itchy feet and winter blues

I get a semi-annual case of restless feet, as my urge to wander kicks in hard each winter. Usually in November and around February/March…there’s probably some connection to the rapidly-shifting length of the days. It makes me cranky, I feel like running away from home, and that “life’s not fair/I deserve a break” feeling kicks in pretty hard. Doesn’t help that I’ve had a cold, or maybe several colds in a row, for about five weeks now. Or that there are some things going on in my work life that are generating indescribable amounts of stress.

Once upon a time, my answer to this was the same as my answer to everything: more wine. It didn’t fix anything, but it made getting through a cranky evening feel briefly better. But I don’t do that anymore; in fact, the idea isn’t even appealing. It’s not a question of talking myself out of it, it’s just that the impulse has died down to a flicker.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed that was possible. The way we feel seems so real, so profound, that it can be incredibly difficult to imagine feeling any other way. During my first six months (or so) of changing my drinking habits, I pretty much resigned myself to feeling deprived/inauthentic/unhappy about it. I couldn’t control my feelings, so I just concentrated on controlling my actions. Then, as I drank much (much!) less, for a long enough period of time, I was surprised to find that my feelings started to catch up. The “not wanting” feeling is the result, not the cause, of drinking less — a distinction I find important.

(Re)gaining control of our drinking doesn’t fix everything. It certainly hasn’t turned me into a nicer person, or smoothed out all the bumps in life. But it is enormously freeing. In spite of all the irritability, both real and seasonal, I’ve rarely felt less burdened by alcohol-related thoughts. When I notice them, it’s by their absence — I catch sight of the fact that I’m not thinking about needing a drink, feel surprise and pleasure, then return to my other preoccupations.

So what about the stress and cranky evenings? Well, some it is just inevitable. The itchy feet may just by my weird brain buzzing away, but the work stress is real, and largely outside of my direct control. Drinking wouldn’t make it go away — in fact, by exacerbating depression/anxiety, drinking tends to make me feel more stressed over time, even as it pretends to be a short-term solution. One of the skills I’ve learned over the last year is to drink less during the stressful times: an occasional drink is something I still enjoy in good company, but I don’t drink at all during the cranky/stressful/angry/sad times.

Most of the time, stress goes away naturally. That’s certainly true for my seasonal restlessness, and probably true for most of the work-related stress too. Sleep helps. Exercise helps a lot. But time helps most of all. When time doesn’t help, it’s usually because there’s an underlying problem that needs to be fixed. Somewhat to my own amazement, I’m actually getting better at addressing those problems directly. Once I stopped relying on a maladaptive coping mechanism, I really did have to figure out some more functional skills, and solving problems directly turns out to be a pretty effective one (who knew!?!).

I’m still trying to figure this out, because clearly, stress is just one of those things we all have to deal with in various ways for the rest of our lives. I don’t have all the answers for myself yet, although I am learning to accept that stress is sometimes inevitable, endure it, and let it pass. Not everything needs an instant fix, and accepting that is a novel sensation. Maybe I can still fantasize about running away from home, while also staying put and engaging in the things I need to finish up first.