The "Black Hole" is more to Sally Wallace than a science-fiction movie. It's a place much more real but just as scary.

She was in her 30s when she was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

"If you have SAD," she said, "the hardest task of the day is getting dressed."

The disorder can affect people as early as August and last until May, depending on the temperature and amount of daylight hours, Wallace said.

"I've got 3-5 months where I can feel good and plan things," she said.

It all started for Wallace in 1986, when stress became unbearable.

"I felt like I was going in a downward direction with my life, with my relationships, everything was just going downhill," she said.

After several years of doctor visits that had gone nowhere, Wallace did some research on the Internet and diagnosed herself with premenstrual dysphoric disorder. She found an endocrinologist in Rockford who worked with her for seven years to find the right medicine. Three years into the search, SAD was added to her diagnosis.

Looking back, Wallace can see symptoms of SAD throughout her childhood and young adulthood. She was near 50 before she realized her disorder was behind many of the decisions she had made earlier in life. After one year of attending college at Western Illinois University, Wallace dropped out.

"There was snow on the ground from October to April that year, and it was the worst winter I had ever had," she said. "I didn't know what was wrong. I just thought it was me."

She thought going home would solve her problems, so she left. It turns out the school year could just have been during the wrong 9 months of the year for her.

It might be a lack of sunlight that throws people's bodies into depression when they have SAD, according to Diane Farrell, director of clinical operations at North Central Behavioral Health Center. But it could be the weather in general.

While the exact causes are unknown, exposure to ultraviolet light has been found to reduce symptoms of depression, Farrell said. It is challenging to get much sunlight during a Midwestern winter, but that challenge is compounded when a person instinctively wants to "hibernate." Wallace describes craving potatoes, popcorn, and wanting to do nothing but stay home and curl up in a blanket.

Anti-depressant medications also have been found to reduce symptoms for some people. Sometimes though, the trial and error to find the right medication takes longer than anyone would like.

"You put up a mad fight to get through that," she said.

Wallace won her ‘mad fight' and has been doing well for more than 10 years with the help of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

"It's still challenging," she said, "but when I didn't have the right medicines … I never wanted to kill myself, but … I felt so bad physically, physically ill almost, that I thought the front of a semi would look better than the way I feel right now."

Her situation was compounded by blood sugar levels low enough to place her in the category of borderline diabetic when it was finally diagnosed. Whenever her thought patterns took a turn for the worse, she would pull her car over and talk herself into going to get something to eat.

"I somehow knew it was a blood sugar thing," she said. "But I didn't understand really what was going on with me."

Even apart from the diabetic aspect, Wallace believes depression is as much a physical illness as anything else that sends people to the doctor.

"Depression is where your body is out of whack," she said. "It's a medical illness, to me. I wish they'd take the word ‘mental' out of there, because everything that I've experienced is kind of biologically based in its origin."

Physical or not, medication is not the answer for everyone, according to Rebecca Gatlin of Cedar Point, who lives with bipolar disorder as well as SAD. She tried pills, but instead of helping, they made her situation worse.

Gatlin experienced inhibited motor skills as a side effect to the medication she tried. At the time, she was taking an art class, and her hands began to shake uncontrollably. Being unable to make progress in her studies led to a loss of hope for Gatlin - the opposite of improvement.

"If it was a perfect world," Gatlin said, "and they had a magic pill that could treat bipolar disorder, and I'd be more capable to handle the ups and downs, I might consider it - if there was a one-size-fit-all pill. But there's not."

As it is, the trial-and-error format of treating mental illness with medication does not appeal to Gatlin. Because no neurological tests are done to determine exactly what is going on in the patient's brain, there is no guarantee that the medicine will be exactly what they need.

"I don't like that idea of playing and toying with my mind, because I get enough of that from my mental illness," Gatlin said. "I don't need it from my psychiatrist, too."

Gatlin has been diagnosed as "high-functioning, rapid-cycling bipolar," which means her thoughts shift quickly from a "manic" to a "depressed" state.

According to Farrell, these highs and lows differ from the general moodiness parents might see in adolescents because of their intensity and duration. The depressive episodes are recurring and last for a long time.

"It isn't just about feeling sad," Farrell said. "It's about not having any interest in things they like to do."

Other symptoms include a change in sleeping habits, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, weight gain or loss and becoming withdrawn.

The manic state of bipolar is more than just being extremely happy.

"A manic episode is really a loss of control," Farrell said. "There are so many thoughts in their head they can't keep them straight."

A person in a manic state can become fixated on pleasurable activities, such as drinking, shopping or having sex.

"They're not really happy about doing it," Farrell said, "but it's their focus."

Gatlin's episodes have caused her "real, physical, legal problems" in the past. Because she has ruled out medication as a solution, she has to work all day, every day to keep her emotions from controlling her.

"I analyze the way I behave and the things I think all day long to prevent myself from reacting in a bad way," she said.

According to Farrell, cognitive behavior therapy can help people work on controlling their thoughts in an effort to change their feelings.

With all the energy Gatlin spends on controlling her thoughts and behaviors, she gets frustrated when people try to tell her she doesn't even have a disability.

"They don't realize the amount of effort and work it takes and how exhausting it is mentally and emotionally and physically to deal with it every day, and to do so without medication," she said. "It's a lot of work to not give in to the throes of your emotional instability. It is, it's a lot of work."

Gatlin has been able to progress toward her goals in the past five years despite her disability. She currently studies behavioral science at Illinois Valley Community College.

"I still have slight relapses," she said, "but relapses in your recovery are quite different than the breakdowns I used to have where I would attempt suicide and end up in the hospital."

Gatlin's recovery plan includes gaining a sense of purpose from helping others on their journey of recovery. She is an advocate for those suffering from mental illnesses. Her message to them is: there is hope.

Gatlin is a co-facilitator of "Possibilities," the Illinois Valley chapter of Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, that meets at Illinois Valley Community Hospital. Part of the group's purpose is to raise awareness, which Gatlin hopes will eventually end discrimination against people who suffer from depression and bipolar disorders.

"We don't want to be defined as our mental illnesses," Gatlin said. "We want to be defined as people who are affected by some extenuating circumstances - essentially, neurological functions that are not deemed normal, but they don't make us ineffective as people."

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