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Season of drizzle and a day of defeat

SAD is an acronym for seasonal affective disorder, the mood-crushing curse of wintertime existence. In pro-Kerry Seattle, last week's election results compounded the mood.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It has been a SAD week in Seattle, city of rain, darkness, caffeine, secularism and an 82 percent majority that voted in vain to fire President Bush.

SAD, as just about everybody here knows, is an acronym for seasonal affective disorder, the mood-crushing curse of wintertime existence in the northernmost major U.S. city in the Lower 48. An estimated 20 to 30 percent of residents experience some degree of the disorder, which researchers believe is triggered by the body's reaction to reduced natural light. Symptoms include sadness, irritability, gluttony, weight gain, menstrual difficulties and interpersonal strain.

As expected, suffering began last Sunday, with the end of daylight saving time. Like a guillotine blade, darkness fell at 5 in the afternoon. It was the pitiless annual reminder that by midwinter, there would be barely eight hours of daylight, almost all of it sponged up by thick blankets of concrete-colored clouds that, on average, squat over Seattle 226 days a year.

The next day, election eve, it rained hard. The wind blew, roofs leaked, basements flooded and Seattle seemed to slip irretrievably into the dank funk that has given birth to the SAD resistance movement, otherwise known as excessive caffeine consumption. That movement gave birth to Starbucks and scores of other, lesser-known local purveyors of overpriced coffee.

'Am I blue?'
Then word drizzled out that Bush had won reelection, even though four out of five Seattle voters had cast their ballots for Sen. John F. Kerry. Electoral maps rubbed in Seattle's blue isolation from the great red sea of the nation's midsection, where exit polls suggested that religion and concern about "moral values" played a decisive role in Bush's victory. The Pacific Northwest, with Seattle as its agnostic mecca, is the country's least religious region, with a quarter of the population reporting no church identification.

As election returns sank in, the city's seasonal slough of despond seemed to deepen. A local public radio talk show kicked off a lugubrious afternoon of post-election whining with a saxophone solo of "Am I Blue?" Several callers said they would be moving to nearby British Columbia. David Horsey, the acidic Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, drew a cartoon with Vice President Cheney looking demonic and Bush looking like Alfred E. Neumann. "The three most frightening words," the cartoon said, are "Four More Years." In a letter to the Seattle Times headlined "Back to the Feudal," Barb Becker of Bellevue wrote, "Announcement to persons arriving in U.S.: 'Welcome to America, please turn your watches back 300 years.' "

Light therapy
On Wednesday, shortly after Kerry conceded and Bush gave his victory speech, Deborah Lee, a Seattle nurse who says she has had SAD symptoms for years, felt that the time had finally come to medicate with something other than large cups of coffee.

She drove to the Indoor Sun Shoppe in Seattle and paid $300 for a light box, a device that emits light about 20 times brighter than normal room lighting. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have found that with regular morning use, such lights can reduce SAD symptoms for about 60 percent of patients.

"I haven't gotten suicidal because of Bush," said Lee, 47, a Kerry voter. "For me, it has more to do with the weather. But the election definitely makes it worse."

Election results struck Seattle at the city's most fragile time of year, psychologically speaking, according to David Avery, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Washington, where the campus counseling center offers free "light therapy" to all students.

One of the nation's leading SAD researchers, Avery has investigated the disorder for 15 years and is himself a sufferer sometimes. He has sworn off early morning caffeine, as a result of his research, and replaced it with a "dawn simulator," a device that, beginning at 5:45 each morning, slowly turns up the lights in his bedroom.

"Had the election taken place in July and Kerry had lost, people in Seattle would have been unhappy, but it would not have impacted their energy or concentration or sleep or whatever," Avery said. "But for vulnerable people here who have a predisposition to winter depression, this kind of life stress, coming with the arrival of winter, is probably going to affect them more."

'One more blow'
Stephanie Kowals, a psychiatrist with 10 years of clinical experience in Seattle, said that for her Kerry-voting patients, the election "is one more blow to their stability. For people who are depressed and get worse in the winter, it is more than, 'We lost.' It is, 'Oh, my God, what is going to happen?' It is a confirmation that the world is against them."

She said she treats one Republican but has not seen him since the election.

Besides light boxes, Seattle is rife with home-brewed cures -- some backed by science, some not -- for the ravages of SAD.

After the end of daylight saving time but before the election results were in, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a full-page story about the Daylight Diet, featuring soy, salmon, broccoli and fat-free milk. Readers were invited to compete for limited space in a newspaper-funded nutrition study by writing an essay about "how you handle winter grayness."

While there is no research suggesting that Seattleites can eat their way out of SAD, there is considerable data showing they can ease its symptoms with regular exercise. It probably is not a coincidence, then, that Seattle ranks as the fittest city in the country, with nine out of 10 people working out regularly, according to the October issue of Self magazine.

After the Bush victory, many people here seemed to be working out with a vengeance. Among them was Kim Brown Seely, a magazine writer, Kerry supporter and mother of two boys in Bellevue, a suburb across Lake Washington from Seattle.

"My running group ran around on Wednesday night in the early pitch-darkness, some of us fuming and venting about the election," said Brown Seely, who sometimes suffers from SAD and who, when not running, spent much of the past week in what she described as "schleppy post-election hangover clothes" -- an old gray sweater and slippers.

On Friday morning, four women in her group -- some of them Kerry volunteers -- ran again in the dark, at 5 a.m. Then they warmed up over lattes.