Last night like, well, almost every night of the season, I put my earbud-style headphones on to listen to some music while I edited my novel, The War’s End.
I put the “R” earbud in my right ear.
I put the “L” earbud in my mouth.
Yes, it’s that time of the season. T3, formerly called polar madness, is setting in.
For those of you just joining us, Polar T3 syndrome is not something I made up, as a reader of this blog once theorized. Heck, NASA has studied it as a possible analog to psychological problems that might arise on long space missions.
In simple terms, Polar T3 syndrome, at least as I understand it, is a combination of issues that arise from lack of sunlight in winter and 24/7 sunlight in summer, compromised thyroid function due to constant exposure to low temperatures (sort of putting our bodies into hibernation) and sheer bloody cabin fever, seeing the same people and places day in and day out, doing largely the same tasks.
Polar T3’s most common symptoms are weight gain, fatigue, depression, irritability, headaches and sleep disturbances.
I have not experienced the depression and weight gain often associated with T3 (I don’t get depressed and I know too well that my jeans are fitting tighter because of a lack of chance to go hiking or swimming, my favorite exercises, and a plethora of Tres Leches cake within easy reach), though I have had the sleep disturbances.
When I summered at McMurdo last year, there were a few periods of two or three days where I could not sleep at all and felt weirdly energized. The worst thing that happened during these periods was that I read the entire Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) over a two-night period.
Both this winter and last, it’s not unusual for me to sleep ten, twelve or even fourteen hours straight.
As for irritability, I notice no change in my usual nature. Ahem.
What I notice more and, to be honest, am fascinated by, are T3’s less-understood symptoms.
From the NASA folks: “Expeditioners have also experienced impaired cognition such as: reduced accuracy and short-term memory, increased response time for cognitive tasks and spontaneous fugue states; the latter of which has often been referred to as “the Antarctic stare.”
Oh yeah. Been there. Saw that. Sucked on an earbud for a minute before realizing something was awry.
Most of us take Vitamin D3 supplements, which are supposed to mitigate T3, but nearly everyone I know is experiencing some degree of cognitive impairment. And every mealtime, I can spot at least a couple people staring off into an undefined middle distance, unaware of anything around them.
I believe part of T3’s manifestation is our brains creating something new from what we’ve seen time and time again to satisfy a need for novelty.
Last week, our baker was talking to another one of the cooks. Our boss came around the corner, stopped and stared, the expression on his face akin to, say, a senile person just realizing they have wandered quite far from where they should be and have no idea how they got there.
After he recovered, he told me he saw our baker and “had no idea who he was.” Never mind that they have worked together every day for the past several months.
If, as I believe, Antarctica in winter is a kind of preview of death, then I think Polar T3 syndrome is a taste of dementia.
Other examples of T3 include outbreaks of seriously gratuitous bitchiness and also the giggles, though rarely in the same person. I’ve observed that people who self-report as “happy drunks” tend to get the giggles, while those who become surly when drunk tend to be, well, surly T3 sufferers.
Fortunately, though I don’t really drink, in the past when I have indulged, I’ve gotten giggly when tipsy. And so it goes with my T3.
I also get trippingly tongue-tied and virtually illiterate.
I notice it when emailing and editing. I like to think I have a fair grasp of the English language, but the past couple months, re-reading what I’ve written, I’ll see mistakes I would simply never make “in the real world,” things like forgetting verbs in sentences or–shudder–confusing “your” with “you’re” and “to” with “too.”
Oh, the horror.
You can understand why editing a novel has been a frustrating pastime. Speaking is not much easier for me these days, either.
Yesterday, one of the other cooks asked if I had plans for some tempeh thawing in one of our coolers. I didn’t, though I had put some tofu next to it to thaw for a casserole and didn’t want her to grab that.
“I only pull tempo. I need tempo.”
I knew the word I wanted. I could feel it hanging there, unspoken, but my brain was insisting on doing some kind of weird bank shot with bad aim.
That, to me, is the most fascinating thing about T3 (which goes away once we’re off the Ice, fortunately). During my worst T3 moments, it’s as if my brain splits into two characters. One is footloose and fancy-free, skipping through tulips and singing in the rain, oblivious to the fact that I have an earbud in my mouth. The other is more pensive, aware that something is wrong, terribly wrong, but often unable to identify just what’s amiss.
On occasion, however, Tripsy Tipsy Ms. T3 is all giggles while the other half of my brain remains lucid.
Which brings me to my best (worst?) T3 moment of the season so far: earlier this week, waking up as usual, one minute before my alarm went off at 3:48 am, I stumbled to the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth, something I also do immediately before bed.
Looking in the mirror as I brushed my teeth, this is the actual conversation I had with myself in my head:
T3 me: Yay! As soon as I finish brushing my teeth I can go to bed! Awesome! I can’t wait! I’m so tired!
Still-lucid me: Actually…I have something to tell you, and I’m afraid you’re not going to like it. You’re not going to bed. You just got out of bed. Your day is just starting.
T3 me: But…but…NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
In Other News
This afternoon we had a redeployment meeting for those of us leaving in August. It’s hard to believe I have less than a month left on the Ice, but my LucidBrain is already making plans. Big plans. No, I’m not talking about what I’m doing in the weeks and months after leaving my beloved Antarctica.
I’m talking about spinach.
I have already planned my first day off the Ice, once the C17 drops us off in Christchurch, and it involves walking up to Northlands Mall and marching into the 24-hour Countdown supermarket, right to the fresh produce aisle, where I will openly gorge on fresh spinach, fresh passionfruit, mangoes, crunchy New Zealand carrots (seriously…Kiwi carrots are the best in the world), fresh mushrooms, fresh bok choy, fresh tatsoi, persian cucumbers, any radish I can get my hands on and an entire head of silverbeet (a Kiwi vegetable that’s somewhere between kale and spinach).
After security escorts me from the store, I will head to Rocket Cafe for an enormous flat white (New Zealand coffee drink that’s basically a latte but with extremely dense foam) made with real milk–real, New Zealand milk! Not powdered! Then I’ll stop by Lush to smell every single thing in their store before purchasing some overpriced but scandalously good-smelling lip balm.
At this point, I will put on a hat, sunglasses and perhaps a fake mustache, then saunter past security and back into Countdown where this time I will head to the dairy aisle and purchase my weight in fantastic organic New Zealand yogurt: strawberry, blueberry and elderflower and also passionfruit. I expect I will also buy some cheese.
I will then take my bounty and walk to the park just northwest of the mall and lay on the grass, enjoying it all. Even if it is raining.
Especially if it is raining.
Now…where the hell did I put my earbuds this time?