Is the winter harder for recovering substance abusers?
February 22, 2013 8:24 PM   Subscribe

Happily one year and a few months sober, after close to a decade of progressively heavier drinking and self-destructive tendencies. After the first three months or so last year, dealing with the day to day of people having alcohol around me started to become much, much easier, until the past month or so, where the urge has hit me substantially harder. Seasonal? Just part of the territory?

I really have been blessed to have a wonderful support system. My wife (at the time of starting sobriety, fianceƩ) put up with years of me being a chaotic asshole and has been the anchor that keeps me sane and balanced through this whole thing, and all my friends, while they still drink (some heavily) at least get the idea and know why I'm doing it and remind me periodically that they're proud and that if I ever start to slip, to let them know (presumably so they can set my ass straight). The first three months were absolute hell (as I've heard they always are), but after I got past the anxiety and the physical cravings, it seemed to settle out and I grew more and more comfortable in my own skin. I'm still leagues beyond where I was at the same time last year, but over the past month or so, I've noticed that I'm starting to get cravings again, and it becomes harder and harder to mentally justify what I'm doing. Once I get back into a logical state of mind, it makes perfect sense (I'm a horrible, horrible drunk), but there's that awful period where... it's like a goddamn fixation, I can't get my mind off it and, in that state, I assume the only release is to take a few pulls from a bottle.

Is this typical? I'm assuming there are always highs and lows, and that it's possible that this is just a protracted low, but since I know there's a correlation between emotional health and the change of seasons (see: SAD), I'm growing curious if there's the same kind of hardship experienced by other people with substance abuse history. It's less of a "how can I make this feel better" (though of course, I'm not going to turn down advice, and it's greatly appreciated!) and more of a "does what I'm feeling make even an iota of sense?"

Thanks in advance, MeFi. Reading through old AskMes has gotten me through some of the tougher periods of this.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am not in your situation (recovering substance abuser), but could there be some trigger/association that you might not be aware of. I am thinking of things like "did you used to drink more after sundown" or "is some part of your current cold weather routine similar to some routine that your mind might subconsciously associate with drinking"?

If you aren't participating already, may I suggest Alcoholics Anonymous... at the very least you can talk to others who have been dealing with the same challenges and who might be able to provide some solid advice.

You have accomplished a lot... keep up the good work.
posted by 1367 at 9:19 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

This seems to me like a thing that would vary a lot between people. Did you used to drink at this time of year to deal with any seasonal depression? It wouldn't even have to be full blown SAD; it gets dark early, it is cold, staying inside and drinking is something a lot of people do.

I have been sober from alcohol just about as long as you, and I find that habits I didn't even think about are kind of lurking around still. I've had a bad cold for a few days now, and had a vestigal desire for the ol' medicinal trip to the liquor store, which, come to think of it, I always used to do when I had a 2 or 3 day cold. So, just speculating, maybe drinking at this dog end of the winter time of year was something you once relied on?
posted by thelonius at 9:22 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Alcoholism is described in AA literature as "cunning, baffling, powerful". I'll be 14 years sober next week and every once in a while (rarely these days, thankfully) I'll be blindsided by a (false) memory of how much fun it was when I was drinking, or I'll walk past a pub and see someone with a frosty pint and think "Ahhhh ...." Then I remember that it was generally shit when I was drinking, and that I never stopped at that first pint, I'd be thrown out at closing time, if I hadn't already started a fight or passed out.

So it can sneak up on you, and so you might need some coping tactics for when it does. I'd suggest AA, with this caveat. If you're in a large city, you'll find lots of meetings and people from a very broad spectrum. In a small town, the meetings are far more likely to have a lot of talk about God as they understand him (i.e. Jeebus) rather than my own atheist interpretation of a Higher Power.

So choose your meetings carefully. I find at the meetings I attend I get a lot of identification with other people who've been through similar experiences to me.

Someone once said to me "It's not the bears and tigers you have to watch out for, it's the mice and the rabbits". In other words, the big occasions (Christmas, birthdays, weddings, etc.) are the ones where we mentally plan ahead and prepare ourselves so not drinking on those occasions is a breeze. But it's day-to-day living that can sneak up on you, like a mouse nibbling at your ankles. There's an AA book called 'Living Sober' which is a good little handbook to read to help you get through those times.
posted by essexjan at 12:27 AM on February 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seasonal Affective Disorder is caused by low serotonin (related to the light of winter), and alcohol gives you a momentary bump in your serotonin (though it's followed by a subsequent dip, so you pay afterwards). It's quite possible that you used to have some tendencies towards SAD which you medicated with alcohol. Do you have other low-serotonin markers (like craving sweets, breads, wanting to sleep all the time?) I am not a doctor, but if this sounds like you, maybe you could talk to your doctor about using a supplement during the winter like 5-HTP or St. John's Wort which helps keep serotonin up?

Also, I recommend Brain in Balance a really great book about addicts and cravings, written by a detox doctor from San Francisco. He talks in there about the eight neurotransmitter systems in the brain which are related to possible addictive tendencies (acetylcholine, GABA, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine, endocannabinoids and one I forget) and how from your cravings you can tell which ones might be imbalanced in you, and then try to address your native imbalances. (He wants to address them with pharmaceuticals, but there are probably non-psychiatric ways to address them too.) Anyway, in that book he calls alcohol "The Mother of All Drugs" because it acts on five of the eight neurotransmitter systems (nicotine works on the other three for a perfect bonanza) -- so if you're craving alcohol it could be a serotonin thing or maybe something else --

Like thelonius above, I think the concept of "triggers" is useful and important here. I quit smoking several years ago, and I don't miss smoking, but occasionally I'll have an experience I haven't had since I quit that will trigger a craving because I used to smoke when I had that experience and I haven't yet "rewritten" my cue-->behavior scripts as related to that particular event. So it may be that you have gotten used to being sober in the warm months, but that the cold months are full of drinking triggers which you hadn't unset yet. If that's true, and you don't have biochemical/SAD tendencies, then maybe it's just a question of replacing your habits this winter and then next winter will be easier naturally.

Also, if you're having cravings, I hope you're eating right (protein and vegetables) and taking a multivitamin (something that has a good quantity of B vitamins in it is important). Exercise is also great for your neurotransmitters and can have a really pleasant tranquilizing effect, especially rhythmic exercise. Meditation is good for being less married to your thoughts (i.e. being able to have the thought "I NEED TO HAVE A DRINK RIGHT NOW" without being totally dominated by that thought) and you might try something like this or this. And go to meetings! There will be a million people there who can probably tell you more than AskMe can.
posted by feets at 8:31 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since you're asking for personal experiences: YES. I think it relates to SAD, and something about the changing seasons into the winter; the change in light, the cold, being inside so much, stressors (holidays! people coming and going on vacations, social group becomes sort of mixed up and disparate), all these things don't help.

I find that the change of season both physically and psychologically just becomes this massive trigger for wanting to use; some of it is association, the peak of sweaty humid summer also brings it out in me, though not so bad. There's something more intense to the memories and associations of where I was at in my life at the peak of winter and summer, and my memories of the wintertime drinking and drug use is just somehow imprinted more deeply, the intensity of the weather combined with the intensity of my feelings and habits at the time; it's hard to describe the emotional aspect well!

as another personal experience: it does go away. it can and will come back and that's normal and okay, it's not a sign of failure or inability to stay sober. I've stayed off my particular problematic substance for many years.

Best of luck making it through this hump, and I think that feets is onto it with working on new wintertime habits, hobbies, and traditions for the future. Congratulations on making major, positive changes in your life!
posted by circle_b at 3:17 PM on February 24, 2013

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