your friend with the new wellness routine: sun lamp edition

When Sean and I announced to friends and family that we were moving to Pittsburgh for at least a year while I completed my master’s program at Carnegie Mellon, we got a pretty consistent reaction across the board: “Get ready for a lot of snow.”

Both of us were unsettled by this. It wasn’t that either of us was a stranger to snow. Sean grew up in northern Virginia, which sees snow at least a few times each winter. The only place I’ve lived that never snowed at all was San Antonio, and that was for three years out of my total twenty-eight. Snow, itself, wasn’t unsettling. It was that quantifier: a lot.

A lot of snow meant impossible-to-navigate roads and sidewalks. A lot of snow meant that the tires on our car wouldn’t cut it. And in places that get a lot of snow, it takes A LOT of snow to shut things down, which meant that we would be expected to go to class and work in a lot of snow.

Readers, it’s 2023. It was 2018 when we moved here. Do you know how much snow we’ve seen since then? Not a lot. Say it with me: climate change.

Now, here’s the thing that no one told us: Pittsburgh is painfully gloomy in the winter. I’m talking record-breaking cloud coverage. I’m talking compare-it-to-Seattle. It could be 19 degrees outside but the second the sun comes out, my god, it might as well be spring.

I don’t actually mind an overcast day from time to time. It’s nice to feel like the weather is giving you permission to stay inside and watch a movie in the middle of the afternoon and get less than 1,000 steps in. What I do mind is checking the weather forecast for the week and seeing nothing but that little cloud emoticon, indicating that for the foreseeable, you will not experience the warmth or light of the sun.

It seemed like a natural choice, then, to start my year of wellness off with the daily use of a sun lamp. If you recall, the parameters of this experiment are as follows:

  • It can’t cost a ton of money if any at all
  • It can’t require a huge overhaul in the way I exist, or I won’t do it (Know Thyself)
  • It can’t take up a ton of time or effort, which is essentially the same as the above

The sun lamp was already sitting in a closet in my apartment, purchased last year and used infrequently. It’s a relatively cheap one; it stands at about eight inches tall, plugs into the USB port of my computer, and leans on a flimsy kickstand. I call it the lizard lamp because the brightness and hue make me feel as if I’m trying to recreate an entire habitat inside of a glass tank. It’s easy enough to set up on my dining room table, where I do most of my work. I set it to 30 minutes in the morning while I have my coffee and determine which existential crisis will dominate the day.

Here’s the tricky part: evaluating effectiveness. Is it working? Is it making me feel more awake in the morning? Have I bIoHaCkEd My SlEeP cYcLe?  

Listen, I don’t know. I really don’t. I know this: the light is very startling to Sean when he emerges from the cave that is the back of our apartment only to be obliterated by my pretend-indoor-sun. I know my cats will just, like, stare at it until I shoo them away. I know that I feel fine? I feel fine. I feel better when the actual sun is out, which has happened approximately thrice this month.

I don’t feel like the lizard lamp has turned me into a fundamentally different person—not that I expected that because I am somewhat reasonable. It just feels worth stating. I am the same, except I sit in front of a glowing oval for 30 minutes every day. 15 if I’m in a hurry.

Maybe I would be a smidge worse off without it. Who can say? I track my moods like a hawk stalking prey, and I can assure you that there is no single factor that I can blame for the mercurialness of my emotional state. Last night I became more agitated while attempting to take a relaxing bath than I was beforehand. Earlier this month, I spent an afternoon trying to explain to an Audible customer service rep that we were both being gaslit by Jeff Bezos and we became so mutually weary that we agreed to just cancel my account, and that was after my 30 minutes of pretend-indoor-sun exposure. (If you’re out there, Roman, I’m still sorry that we could not solve the mystery of my disappeared email address together, but I know we both gave it our all.) Multiple times in these past four weeks, I have used the coping mechanism my two-year-old niece describes as, “I go under here be sad,” wherein you crawl under something for a bit and feel your sad feelings.

I also made serious strides in the panic disorder department (if you didn’t know, now you know!) in the form of going to a museum by myself and getting my eyes dilated for the first time (I don’t like new things, okay) and taking professional opportunities that, a month or two ago, would have seemed impossible. Did the lizard lamp do this? Maybe!

My conclusion: it didn’t hurt, and in some ways, I do think it improved my morning routine, particularly on the darkest days of the month. It gave me the sense that I was doing something to spite the day-but-make-it-night vibe. The 30-minute aspect made me feel a little more rooted in time, something I struggle with in general but especially at the start of my day. No, my glass tank didn’t fool me into believing that I was in my natural habitat, but it’s sort of cozy in there.

Will I keep doing it as we trudge through these final winter months? Yeah, I think I will. Do I, your friend with a new wellness routine, recommend the sun lamp as a solution? Not for like, your biggest problems, but otherwise, I don’t not recommend it. Just, maybe invest in some sunglasses for your cats, first.

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