Alcohol and Season Affective Disorder: The Pink Bubble Bursts

Early sobriety was a welcome improvement over the daily grind of managing alcohol use disorder. I slept well, looked better and felt relieved. It was nice to have that stupid monkey off my back. But the first year of sobriety was harder than expected. Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) is not often explained or discussed. And since mixing alcohol and seasonal affective disorder is normal, newly sober people are left without a way to cope.

After years of running on adrenaline and anxiety — hiding my drinking problem behind a façade of perfectionism, it was weird to run out of gas after I decided to get my shit together. My doctor confirmed that I was clinically depressed. I tried all of the sober advice and did everything I could to heal. I focused on self-care, worked with a coach and a therapist, and made a gratitude list. But the weeks were long. It was hard.

On average, it takes 14 months for brain chemistry to recalibrate after quitting an addictive substance. Which explains why I felt out of sorts. The dopamine deficit was as clear as the “empty” alert on my fuel gauge. Years of drinking had trained my brain to rely on alcohol for endorphins. Natural production was unreliable. I felt stagnant and depressed because my brain wasn’t responding to things that should have felt good.

On top of that, winter is predictably rough anyway. I’ve always suffered from what I assumed to be seasonal affective disorder (SAD). No matter how much I exercised or kept myself busy, the stretch between Christmas and spring break was a marathon. It’s dark, cold and gray — inside and out. Had I known that self-medicating everyday with an addictive depressant drug (literally the opposite of an anti-depressant) was the equivalent of shooting myself in the foot, I might have tried sobriety sooner. Instead, like many people, I believed that alcohol relieved stress and made life more enjoyable. At least I had something to look forward to. Not surprisingly, the worse I felt, the more I drank. And vice versa.

Alcohol and Seasonal Affective Disorder

I’m still surprised that I did not make the connection between alcohol and seasonal affective disorder. I have a master’s degree in health coaching and pride myself on wellness (only organic wine and top-shelf vodka for me)! Mainstream culture has us all believing that the only people who shouldn’t drink are pregnant women, people taking certain medications, and of course, those pathetic alcoholics. The rest of us are left to figure out how much we can drink and still qualify as “healthy.”

Learning about post-acute withdrawal syndrome put my first year of sobriety in perspective; the malaise is temporary. This gave me hope. If I kept doing the right things, the reward would come. As alcohol had never cured my seasonal affective disorder in the past, I decided to place my bet on sobriety.

Addiction to False Logic

Post-acute withdrawal syndrome is why many people who quit drinking start again. Once the pink bubble of early sobriety bursts, you feel underwhelmed by reality. It’s all too easy to assume the drop in mood is because alcohol really had been enhancing your life despite the difficulties. And since a successful period of abstinence can serve as proof that you’re back in control, it seems reasonable to reintroduce alcohol with the positive intention to moderate.

It’s not.

Reintroducing an addictive depressant drug in hopes that you feel better is literally crazy. My hypothesis is that alcohol use disorder isn’t a drinking problem. It’s a thinking problem — a cognitive malfunction.

It was spring when I crossed the one-year mark. I’d survived the winter without alcohol while managing a raging case of seasonal affective disorder. I felt better — stronger and more confident than ever. Since I had yet to eradicate my belief that alcohol is a reward, and that “responsible drinking” is indicative of good mental health, I actually considered celebrating with a drink — even started to plan for it. Of course I did. Sobriety alone does not fix false logic.

You know you’re stuck in a thought loop when, no matter what variables you plug into the equation, the answer is always the same. Bad day? Drink. Good day? Drink. Need to perk up? Drink. Need to calm down?Drink. Got married? Divorced? Hired? Fired? Drink. Drink. Drink. Drink. Drinking too much? Drink less. Sobriety kinda sucks? Drink more.

Just drink. (See what I mean about the cognitive malfunction?)

The truth is that alcohol — ethanol– is poison. If you drink too much, your body vomits. Shuts down. Even dies. Alcohol reduces mental health, harms the liver, leads to heart disease and causes cancer. The desire to tolerate any amount of toxin is not admirable. It’s stupid. Especially after you go to the trouble to break the cycle of addiction.

Hair of the Dog

Addiction happens when you learn how to use a drug to soothe the withdrawal symptoms it causes. Withdrawal is the drug in reverse. Consider caffeine as a simple example. Consuming the stimulant gives you a burst of energy and focus. Unfortunately, hours later, you feel lethargic — worse than if you’d just drank a glass of water and took a few deep breaths. People who are addicted to caffeine suffer from withdrawals if they don’t consume their daily dose.

Alcohol is a depressant — the opposite of a stimulant. It feels soothing. The brain responds by releasing cortisol and adrenaline. It maintains homeostasis so you don’t get too relaxed and forget to breathe. As the buzz wears off, you feel anxious — worse than if you’d just drank a glass of water and took a few deep breaths. People who are addicted to alcohol feel agitated when they don’t drink or stop drinking too early.

Even though most of us aren’t conscious of why we want to keep drinking when common sense tells us to stop, experience teaches us that it helps. Alcohol soothes the problem that alcohol creates. It’s easy to miss the cause and effect, or to blame the agitation on something else — like work stress, domestic drama or acts of God.

Sobriety offers the opportunity to break the cycle. But if we still believe that our drinking problem was due to a lack of willpower, life circumstances or bad genes, and not the predictable impact of alcohol on our brain, sobriety doesn’t feel like the solution. Without that knowledge, we’re destined to repeat the pattern. Especially when post-acute withdrawal syndrome makes seasonal affective disorder worse instead of better.

Please Think Responsibly

All drugs (except alcohol) come with strict guidelines for when and how they should be used. We’re advised of the side effects and told to consult a doctor if problems arise. But with alcohol — a highly addictive, class-one carcinogen–we’re just told to “drink responsibility” and expected to figure out what that means on our own.

We know that regular use of even over-the-counter drugs can lead to dependency. The media reminds us constantly that drugs like benzodiazepines and narcotics are highly addictive. Caution is always prescribed. Because anyone can get addicted to Xanax and opiates — or laxatives for that matter. With all other drugs, we’re taught that tolerance and withdrawal affect everyone. We’re all vulnerable to addiction. Ironically, many anti-addiction campaigns and community non-profits are sponsored by the friendly and “socially responsible” alcohol companies.

Alcohol Triggers Seasonal Affective Disorder

The good news is that right-action and good-old-fashioned time heal the brain. After being alcohol-free for nearly two years, I’m better than not depressed. I’m happy. For the first time in my adult life, January has been a fabulous month — easy peasy. February looks fun too. My brain is firing on all cylinders. PAWS is behind me and I’m no longer SAD.

Actively working on my mental health has given me the ability to dismiss the phantom thoughts that drift through my brain. It might look GOOD for a recovery coach to occasionally drink. That would be 100 percent proof that I’ve truly overcome alcohol use disorder.

Can I get a round of applause for catching that? Drinking is NEVER proof you don’t have a drinking problem.

Mental health is the ability to manage our minds. We have 12–60,000 thoughts per day. Eighty percent are negative. Ninety-five percent are repeats — memories of what we’ve thought before. Thoughts are not the voice of God — they are mostly random shit we’ve heard or faulty logic being applied to fake facts. Most thoughts should not even be taken seriously, much less acted upon. If you want to wear rose-colored glasses in life, you’ve got to keep them clean.

Freedom from alcohol use disorder and seasonal affective disorder are proof that my life is better as a non-drinker. I’ve fought hard to recover. I’m certain that I could have a drink and be okay. But I don’t want to just be ok. Why would I ever want to drink an anxiety-inducing substance? I like my happiness straight up! That’s the irony. As a problem drinker, I just wanted to become a person who could take it or leave it. And now that I’ve achieved that goal, I’d rather just leave it. I’m having too much fun to complicate my joy.

Goodbye alcohol and seasonal affective disorder!

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Does Alcohol Cause Mental Illness?

Antidepressants improve mental health. Drinking alcohol (a depressant) does the opposite. Does alcohol cause mental illness? Yes. But like all chronic illness, alcohol use disorder is reversible.

Is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol is addictive because it triggers the release of dopamine. How addictive is alcohol for you? The more you drink, the harder it becomes to control.

No “M” in Sober

The idea of getting sober feels like the hiker who had to cut off his arm to save himself. Except it's not. Just put down the drink. You can keep your arm.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Do you wish you drank less but find it difficult to stop once you start? Are the legal experts in your head constantly debating the problem—and what you should do? That's alcohol use disorder.
You’re not alone. Many of us have been duped into using alcohol as a consolation prize for neglecting our needs--and then criticized for becoming dependent on it. I was able to quit drinking after 30 years without AA, rehab or willpower. My energy, vitality and joy have returned. I help high-functioning drinkers experience sobriety as a superpower, not a disease. 

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