Suswati Basu, 35, a freelance journalist and founder of a literary platform, lives in London with her partner Alex. After finding herself suffering from low mood in winter due to SAD (seasonal affective disorder) she found a unique way to manage her condition – hula hooping. Words: Emma Jones
For as long as I can remember, SAD has been a part of my life, but my symptoms really spiralled when I started university. I studied Mandarin and as part of the course, I spent time in China, where in the winter months the temperature drops to minus 30. I loved the culture, but for someone with SAD, it was an impossible way to live.
They have government-controlled central heating which turns on in November and is switched off in April, even though it is still chilly. I lived under a heated blanket and often found myself sitting in the pitch black in my apartment.
In China, you have to travel to a meter in the middle of nowhere to pay for your electricity and half the time, my SAD symptoms were so extreme I didn’t have the energy to even get there. It was so difficult but I was determined to get through it and complete my degree.
Back at university in the UK when I was 20, I found myself feeling even more depressed. I poured my heart out to an advisor, who explained I could be suffering from seasonal affective disorder, a condition where people experience acute depression in the winter months.
Everything fell into place and it was such a relief to hear that I wasn’t crazy. SAD had never been mentioned in my household – my parents did talk about feeling low in the winter but we didn't have a name for it and I remember my mum saying we were just 'sensitive people'. I called her straight away and she said, "OK, everything makes sense now."
I wasn’t the only one in my family who’d struggled with SAD. My parents moved to London from India before having children and every year, like clockwork, I’d witness them become morose as the seasons changed too.
Everything fell into place and it was such a relief to hear that I wasn’t crazy. SAD had never been mentioned in my household as a child.
None of us knew what SAD was at the time, but every winter the energy would drain from our household. From October through to the end of February, we were all lethargic and ill-tempered. My mum would regularly comment on the weather and how ‘dark and grey’ it was.
Children are intuitive, so whether it was nature or nurture, my older sister and I too began to experience negative feelings in the colder months. In the summer, we were normal kids, but we were acutely aware that in the winter, we felt like we needed to hibernate.
Growing up with SAD
There was no one to confide in about how I was feeling as my school friends didn’t seem to be impacted at all. I always wondered how they had the energy to play on a miserable, grey day.
I felt completely lacking in energy and would feel a deep sense of dread when my alarm went off for school in the winter.
I felt completely lacking in energy and would feel a deep sense of dread when my alarm went off for school in the winter. I now realise SAD was making me feel so spaced out because my brain couldn’t comprehend that I was waking up to what looks like the middle of the night.
I would be so scared of getting out of bed and feeling cold that I slept with a pile of clothes next to my bed. Knowing I didn’t have to walk to the wardrobe to feel warm helped me force myself out of bed.
With the whole family suffering, it was like the blind leading the blind. The only thing my parents could do to alleviate some of the symptoms was insist we all take multivitamins and plan all of our holidays in the winter.
While two weeks away in the sun was a welcome relief, packing to come home was unbearable. I have such strong memories of us all sitting at the airport saying we were dreading going home.
A secondary diagnosis
At uni, it was a relief to realise the way I felt was due to SAD. I found that exercise such as yoga helped me manage my symptoms, but in 2017, I developed a new health complication.
I was on a yoga retreat in Argentina, doing the downward dog, when I suddenly lost all feeling in my arms – the tingling sensations and numbness lasted all day. But the feeling slowly started to return so I didn’t suspect it was anything serious. Plus, there was no way I was cutting my holiday short in the warm climate. I put it to the back of my mind and got stuck into the rest of my itinerary.
All the ways I’d been managing my SAD were suddenly ripped away from me. I felt as though I’d never be able to enjoy sunlight again.
But as I was boarding the plane home, other strange things started happening. My hands started to shake and it was rapidly getting worse, so much so that I couldn’t control them at all.
I rushed to A&E as soon as I landed and after various tests, I was diagnosed with an extremely rare condition called HNPP, (Hereditary neuropathy with pressure palsies) which causes muscle weakness in the limbs.
It was a huge shock. I worked as a journalist but it meant I could no longer type, and within months I struggled to lift anything at all. Six months later, I had a nasty fall at a train station when I became distracted on a travelator. It led to me losing feeling in both my legs – for almost an entire year.
I already felt hugely low dealing with this life-changing diagnosis, but all the ways I’d been managing my SAD were suddenly ripped away from me. I felt as though I’d never be able to enjoy sunlight again. During that episode, I was essentially bedridden. I spent the whole year inside, wondering how I would ever get my life back.
Searching for a cure
As feeling started to return to my body, I discovered the true physical impact of lack of sunlight. I was able to get out of bed, but after about 30 minutes I felt like I was going to collapse. A blood test revealed that my body was completely depleted of Vitamin D. I was prescribed the highest dosage possible (20,000 units), to be taken daily for three weeks.
A blood test revealed that my body was completely depleted of Vitamin D. I was prescribed the highest dosage possible.
As soon as I’d completed the course, I got my energy back and started taking a daily multivitamin. I was able to start rehabilitation for my condition and adapt to my new normal. However, I was desperately missing my exercise to lift my mood in the winter months.
When the first lockdown happened in 2020, I was desperate to get outside but my limbs still felt weak. Rather than retreating to my bed, I had a brainwave. An old hula hoop I’d played with as a child popped into my mind. I felt a bit silly picking it up, but I’d come too far to sink back into depression. It was worth a shot.
As I wrapped the hoop around my hips, I found myself laughing at how bad I was at it! I was standing in the kitchen, as a grown woman, playing with a pink hula hoop. The thought of that alone brought a smile to my face and after practising every day for a few weeks, I’d nailed it!
I realised it was boosting my mood, so I decided to start each day with a hula session during the winter months. It’s the first thing I do, even before a cup of tea or eating breakfast.
I made myself a Hula playlist on Spotify with lots of upbeat tunes that made me feel energised. The music took my daily routine to a whole new level and I started to find it easier to get out of bed in the morning. Rather than waking up and thinking, 'Today is going to be horrible,' I started to think, 'Today is going to be a good day' – all because I knew my mood was going to be lifted as soon as I picked up the hoop.
Rather than waking up and thinking, ‘Today is going to be horrible’, I started to think, ‘Today is going to be a good day.’
Four years on, I still find it switches my mindset almost instantly which I think is because I’m immediately concentrating on moving my body, immersed in the happy music.
I get such a big rush of endorphins from it too and I love how it makes me feel like a child again. My family think it's utterly bonkers and they haven’t been tempted to try it to address their own SAD symptoms, but for me, it gives a real sense of nostalgia. It takes me back to a simpler time, and after the tough years I have had, I really embrace that feeling.
Hula hooping has inspired me to find new ways to experience all the things I used to love. My HNPP condition means that every six months I’ll be hit with a new flare-up where certain muscles are temporarily paralysed, but I have learned to go with the flow. I use a wheelchair when I need to and make sure I still travel as much as possible. It isn’t as easy these days, but it’s crucial for me to feel the sun on my face and feel energised.
Wellbeing tool kit
My mum uses holistic medicines such as bee pollen to help her through the darker seasons (there is some evidence that bee pollen can boost mental health) and I also have a wellbeing tool kit that I use. Inside is a collection of props – a fidget spinner, a silk scarf that I’ve covered with an amazing incense scent, a Tibetan singing bowl and a pen and paper to write down and process any negative thoughts I have in my head. Each item is designed to distract my brain and bring me back to the present moment.
My friends now know not to plan big celebrations in the winter months and are so understanding if I ever need to cancel plans.
If you’re suffering from SAD, my advice would be to speak up. I have missed out on so many opportunities due to seasonal depression and speaking to my closest friends has helped. They now know not to plan big celebrations in the winter months and are so understanding if I ever need to cancel plans. It’s important to have a sense of community around you.
Keep looking for ways to ease the symptoms, whether that’s yoga, getting out in the fresh air, journaling or using an SAD lamp. If a hula hoop can completely change my life for the better, I can assure you there is always a way to find the light in the darkness.
Suswati Basu is the founder of How To Be Books, a literature platform which she aims to be run by disabled creatives.
For more information on SAD, see the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association.