Congratulations – if you are reading this it means you made it through the winter without killing yourself. Believe me I’m not trying to be glib. While seasonal depression hits addicts and non-addicts alike, taking lifestyle and recovery actions to ward it off during winter months can be a matter of life and death for us. Here’s a spooky fact – I wrote the opening sentence this morning then left my computer. By the time I returned this evening I’d been told of two suicides, both women with substantial clean time. While I am not certain of their situations and it’s possible other mental health issues or clinical depression may have played a part, Seasonal Affective Disorder is no joke.
For most people living in winter weather zones, this year was a doozy. If you follow this blog you’ve seen how almost every week I am writing about actions to take to arm yourself against winter depression. Some of you may have followed my suggestions and others may have felt okay at the time and didn’t see any point in it. The fact is, adapting seasonal lifestyle changes pay off later. They are preventative actions no different than when people go to meetings regularly so they have a built in habit of reaching out for help when cravings to use hit them. Here is the SAD’s risk for people in recovery – when we slip off into the emotional darkness, winter depression can inspire fantasies of suicide but thats not all – after a while our head will come up with some crazy ideas that sound sane to us such as, “Getting high is not as bad as killing yourself.” Our disease will use depression as a way to isolate us from our support group, from 12 step meetings, and from joyful activities until the darkness feeds off itself. Our addict-mind will utilize the strength our disease gains from our isolation to suggest that getting high is almost a kind of harm reduction when weighed against the threat of suicidal thoughts. Remember – the disease is subtle and patient. You must always have strategies to weaken its grip on you. This is why ongoing recovery requires vigilance. Lifestyle changes and taking affirmative actions (even when you don’t want to) are as vital to long term recovery as connecting to whatever sober support system you attend.
In 1995 I experienced my heaviest case of winter blues. Throughout the long winter I didn’t feel depressed at all, which was pretty amazing considering I probably saw daylight for less than ninety minutes per day. However, as soon as the weather cracked, the birds started chirping, and the temperatures started hitting 50, it felt like I was trapped inside a bubble, like a force was preventing me from connecting to other people or feel the joy of spring everyone else was experiencing. By the fifth week of telling myself that “this too shall pass” I wondered if maybe I was becoming a danger to myself in a real sense. Should I write down suicide hotline numbers or admit myself to Bellevue? I also blamed myself for hitting this emotional low at 7 years clean and I felt a lot of shame over not being able to pull myself out of what I mistakenly thought was self-pity. Then one day I woke up and it was gone. Joy, optimism and energy returned. I believed there was a wealth of information out there to prevent this from happening again and I have adapted it to my winter health and wellness recovery routine. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some days I feel like crying or don’t want to go outside but I’ve experienced such a great payoff for the small price walking for an hour in the cold every day that I push myself out the door no matter how much I might not want to go.
If you slacked off on self-care all winter chances are you’re feeling pretty lousy. Free-floating depression, lack of motivation, a desire to hide out from people, and a lot of beating yourself up for not trying to take better care of yourself … Am I close? It’s time to put the hammer down and stop hating on yourself. That was then and this is NOW. This is a new moment.
Close your eyes and take a few slow deep breathes. Let your breath, your pulse, your heartbeat pull you into this moment – be here now. Whenever you catch your internal dialogue starting to engage in negative self-talk inhale deeply and blow all that crappy carbon monoxide and soul sickness out of your mouth forcefully. Don’t worry – this isn’t a “let’s ignore the reality of all our unresolved issues and pretend that we are happy” exercise. It is an exercise in taking the opposite action to what you feel inclined to do. Addicts tend to invest so much into their emotional suffering that if they put it on hold for ten minutes to do something positive they feel almost like they have betrayed their dark side. hahaha. Trust me – I am speaking from personal experience. Taking positive actions does not mean that your suffering was not real. It simply means that you can occupy all spaces at all times and all are equally authentic. So CHOOSE JOY. Dress appropriately for the weather and take a good forty-five minute walk. Stay mindful and pay close attention. Look for signs of spring. Are there buds on the trees, new flower stalks sprouting from the ground, does the bark have richer color? What about the birds? Can you hear them? Can you smell spring in the air?
Today in NYC it was still pretty chilly but I got on my bike and rode until tears and snot ran down my face from pollen allergies. Ha – fuck it – I’m happy to take any sign of spring even one invisible to the eye. Today my sign was pollen and I was filled with gratitude and there was excitement in my heart.
You can give yourself an emotional overhaul. Start by making a decision to let go of yesterday’s mood and breathe your way into some optimism. Get fresh air. Buy some really colorful fruit and vegetables. When you are in the store think COLORS and pick food that is yellow, red, orange, purple, light green, dark green and blue. Throw it all together in a salad bowl – combine fruit and vegetables. Colorful, tasty and alive – like you want to feel. Now eat it while you watch a comedy you know makes you laugh super hard.
In no time we’ll be complaining about the heat so make it your mission to stay mindful and pay close attention to every detail of spring as it unfolds. A lot of restless energy and emotions will be thawing out – including your libido – so prioritize connecting to your recovery support people and share whatever craziness is making you feel unhinged. There is comfort in discovering that all the addicts in recovery you talk to will be be relating to your feelings. You aren’t alone.
In the next blog (Part 2) I will talk about the seasonal roller coaster of emotions specific to this time of year and how to find acceptance and do damage control. Remember, as long as we have war games strategies against the disease of addiction, we will not lose the battle.