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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

California Dreamin'

I dread the coming winter.

I used to love autumn. It was my favorite season. I missed it tremendously during the four years I spent going to college in Florida. I missed the way the color of the light changed from warm and golden to cool and white, the delicious tang of cooler days and frosty nights, the brilliant colors of turning leaves, the crunch of those leaves underfoot, and the spicy scent that I associate with fallen brown big-leaf maple leaves in particular. When I worked as a floral designer, it was definitely my favorite season because of the grasses and the pods, the bold dahlias and sunflowers, the antiqued hydrangeas, the joy of working in a palette of rust, chocolate, copper, cinnamon, orange, and burgundy. Fall always made me feel more alive. The sunny days were glorious and the rainy days seemed seasonally appropriate.

Today is the kind of sunny autumn day that used to set my heart singing. But instead I am filled with terrible apprehension. Fall and winter are not kind to this particular migraineur.

Take this photo, for example:

My parents, when choosing the house where I live, kept the benefits of passive solar in mind, and so all the main living areas of the house--the kitchen and family room, the windows of all the bedrooms except my own--face south. Because of Seattle's latitude, the angle of the sun changes dramatically between summer and winter. During the summer, sunshine penetrates all these south-facing windows by only a foot or so, which helps keep the house cool. In winter, the sun shines all the way in to the far walls, filling the house with light. As you can see in the picture, the sun of late September is penetrating deep into the kitchen. The problem for me, though, is that this change in the sun's angle is excruciating to my light-sensitive eyes. Sunlight becomes unavoidable. It spills across the kitchen table and the family room couches. It reflects blindingly from the chrome of the kitchen faucet. And if I look out the windows, it shines painfully into my eyes.

This picture also represents a terrible problem. Those dappled shadows spilling across the carpet (and Abbey) are my idea of hell. When the wind stirs the branches, causing them to move, the effect on my brain is nearly unbearable.

Shadows outside the house become problematic, too. The changing angle of the light casts longer shadows and the cooler light temperature means the contrast between the very white light and the very black shadows is greater than they are during the summer. The contrast between black and white is very difficult for the migraine brain to handle, which is why I seldom read books or magazines much anymore and I have to limit my writing and reading on the computer. The contrast between the thin black lines of print on a white page is nothing, however, compared to the shadows cast by trees on a sunny day and the worst possible thing is to be riding in a car through those shadows. The strobe effect of passing rapidly in and out of darkness back into bright light causes an instant, severe migraine.

Winter also means shorter days and, therefore, longer nights. When the sun sets at 4:30 in the afternoon, it means any outing undertaken in the evening is done in darkness and being out in the dark means encountering the contrast of bright headlights, streetlights, signage, etc., against the darkness. One of the most awful sensations as a migraineur is to be riding in the car and have the shadows cast by streetlights pass through the car. Most people, I'm sure, never notice the way the shadows seem to run through the car, one after another, but I find it agonizing. Last winter, I stopped riding in the car at night altogether. During the summer, when it didn't get dark until 9:30 or later, I seldom ran into the issue.

I spent last winter virtually a prisoner in my own house, unable to tolerate the roving shadows in the outside world, always having to sit with my back to windows, creeping and wincing through the house. Things improved when I obtained my light sensitivity glasses last March, but this fall I'm more light sensitive because of the concussion, so the benefit of the glasses is only about equal to where I was last year without them.

A wind-whipped Mr. Gorgeous in photo taken last
February. I was helping out his owners by walking
him regularly, but I was exhausted all the time
not from the exercise, but from the endless wind.
I have another worry, too. I used to find some respite in cloudy days, of which Seattle has an abundance, but my increased sensitivity to changes in barometric pressure, particularly the drops associated with bad weather, has me worried. Last winter, La Niña brought months of wind and I spent most of the early spring in exhausted misery. When the wind blows, it saps all my energy, lowers my mood, increases my migraines. There is no escape from it. I can't tell you how much I dread this coming winter, with its fluctuating bad weather and the possibility of another La Niña and months of wind.

Before the migraines started, I was very seriously considering relocating to the Southwest, since I love the landscape there and I had noticed that from a mood standpoint, I feel ridiculously better when the sun is out. With this increase in sensitivity to changes in weather in general and wind in particular, the Southwest (and most anywhere else in the U.S.) with its windy springs and occasional thunderstorms is out. I am now certain that I will be moving to Southern California at some point. My parents are from Los Angeles and we visited every summer and I have extended family there. I liked to visit, but it was never a place where I desired to live, but Southern California, be it the Los Angeles area or San Diego, has some of the sunniest, most stable weather in the country, and being at a much more southern latitude, the changes in the angle of light during the winter is not so severe. It may be some time (as in several years), though, before such a move is possible. I must confess that the thought of spending not just this winter but many more here fills me with despair.


  1. I'm sorry you can no longer enjoy the autumn, and I hope the winters you have left to spend in Seattle before moving south are few.

  2. This is so timely for me. Fall is a super hard time for me to start with (SAD, days getting shorter feels excruciating) and I just had to move desks at work over to the developer side of the room, which is near the windows. Unfortunately, developers don't like to have the overhead lights on (and are rather combative about it). The result is that I have to look at a bright screen in a dim room with bright Octoberish light streaming in from the side. Total recipe for a migraine. They are going to install individual overhead lights so we can each control our level of ambient light but they're estimating it will take 2 months. In the mean time, I am going to have to figure something out, maybe a paper globe lamp? I don't want to have to escalate to HR, but I may have to... I think people just don't get the importance of evenly lit rooms.

  3. I hope you can resolve your light issue very soon! Does it help to wear sunglasses? It may seem weird, but if you haven't tried it already, turn your contrast down as far as it can go and wear sunglasses. Dim/dark is a preferable scenario to the bright/dark one you're in now!

  4. OK, I wrote you a whole comment and then the internet ate it. Blergh. Short version: I feel for you! Big hugs!