Addicts Just Want to Have Fun (in Recovery)
Jack a 52-year-old divorced high school guidance counselor, after a stint of inpatient substance abuse rehab, had nine months sober from both alcoholism and marijuana addiction. In addition to working 8 to 5 every weekday, Jack kept a journal, meditated daily, and attended at least one twelve step meeting each evening. He also met with his therapist once per week and his twelve step sponsor twice weekly. Until the eight month mark of sobriety, he was riding the “pink cloud” of early recovery – that blissful time when many recovering addicts feel so relieved to finally be addressing their longstanding problem that, no matter what comes their way, they feel generally positive and cheerful about themselves and the world.
Unfortunately, for better or worse, pink clouds tend to dissipate, and those who’ve been riding them inevitably drift (or plummet) back to earth. This is what happened to Jack at eight months sober (more of a drift than a plummet, but devastating nonetheless). Within a month, his happy recovery turned into a drudging routine, and he found himself depressed and unenthused about both sobriety and life. He told his therapist and his sponsor that he still wanted to stay sober and he knew that his life was much better without all the drinking and using, but he wasn’t enjoying meetings, he was short-tempered at work, and he thought seriously about picking up at least ten times per day. He also told said he couldn’t understand why he felt this way when he was working the twelve steps, going to meetings, talking with his therapist, and sharing openly with his sponsor.
Recovery is a Process
To this point in his sobriety, Jack’s only goal was “staying sober.” And while this was an admirable objective, it didn’t exactly provide him with direction or meaning. Because of this, when the shiny new adventure of recovery inevitably lost its luster, Jack had nowhere to turn for motivation. Beyond the work of his job and the work of recovery, he was aimless. In therapy he was asked, “What do you want from life beyond sobriety?” He admitted that was a good question, but he had no answer at the time. His therapist (like most well-trained addiction specialists) was well-versed in highly directive forms of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, and he assigned to Jack the task of figuring out his short- and long-term goals. He also suggested that Jack share this list of goals with his sponsor, asking for feedback, prior to his next therapy visit.
Jack’s initial list of goals read:
- I want to be “present” in the world, rather than numbed out.
- I want to complete the twelve steps by then end of this year.
- I want to become a respected member of my twelve step fellowships.
- I want to be good at my job.
- I want to feel better about myself.
Jack was pretty pleased with this list when he shared it with his sponsor. His sponsor, however, was not enthralled. “What else do you want?” he asked.
Jack was confused by the question.
His sponsor said, “Do you want to start dating and maybe get married again? Do you want to go on an exciting vacation? Do you want to take up a hobby? Do you want join softball team? Do you want to be more involved in the community?”
Jack admitted that he wanted all of those things.
“So why are they not on the list?” his sponsor asked. “All I see right now is work, work, and more work. What about fun and spending time with other people? If you’re not going to have some fun and enjoy life and be social, then what’s the point of being sober?”
Why Addicts Struggle with Fun and Socialization
As I’ve written many times, addicts don’t engage their addictions to feel better; they do so to feel less. In other words, addicts don’t drink, use, gamble, overspend, engage in compulsive sex, or whatever because they’re trying to have a good time; they do it because they’re trying to control and/or escape what they are feeling. This means they engage their addictions to avoid experiencing stress, emotional discomfort, and underlying psychological issues like depression, interpersonal anxiety, and unresolved early-life trauma.
I have also written on numerous occasions that addicts are almost universally shame-based. Most often this inner sense of emptiness and self-doubt – the “hole in my soul” as many addicts call it – develops early in life related to inconsistent parenting, neglect, and/or outright abuse – emotional, psychological, physical, or sexual (either overt or covert). This lack of emotional and sometimes even physical safety during early childhood typically results in the development of insecure attachment styles, low self-esteem, and self-blame (viewing the problem as being internally generated). In other words, survivors of early-life trauma come to believe, deep in their souls, that they are defective, wrong, and unworthy of love and belonging. This shame is the primary sensation that addicts hope to “not feel” through addictive activity. It is also what makes friendships, romantic relationships, and socialization in general so difficult once an addict finally enters recovery.
Of note: Many shame-driven addicts seem gregarious and confident. Outwardly they can be quite social. But inwardly these narcissistically wounded individuals suffer from the same doubt, insecurity, and low self-esteem as other addicts. Their seeming social effervescence is merely a self-defense mechanism used to combat these uncomfortable feelings. The good news is that this coping mechanism does work for many addicts, though only to a point. Eventually, when people get close enough to make these addicts feel vulnerable (to rejection, humiliation, neglect, abandonment, abuse, or whatever), they flee, retreating to the relative safety of “controllable” relationships (i.e., relationships with addictive substances and/or behaviors).
Healthy Activities and Socialization
Without doubt, recovering addicts of all types need healthy activities during recovery. For one thing, their addictions usually took up large amounts of their free-time. When they are suddenly not drinking or using or acting out, they must find a way to fill the hours. Often, during the first months of sobriety this is the recovering addict’s most difficult challenge. Many, like Jack, fill the empty space with therapy and active participation in twelve step groups. However, as Jack found out, happiness requires more than just sobriety. It also requires a fun and meaningful social life.
Over the course of several weeks, working with his therapist and his sponsor, Jack evolved a new list of goals for his life in sobriety. This time he also listed activities to help him reach his goals – not forgetting to include healthy pleasures he could use to enjoyably replace the time spent in his addiction. In addition to the items initially listed, he added:
- Join a dating site and try to go on at least one coffee date per week until I find a woman I want to date for real.
- Join the gym and get in better physical condition.
- Redecorate my home.
- Re-establish my spiritual life by going back to church and joining the men’s group there.
- Find a new hobby, preferably one that I can enjoy with family and friends (perhaps following the local minor league baseball team).
- Plan and schedule a dream vacation for next summer, plus, in the interim, a few sober weekend getaways.
- Go out for coffee or dinner (fellowship) after twelve step meetings, getting to know group members in a social setting.
- Volunteer at least twice per month for causes I believe in.
Unsurprisingly, as Jack began to incorporate these goals into his recovery, his depression lifted. He started small, going to fellowship after twelve step meetings. This was fairly easy for him, because many of the others who went for coffee felt just as much social discomfort as he did. Eventually he found out that two of the men enjoyed baseball as much as he did, and they made plans to attend a few games. Before long he made friends with several people in recovery, and several others in his support group at church. His efforts at romance have been less successful so far, but as he grows more confident with friendships, he also becomes more confident that the right woman is out there and he’ll find her if he just keeps at it.
With his new goals, Jack is finding that life in recovery can be incredibly enjoyable. Yes, he still misses the dramatic dopamine rush provided by his addiction. But he is learning to appreciate the “slow dopamine drip” of healthy pleasures – socializing with friends, providing real support to people he cares about, and developing a hobby, among other activities (including his attempts at dating). Rather than compulsively seeking an addictive life filled with gigantic ups and downs, Jack is now able to enjoy the relative peace and serenity that his sobriety provides.
Weiss LCSW, R. (2015). Addicts Just Want to Have Fun (in Recovery). Psych Central. Retrieved on March 20, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2014/09/addicts-just-want-to-have-fun-in-recovery/