Winter can be hard—especially on an alcoholic. Between the booze-fueled holiday parties and triggering family interactions, it’s easy to feel left out, not to mention stressed from the end-of-year obligations and added holiday expenses. All this on top of reduced levels of sunlight, which can cause a drop in serotonin and a disruption in melatonin levels which affect mood and sleep.
Prior to getting sober, I tried to drink away the winter blues. But alcohol—as I knew even then—only makes seasonal depression worse, and so it’s no coincidence I hit my alcoholic bottom after a particularly grueling winter. Since getting sober, I’ve developed a couple simple practices that bring warmth and brightness into my life when I’m feeling dark and cold. In my case, no fancy sun lamp was necessary.
When it’s too cold to run outside or ride my bike, physical activity means forcing myself to go to the gym. I go mid-morning to avoid other people (ack! People!), turn some up-tempo music on in my headphones and set myself up in my favorite spot in the sun. Experts say that exercise combats low energy and sluggishness associated with mild seasonal depression. I’m one of those people that gains weight in the winter, and so a solid exercise routine also helps fight that. I am an alcoholic prone to obsessive negative thinking, but I’ve learned that exercise can help turn down the noise. Days when the sky is gray and I wake up feeling bleak are days I know to drag myself first thing to the gym. Of course, knowing that a work out will make me feel good for the rest of the day is usually not incentive enough, and so I’ll bribe myself with a coffee and the promise that afterwards I can steam. Hey, whatever gets me there. Why is it that the last thing I want to do in the wintertime is the one thing that always makes me feel good?
Okay, this rule doesn’t really apply to people in their first year of sobriety or anybody craving a drink, because in these cases the opposite is true—a little sugar may actually satisfy your craving, and help to keep you sober—but for people with time and/or not a drink on the mind, put down that Christmas cookie! Walk away from the buffet! Forgoing instant gratification for longer-term goals, I’ve learned, is an aspect of emotional sobriety—not to mention that, for me, nothing feels worse than not fitting into my clothes. Craving carbohydrates, experts say, is a result of decreased serotonin activity. Eating complex carbs, rather than the simple stuff, will avoid insulin spikes that’ll make you feel worse than before. This is especially good advice for people prone to addictions.
Two Christmases ago a particularly ugly fight with my then-live-in boyfriend left me feeling unsafe in my own home, and so I spent the rest of that holiday couch surfing while he gathered his stuff and moved out. That Christmas taught me a lot about not taking anything for granted; it also taught me the joy of taking a bath. When I got back into my apartment, I found that the privacy of my own familiar bathroom was one thing I had missed the most. Two years later, the bathtub remains my favorite place in my home. No exaggeration, in the winter you’ll find me in it up to three times in one day. This past year listening to podcasts while soaking in the tub has become my before bed ritual. There’s something about stripping off all the layers and sinking into the warm water that I find spiritual. I’ve noticed that my skin has gotten a lot clearer, too. Acne and winter mustiness is not exactly an alcoholic problem, but it is just like an alcoholic to fall asleep on the couch in your clothes after numbing out in front of the computer or TV— the nightly ritual my bath-and-podcast combo replaced.
These days, for a special treat in the wintertime, I go to the public baths. This past rainy weekend my boyfriend and I spent our first Sunday at 10th Street Baths where we sweated, steamed, showered, dunked, massaged, restored and repaired some of the damage this winter has already done. Highly recommended.
If it’s serious, seek treatment. But if you’re more like me and you know that, come colder months, you’re likely to feel just a little down, go ahead and feel those feelings. Ease up. The more sober I get, the more I give myself permission to be where I’m at. Instead of fighting crowds at Macy’s or stressing out over buying somebody the “perfect” gift, I slow down. When the days get shorter, I allow myself to hibernate a bit. So what if I gain a pound or two? I don’t have to be perfect. This time of year, I bump up the self-care because I also allow myself to wallow a little. I consider the end of the year a reflective time. There’s wisdom to be found in quiet contemplation, even if it means feeling a little blue.
In my seven-plus years of sobriety, I’ve developed certain rituals I enjoy that are more aligned with “the reason for the season,” as they say. I make soup and meditate. I volunteer some time or send a note to an old friend. You might start a new journal or focus on step work, if that’s your thing. No, seriously! As cornball as it sounds, I force myself to do these things because I know they work. My advice to anyone trying to stay sober and stave off the winter blues: Reflect on what you need to do to take care of yourself. Chances are it’s something simple— and it’s probably not “Have a drink.”
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