I hate winter. Especially once January hits, and we’ve got four long months ahead and nothing but freezing forecasts and deceptive wind chills. I get blue. Really blue. Like a lot of us do: Seasonal Affective Disorder is in the DSM, after all, and while I may suffer from a touch of it, I think most of my melancholy comes from this disease called alcoholism. A disease that, I’m now learning, I’ve suffered from for a long time before it really dug its teeth into my soul and brought me to my knees.
Now that I’ve accepted my illness (and its severity), winter has become a critical time for me to use the tools and coping skills I’ve learned to stay sober. Chief among them: knowing how to normalize those self-sabotaging and self-defeating thoughts that take residence in my head when I isolate myself (which is a typical winter practice for me, especially as a freelance writer).
[pullquote]While I wouldn’t say I was any less of an alcoholic in the spring, summer or fall, there was just something about winter — that frozen stillness, like everything had just stopped dead in its tracks.[/pullquote]
Thoughts like: “Why did you say such a dumb thing?” or “Why are you such a lazy procrastinator?” or “Why can’t you finish what you start?” or “Why can’t you do things like so-and-so does?” You get the idea.
It wasn’t that long ago when the only way I knew how to reason with and ease these thoughts was to gulp a warm hot toddy (or five) or down a marathon of martinis.
I hated feeling uncomfortable. I know, I know — who does? — but I used to feel like I couldn’t live if I had to experience an ounce of anxiety. I never learned how to walk through any type of challenge or fear soberly and come out the other side feeling triumphant. Or at the very least, unharmed.
Instead, I berated myself for every tiny mistake I made, and each misstep or criticism cut deep into my all-too-sensitive skin. I came to rely on booze as either liquid courage or a curative bandage, depending upon the day’s events. Which, I eventually learned, is not a successful long-term solution for life.
Nevertheless, I spent many winters engulfed in this alcohol-fueled way of life — and for many of those years I was “functional.” I had a big deal job at a big deal magazine, and while I never got to the point where I drank at work (unless it was a sanctioned event, of which there were many), the minute the quittin’ bell rang, I was ready to hit a bar, often cajoling my coworkers to come out with me for happy hour.
If that didn’t work, I’d bring home booze to either drink on my own (if my husband was away or had a job that night), or drink in secret via various manipulative methods: (“I have a major deadline tonight, sweetie, would you mind leaving me alone in the office so I can concentrate?” or “I think I’m going to treat myself to a relaxing bath and try some new products — OK if I’m in the bathroom for an hour or so?”).
In hindsight, I see how insulting these lies were to my husband and our marriage. I had been lucky enough to find someone that I truly loved, but I was unable to fully participate in our relationship because I was having an affair with alcohol.
All of those lies — despicable. Perhaps the most despicable things I did when I was active in my addiction. I still struggle to understand how I did it, so naturally and with ease. Who the hell was I?
But I did do all those things, because nothing was more important to me than drinking.
And while I wouldn’t say I was any less of an alcoholic in the spring, summer or fall, there was just something about winter — that frozen stillness, like everything had just stopped dead in its tracks — which made it very easy for me to say “fuck it,” feel sorry for myself and drink. A practice that became more and more dangerous over time.
Case in point: One icy cold evening after work, I took my staff out for celebratory drinks after one of our September issues had closed. To my surprise, after two or three cocktails, the gang was ready to head out. And they were right to — we had work the next morning and it was the “proper” time to call it a night.
But I couldn’t bear the idea that I’d soon be alone in my apartment with my berating brain. So, already buzzed from many happy hour martinis, I headed home, stopping along the way for some groceries and of course, a big bottle of Ketel One.
As I walked around the corner, about three blocks from my apartment, I slipped and fell. The fall was nothing — I basically just slid into a pile of snow near the side of the curb. But the getting back up part didn’t work out so well. I made it half way up, only to stumble back down over my two grocery bags. On my second try, I must have tried to push myself up with my hands first, because when I fell back down, I was in a totally different position than I had been before. I think I tried to get up one or two more times unsuccessfully, essentially just flailing on the sidewalk.
Sure, my fancy high-heeled boots and large Kooba tote weren’t helping, nor was the snow, but if I want to be really honest, it doesn’t matter how professional I looked or how expensive my outfit was. Or that it was winter. The truth was, I was a first-class drunk, desperately struggling to carry out the basic human function of getting up and walking.
A nice couple finally came along and helped me up, clearly aware of my state despite my slurry claim that “I just get the dizzies sometimes.” My heart raced from humiliation and I cried as I rushed home (stupid, ice everywhere, could have fallen again), so I could drink the memory away as soon as possible.
I remember walking thorough my apartment door, leaving the groceries on the table, opening the bottle and immediately drinking right from it. I remember looking out my window, at the snow, at the ice, and at my reflection in the window.
How had I gotten myself into this life? And how was I going to get through the rest of it? “Buckle up,” I remember saying to myself, as a big gulp of booze slid down my throat, making the situation seem less serious. “This is going to be tricky.”
I thought that because in that awful moment, I believed I would be in that cycle — and stuck with those feelings —for the rest of my life. All I could do was prepare, I figured.
Mercifully, that wasn’t the case and a few years later (you’ll hear about it all, I promise), I got sober and still am today, more than two years later.
And sobriety has given me an amazing gift. I now see that I have the ability to make any season, any inhospitable chill, any icy, bleak day, any lonely feeling, any challenge or fear, into whatever I want it to be.
Because feelings aren’t facts. The desolate winter view outside my window may make me feel utterly alone, but a phone call to a friend immediately proves otherwise. So in an instant, a lie that once leant itself beautifully to my desire for no-holds-barred drinking is smashed.
I’ve also learned that feelings are never static. Just like the seasons, they change. I still strongly dislike the frigid winter, but I don’t dread or fear it anymore. Honestly, I can’t afford to — otherwise, I will drink. Instead, I take it one day at a time. If one day sucks, I always remind myself that this day will not last forever. These feelings will not last forever. And most importantly, this winter will not last forever.
Basically, I just have to remember to hold on, for one more day, per Wilson Phillips in 1990. Eventually, things will go my way. Or not. But I know for certain that they’ll only get worse if I decide to pick up a drink.