There is no time of the year when I feel 100 percent mentally fit, but winter is probably the hardest. Even those who don’t have clinical depression can have a rough time during the short, scarf-clad days between November and March, when we’re lucky to soak up any sun at all.
Those in their teen and twenties are especially susceptible to seasonal affective disorder, and nearly 10 percent of Mainers report feeling some iteration of these “winter blues.”
A short daily dose of light therapy has been proven to help combat SAD by stimulating the body’s production of vitamin D, a process normally spurred by natural sunlight. Even though indoor tanning beds produce a different kind of light that doesn’t boost vitamin D levels, I had been in a funk since the holidays ended, so I decided to make my first foray into the world of tanning to see if a little zap of radiation might help snap me out of it.
I’m obviously not the best candidate for a tanning bed, or exposure to UVA or UVB rays of any type really. I’ve never been able to track down my complete genealogy, but it’s thought to be an ultra-pasty mix of Anglo-Irish-French-Canadian that, historically, has never been exposed to direct sunlight.
In fact, I tried to find the family crest of my mother’s side while in Dublin a couple years back and, after striking out, decided to design my own: a bunch of suspicious-looking moles on a field of light beige with the Latin for “you should get that checked out” scrawled beneath in gothic script.
Plus, a study last year from the National Institutes of Health suggested that tanning beds account for 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the country each year, and the FDA has labeled tanning beds as “potentially harmful medical devices.”
Despite all that, I stripped-down at the office, threw a long, fur-lined coat over my bathing suit, and headed across the bridge to Sun Tan City’s South Portland location.
I was greeted with enthusiasm from the two attendants. Nothing in their demeanor suggested that I was the most translucent customer ever to enter the tanning salon, though I was subtly encouraged to start small and limit my session to six minutes.
Still, I was committed to getting the full experience, so I decided to say yes to everything they suggested — including upgrading to a higher-quality booth, and a packet of Alpha Male bronzer, “strictly formulated for men” with a “woodsy musk” that I could still smell hours later.
The attendant gave me a primer on how to use the tanning bed, and I was left to disrobe in the changing-room sized booth. The bed was pre-programmed at the front desk to run for six minutes, so I popped on some snazzy gold eye-guards, slid into the bed, and hit the timer.
Within seconds, my body was enveloped with that all-over feeling of warmth that I hadn’t experienced since the waning days of last summer. Closing your eyes, it’s easy to imagine you’re on a quiet (though gently humming) beach somewhere.
Before I knew it, the six minutes were up. Comparing my right arm with my left — which I left poked outside the bed for comparison — I couldn’t tell any real difference between the two.
Worried about returning to the office less lobster-like than I had promised, I picked up the phone connecting the booth to the front desk and asked if it would be a terribly stupid idea to go for another six-minute round. The attendant said that multiple sittings weren't allowed in one day.
Walking into the parking lot, fat flakes of snow falling from the sky, I started to grasp the the intangible mental benefit of tanning. I might not look any more bronzed, but there is something about feeling light-induced heat on your skin in the middle of the winter that is therapeutic and reassuring: yeah, winter can suck, but just wait a few more months and it’ll feel like this all the time. The weak, fleeting light of winter won’t be here forever, and all it took to see past the frigid days ahead of me was a couple minutes in a box of light.