do, and when the SAD took hold, I felt trapped in my head.
Then the unexpected happened: my husband Zach gave me an Xbox One as a Christmas present. It was a strange and unexpected gift, because neither of us are players. The last time I played video games was in high school, when the guy who sold me weed was smoking me if I let him win Mario kart, and that was over ten years ago.
When I opened the box, I marveled at its elegance and modern look. When I turned it on, I was amazed at the scale of the opportunity at my fingertips. Still, learning a new game felt like a huge lift as I carried the weight of sadness on my shoulders.
I sat in front of the TV and sent a group text to my friends at college. “All of you, this winter I got AF down, but Zach got me an Xbox for Christmas, any suggestions on what games I should play?”
A friend replied that we should give The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim an essay, followed by a long paragraph explaining how it was an “open world” game with dragons, cats and magic. I had no idea what an open world game was, but the idea of escaping to a magical alternate reality struck me as quite interesting. I took the bait and dived.
The first thing that struck me about the game was the quality of the graphics. The visual aspect of Skyrim surprised me with its beauty and its art. From the detailed leaves on the trees to the epic mountainous lunar landscape in the background, it was stunning. As I followed trails and dirt roads through forests and meadows, I thought to myself, “This looks like a virtual hike.” Usually I would motivate myself to do a few winter hikes, but SAD made me feel like I was under house arrest. Doing these virtual hikes in the game has become a treat for my brain.