Seasonal Affective Disorder: How SAD Can Derail Your Sobriety

Mysterious dark forest with rain and fog

How SAD Can Derail Your Sobriety

I got dressed this morning in my usual black ensemble with boots. It is October after all and autumn is my favorite season. I opened the door and a blast of searing, wet air enveloped me like a life-sized, airline hot towel. Mother Nature gazumped me once again. I’ve lived in Florida for years, but when autumn rolls around I still long for the crispness in a frosty morning. And the sun dappled florescence of the maples, an oddly welcome foreshadowing of a long winter. A Dunkin Doughnut pumpkin spiced latte does not a fall portend. I find myself wistful for my roots in Michigan, and God help me – a big mug of hot, mulled wine.

 

I have grappled with the feelings I feel as the seasons change for a long time. Being a wordsmith, I am hamstrung by the lack of an appropriate word for what I call “bad nostalgia”. I’m from Flint, so perhaps I don’t have to explain this, but my maudlin remembrances of Octobers past are not all golden firelight and the turtle-necked kicking through mounds of raked leaves…

Drank more, isolated more…

I drank more in the fall and winter (even in temperate climes). I isolated more, and there is no question I still court the feeling of overwhelming sadness, triggered by the arrival of the holiday season. What is wrong with me?

 

I did some research, and the “thing” I grapple with when the stores start decorating for Halloween has a name: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depressive disorder. Mood and behavior changes with the seasons, usually at the onset of winter, and it can present a challenge to recovery, even in its mildest forms. Especially if, like me, you have a short memory for the drunken hijinks you pulled during previous holiday seasons.

 

The Ghosts of Holidays Past

I quit drinking in July 2013, but the reason I quit was because of the winter beforehand. It started with Halloween. I was drunk as I unloaded the boxes of decorations from my car. At the time, I was living in a snooty condominium and some busybody from the 8th floor stood watching me as I tried to wrestle a life sized Hannibal Lecter out of my backseat with one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other. I dropped the wine and it broke all over the garage floor, spreading like blood in a horror movie. Instead of dealing with it properly, I poured a bottle of Zephyr Hills on the mess. Then I kicked the shards of glass away from my tires.

 

And when the busy body said, “Um, excuse me but you should really call the super to clean that up,” I slurred inexplicably, “You’re not a very friendly neighbor are you? Mind your own business…” She scurried away. Presumably to call the authorities. And I continued to unload all the things that go bump in the night. I was wearing a festive witch hat at the time…

The “oh-oh” looks…

On Thanksgiving, I started drinking champagne at 7 a.m. and switched to white wine at 10. By the time we pulled the bird out of the oven to carve it, I had moved on to red wine. My guests were looking at each other with those “oh-oh” looks guests exchange when their hostess is drunk and wielding a sharp knife. I cooked the turkey upside down with the giblets (still in their waxed packet) inside.

 

But the real, defining moment came on Christmas Eve, when I drank so much at dinner I passed out like Rip Van Winkle with a snootful of moonshine in front of the fire. My children are in their twenties now, but we have a tradition of pulling aside the fireplace screen and leaving cookies and beer for Santa (these days we leave non-alcoholic beer). My daughter could not wake me up. She had to do the lifelong, family ritual all on her own. It still kills me to think about it…

 

These days, I am more aware of my feelings; more cautious of my vulnerabilities. As I unpack the sweaters, I also remember the coming of chilly weather is a potential trigger for me.

The Symptoms of SAD are:Symptoms of SAD

• A drop in energy level
• Depression
• Isolation
• Anxiety
• Lack of interest in activities and;
• Weight gain.

 

I hate when that happens. I’m not going to tell you to go outside and exercise (although you really should). I don’t like it when people tell me to substitute my alcoholism with a “good addiction” (although I really should). But I am going to tell you to recognize the symptoms, speak to a professional if your malaise threatens your sobriety and get out and do something – experience some light therapy when the sun peeks from behind a black cloud, decorate the yard for the upcoming holidays, or meet a friend for coffee.

 

As I write this, I am wearing a handcrafted witch hat, made by actual witches I bought on line for $350, when I was drunk a few Halloweens ago. I am drinking a sparkling water in a wineglass with a skeleton stem, and I have a sort of pit-of-the-stomach longing I cannot put my finger on. It’s October after all, and the changing of the seasons, but some things never change…

 

 

 

 

We can help.

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Marilyn Spiller is a writer, sober coach, recovery advocate, and student of the world. (She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing). Seven years sober herself, she penned one of the first sobriety blogs, "Waking Up the Ghost" in 2013. The blog garnered an international following, allowing Marilyn to communicate with thousands of folks in all stages of recovery. Marilyn is Sanford's Director of Marketing and serves as Editor-In-Chief for the Sanford online magazine, "Excursions". She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction.