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Gay Men and the Summer Blues: Fighting Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Russ Klettke

Summer isn’t the best time of year for everyone. Shelly Winters wasn’t on that boat with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun,” and various singers (Bananarama, Ace of Base) have reminded us that a break-up in the warmer months brings its own pain. We feel obligated to be happy in summer, but sometimes it just isn’t happening. Likewise, summer sadness isn’t always about love lost; there are biological and other social reasons why the warmer months can cause depression—and gay men have particular vulnerabilities in this regard.

A summer version of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) paradoxically affects some people when the days are longer and temperatures are hotter. This is reportedly more common near the equator. Symptoms are loss of appetite, anxiety, weight loss and insomnia. I spoke with two psychotherapists who work with gay men—Dr. Loren A. Olson, a board-certified psychiatrist in Des Moines, and Chicago-based Richard A. Gleiner, LCSW—about summertime depression, and why it may impact gay men.

Looking Good but Feeling Bad
Both experts have seen seasonal affective disorder in their practice and acknowledge the biological component. Gleiner notes that people with bipolar disease, in particular, often respond to changes in sunlight. But Gleiner and Olson offer several causes of depression that they see in gay clients in the summer months:

Poor body self-image: “It’s hard to be with friends at the beach, joining them in volleyball games, when you’re the guy who doesn’t want to take his shirt off,” Gleiner says.

Summer anorexia: Using the term loosely, Gleiner observes that the fittest among us can be very restrictive with their diets in summer—at a time when barbecues and picnics might offer some calorie- and fat-laden dishes. It doesn’t look very fun for them, the chef might be deflated, and those who dare indulge might start to feel self-conscious as well.

Ever-elusive social approval: The person who transforms his body to noticeable fitness will initially get positive reinforcement from old friends. That then might inspire him to get fitter, buffer and bigger, continuously seeking more positive approval. “This happens when self-esteem comes from others,” says Olson. “But there is never a permanent sense of it.” In extreme cases, the individual experiences muscle dysmorphia (“bigorexia”), an obsession with not being muscular enough and going to extremes to achieve an unreachable or unsustainable state.

The perfectionist: According to Olson, perfectionists are doomed to feeling like failures, particularly on matters of their body. If you check that whisper of fat over your hip bones—that everyone has—three or more times a day, this might be you. You might be the fittest guy at the parade, but are unwilling to go sans chemise.

Shy guy in the crowd: Many social events in summer—pride festivals, street fairs, etc.—involve large groups. These generally aren’t a good venue for the socially inhibited person, even though it’s what all his friends are looking forward to and talking about, says Gleiner. If he goes, it’s painful being there. If he stays home, he feels like he’s missing out on something.

Odd man out: Due to the mean intentions of others (frenemies?), your own misperceptions or the math of bedrooms and boat seats, you may not be invited to the beach cottage or onto someone’s boat. “There are more places in the summer where you can feel left out,” notes Gleiner. “And yes, in some crowds there are people who can be vindictive and petty about who is and is not included.” Would you rather be Shelly Winters or Elizabeth Taylor?

If you truly are suffering from summertime SAD, bipolar condition, or bigorexia, these are compelling reasons to seek professional help. But Gleiner and Olson offer ideas for addressing some of the other summer bummers.

Getting to Feeling Good
To start, the root problem is quite often self-esteem – which can affect just about everything else. This explains why a well-adjusted guy with some, horrors, paunchiness might feel perfectly comfortable at the beach with his super-fit friends. Gleiner says that in reality, his friends are so concerned about their own appearance they really don’t care how others look. He says the person who is irrational about how they look in summer clothes should draw up three columns:

  1. Column 1: Write down the irrational thought (e.g., “People think I’m inferior because of _______”)
  2. Column 2: Challenge that thought (“People are too self-focused to notice my self-perceived flaw”)
  3. Column 3: Rational conclusion (“People are not judging me”)
Olson suggests something similar, describing two intersecting circles. One circle represents a person’s idealized image and the other his self-assessment of who he really is. The degree to which these circles intersect—for example, how you think your body should look and how you think it really looks—is an indicator of self-esteem.

Both therapists worry about people who derive those perceptions from others, including cliques in which you may be a member. Diversity is rarely welcome in cliques, and if you have something that distinguishes you it could be received poorly. So if your idea of fun in the summer is camping out in the mountains, you may be at odds with your beach-loving friends.

“Be willing to walk away,” says Olson. “It’s a sign of maturity.” I will add it’s also a way to become more interesting, if not enigmatic. And in our community, a little bit of mystery and intrigue can help you avoid becoming old news. No one wants to be old news.

So shake off the idea that you are being judged and come up with your own definition of summer fun. Those guys who spend too much time at the beach are aging their skin prematurely, anyway.

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a certified fitness trainer, business writer and author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” (Marlowe & Co., 2004). He trains every summer for triathlons—often alone. For more information, see http://RussKlettke.com.