“I really mean when I say that my biggest fear in early recovery was that I would never have fun again. The beautiful truth is that recovery has given me the freedom and the confidence to go out in the world and leave my own mark.” – Tom Stoddart
One of the most common questions I receive from clients is, “Won’t life be boring without alcohol?” In fact, it’s a question I asked myself for several years before parting ways with my nightly wine ritual. Society creates very blurry boundaries for us in terms of normal versus problematic alcohol use. Alcohol permeates the media and is touted as a means of enhancing virtually every social gathering.
Whether we’re ringing in a new year or settling into the couch for the big game, our cultural norms pair these events with corks and beer caps popping. For those who do abuse substances, these norms begin to spill over into all events and ultimately, into alone time too. I went from toasting annually at the midnight countdown to toasting myself daily for a completed project or surviving a tough day of parenting.
At some point, the concept of self-reward becomes associated with one thing only – alcohol. And over time, patting ourselves on the back with a glass (or 5) of wine transitions from celebratory to an act of psychological necessity. It becomes as ingrained as toothbrushing or getting dressed for our day. And not only do we use it as a misguided reward system, but also as a coping strategy. The initial numbing effects of alcohol and drugs “take the edge off” of a hard day, and those immediate results lead to associations that are really unhealthy. We begin to fill a bottomless well with what we deem a “quick fix.” In reality, we’re slapping a bandaid on a deceivingly deep wound.
How then, does one who has come to view alcohol as both something celebratory and medicinal, reverse those distorted beliefs? How does one learn how to redefine “fun” after years of fine-tuning this false definition? Having explored these questions with hundreds of clients as well as myself, I’ve identified the following steps:
Accept the Presence of False Beliefs
In order to reverse years of distorted associations, we must first acknowledge them. There is a necessary degree of resignation in this process – a letting go of old beliefs. Perhaps the most blatant falsehood embraced by addicts is that drugs and alcohol are viable solutions to life’s stressors. Rather than consulting professionals in the fields of medicine and mental health, addicts prescribe themselves with the quick fix afforded by substances. Brief internet research can easily dispel these distortions, but addicts become skilled at funneling out information that challenges their unhealthy lifestyles.
By connecting with others who have successfully replaced alcohol or drugs with alternative, healthy outlets, you can begin to entertain the prospects yourself. You can witness real life examples of people who’ve lived on both sides of the equation. Those that have successfully navigated recovery will have countless examples of healthy drinking alternatives in their “toolboxes.” In early recovery, addicts understandably have difficulties trusting themselves. That is why it is imperative to make connections with those that have “walked the walk.” In doing so, the addict can slowly reframe her own distorted paradigms and replace them with healthy, long-term strategies.
Connect With the Pre-addicted Self
Regardless of your history with drugs or alcohol, there was a point in your life where you weren’t abusing either. Chances are, there were things you enjoyed doing during those years of sobriety. I suggest having a conversation with your sober, childhood self. Tap into those hobbies and outlets that really spoke to you in your early years. Even if they hold no interest for you now, it’s beneficial to recollect a time when healthy activities led to joy and satisfaction.
Individualize Your Approach
One of the first steps I take with my clients is the creation of a “replacement list.” The result is a list of at least ten healthy behaviors to draw on whenever drug or alcohol cravings surface. I also use the term “healthy” lightly. In early recovery, replacing six nightcaps with six squares of dark chocolate is completely okay. During “survival mode,” which those initial weeks often feel like, you do what you’ve got to do. And for every indulgent replacement behavior, consider including one that might universally be deemed as more viable in the long-term.
A sample replacement list might include: yoga, dessert, reading, meditation, massage, hot bath, mindless TV or phone games, Check-in with supports, jog, listen to a podcast
Create Boundaries as You Experiment
You’ve likely established a routine that nurtures your alcohol or drug use. Whether you go to certain bars, socialize with other substance abusers, or simply numb yourself at home in front of the TV, your routine will likely need to change. Your behaviors and your substance use have grown entangled. To break free of those associations, you’ll need to mix things up. Note locations and people that trigger you and, for the time being, steer clear of them. If you aren’t comfortable disclosing your efforts within your social circle, rehearse a script that makes you comfortable. This is your journey, and it’s healthy and necessary to create boundaries.
Sobriety forums like Coach.me are wonderful places to solicit suggestions for boundary issues in early sobriety.
Because your correlation between fun and substance use has grown so entwined, this list will likely feel forced in the beginning. I recall approaching the task with skepticism. It felt as though I was forcing myself to adopt these cliche acts of self-care. But as is the case with any new habit, after several weeks of “going through the motions” my associations began to change.
Slowly, these replacement behaviors elicit feelings of excitement and anticipation. And at some point, your brain acclimates to the new reward system as your concept of rewards, celebrations, and even coping begin to shift. It’s not an overnight process or a “quick fix”. It’s a change in lifestyle and an undoing of many years of distorted thinking. Good things take time.
Having witnessed this process unfold for so many, I’ve begun to note a phenomenon. As these replacement behaviors become more embedded in the day to day routine, they trigger an undeniable domino effect. As we recommit to an old hobby like running, it often leads to something else–perhaps it’s participation in a local running club, or the decision to train for an upcoming marathon. But by planting these small seeds in early recovery, you are creating roots for a limitless future.
But in the contemplation stages of recovery, these promises of a limitless future can feel both distant and far-fetched. It’s important to start small and to recognize that skepticism is completely normal. Rather than fighting those feelings, acknowledge them and enter this process with an experimental mindset. Surrounding yourself with people who support your recovery and encourage you in healthy ways can keep you afloat in the more challenging times.
Even if you aren’t ready to take a stab at sobriety, consider crafting a replacement list anyway. You don’t have to be 100% ready in order to chat with your sober inner-child. You don’t have to be on the plane to rehab to reconnect with the person you were before drugs or alcohol became your norm. Readiness comes at different times for all of us. By writing down the types of activities and behaviors you hope to someday enjoy, you are crafting a map that could, at some point, lead you home.
Jen Anderson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Sobriety Coach, and former alcohol enthusiast living in Florida with her husband and son.