Azmia Riaz reveals the shock to the system she felt in November 2021 after moving to Ireland and leaving behind the scorching heat of India
When I left my home in Kerala, India, in September 2021, our garden still smelled a little bit like rain.
I don’t remember much else, just that I said farewell to friends, family and watched the last of an Indian summer grow smaller through my airplane window.
I now know that you can’t prepare yourself for the act of migration — you can binge every episode of Normal People to rehearse the Irish accent or reach out to distant friends who’ve done it before you, but you have to do it yourself to really know the feeling. The feeling you’re probably not going home again, at least not to the same one you’re leaving behind.
Dublin received me warmly. The days were still long when I bought my first Leap travel card and awkwardly made friends around town. Sometime in November, there was frost on my landlord’s car outside our door. It was impossible to ride my bike without gloves on. And as everyone I met in Ireland had prophesied, the days, indeed, grew shorter.
I had read about winters and romanticised them so much that I didn’t realise what it would be like to live through my first one.
On most days, it was hard to get myself out of bed. All the excitement of moving had worn off and I would just wake up feeling like I’d made a mistake. By the time I mustered up some energy, the sun would have disappeared again. All of this made me feel isolated. I stopped meeting anyone outside of class, quit the gym and fixated over minor things that were out of my control.
The main symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) are low mood, unhealthy eating, tiredness and sleeping more than usual. Although the research on why SAD happens isn’t conclusive, it points to chemicals in the brain like melatonin, which aids sleep and serotonin which in turn regulates mood, being produced more during certain times of the year.
Self-soothing is not one of my strong suits. During Christmas holidays, I’d furiously search for a playlist, headphones turned up well above the recommended limit. I’d sleep with Netflix blaring, finishing season after season in my sleep.
As someone who has never experienced a dramatic change of seasons before, my first diagnosis was that I had lost my mind. On an early morning towards the end of December, I had my first ‘Irish’ panic attack at Marlay Park and it sealed the deal. Winter had caught up with me.
Thankfully, I had people to reach out to. An American friend introduced me to the phenomenon of the winter blues, which I had never heard of before — and a strict Vitamin D regimen and the benefits of a trusty sun lamp.
Professor Paul Fearon, Medical Director at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, has heard many stories like mine and he points out that SAD may just be one of the reasons why I ended up questioning my sanity.
“Most international students come to the country just before the term starts in September, which is probably the worst time to come because it’s only a month or two away from the clocks going back and the weather changing. It could be a real shock to the system, not to mention the change in culture and all the stress that goes with migration,” he says.
SAD itself is known to be a repetitive condition. Experts look out for at least two episodes during the same time each year, where the person feels the same, to distinguish it from depression. With people who are new to the country, this is harder to diagnose since they would not have experienced the season more than once.
“What’s interesting here is that it does not always have to be a case of seasonal depression — it could be a mismatch between what a person expects when they arrive to what actually is the reality,” says Professor Fearon.
“You might put pressure on yourself in terms of what you want to achieve — people who migrate to further their careers or to study tend to be very conscientious and work really hard. That by itself can lead to so much stress. And when you’re away from family and friends you’ve known all your life, it can be difficult to make those connections and start over.”
Professor Fearon also points out that winter can lead to many changes in the way our minds work.
“Our bodies are often attuned to the levels of sunlight that we experience, and when they change dramatically, it can confuse our body,” he says. “We have unconscious cues from our brain to get up or to go to bed that are thrown into disarray. It’s especially pertinent to people who come from parts of the world where there’s a lot of sunlight.
“In more severe cases, the mood can become so low that you can develop suicidal thoughts. Many of the symptoms are similar to depression, but with SAD, it’s more marked. If you notice a repetition of these patterns, seek help because there are very successful treatments, like talk therapy and CBT, which have proven very useful.”
According to a report from the Cleveland Clinic last year, SAD is more common among women and people between the ages of 18 and 30. However, the reason for this is still unclear.
Khanyisile Mbukwane (23) is a case in point. She moved to Ireland from South Africa in 2019 when Covid had just hit and hot on the heels of a borderline personality disorder (BPD) diagnosis.
“It was very scary and isolating,” she says. “Suddenly, nobody looked like me, nobody sounded like me and I’m going through my first harsh winter. We couldn’t travel outside a 2km radius because of Covid, so I couldn’t even go touch some grass. The worst part was that I couldn’t tell if it was the weather changing or if it was just me.
“But then I pushed through it and one day, the sun came back. And the amount of healing I felt just standing outside was enough for me to go — yeah, that’s what happened.”
Having seen more winters than me by now, Khanyisile’s worked her way around the worst parts of winter and has even discovered ways to enjoy it — furry socks and hot chocolate being essential.
“I’m on my third winter now,” says Khanyisile. “It’s not easy to immediately know how to deal with it, but over time, I would just push myself to spend time with friends and to eat well. There are going to be times when nothing brings you joy, but you have to go through the motions until it feels good again.”
Professor Fearon seconds the importance of following a healthy diet and emphasises the importance of registering with a GP to seek help and advice in order to really understand the changes you go through during winter.
As I write this, I’m in the thick of my second winter in Ireland. When Dublin was covered in snow a few weeks ago, some of the romance was back. And although I slipped and fell on the footpath more times than I’d like to admit, the mulled wine helped ease the pain.
After some thought and some expert advice, I’ve concluded that my depression was not seasonal, it was just a side effect of change. But for anyone experiencing their first winter away from family, I’d like to promise — it’s OK not to feel OK.
And if you give it the chance, even a cold Dublin flat in the middle of January might slowly start to feel like a home.