There is a huge difference between being sober and being abstinent. While abstinence is definitely preferable to active addiction, without truly diving into sobriety and real recovery, the same emotional turbulence that drives addiction will always come out to say hi. The reality though, is that real sobriety takes work – and hard work is a lot harder to sell to addicts than massages and horseback rides on the beach. So real sobriety gets skipped over by many treatment centers and sober livings that want to avoid ruffling client’s feathers.
But isn’t everything well and good as long as we aren’t using drugs? To answer that question we need a quick little primer on how drugs and alcohol affect the brain. When an addict uses a drug or takes a drink, the high causes the reward center of the brain to light up in celebration. Tons of dopamine floods the brain which causes the euphoria that makes drugs so appealing to addicts. (This is very, very simple explanation of a pretty complex process!) The problem is, drug are not the only thing that causes this kind of reaction in the brain. Many other behaviors, often called “process addictions”, trigger a similar release of dopamine, and can lead to the same addictive behaviors.
This is just one side of the coin though – while understanding a little bit of the science behind why this stuff happens is useful, the emotional and spiritual component of why it takes place is just as important. Without recovering spiritually and emotionally, no amount of abstinence can give us the true quality of life that is available in recovery. In fact, the quick fix mentality that many approach addiction treatment with can do more harm than good, leading to unresolved underlying issues that will always be an impediment to lasting, and meaningful sobriety.
While this might sound a little scary, there’s still hope! Identifying some of the behaviors that addiction can manifest itself as during sobriety is the first step to recognizing them in yourself – and then taking action to change them!
While sobriety carries emotional, spiritual and physical components, it can be easy to let an obsession with exercise turn into an unhealthy addiction. Earlier in my recovery I remember having a deep obsession with working out – not because of the health benefits, but because of the way it gave me something to fix on. When we still have unresolved self-esteem issues and distract ourselves from looking inward by focusing on how we look to others, addiction can rear it’s head in sobriety. The preoccupation with being as muscular as possible led me to skipping 12 step meetings, obsessing over the food that I ate, and constantly looking in the mirror. The self-obsession that working a program alleviates for us was back in full force. Rather than being able to focus on helping others, being true to myself or authentically contributing to the world around me, I was wholly focused on how I looked, and dedicated hours every single week to spending time in the gym at the expense of my real recovery.
Why can this be dangerous for addicts? Well, for a couple of reasons. The most obvious of which is the possibility of the preoccupation leading to steroid abuse and unhealthy behaviors surrounding working out. However, the dopamine release that the gym provides can quickly turn into something that crowds out other, spiritual behaviors. It can also become a very self-centered activity; if most of your waking moments are spent thinking about yourself, how you look, and how you can make your outsides look better, it is easy to neglect the spiritual environment. Finally, an obsession with exercise can pull you away from community, service, and spiritual growth – all key components to a long-term recovery.
Interestingly enough, the point in my recovery where I was in the best shape and spent the most time in the gym was also when I was the most insecure with myself. All of the hours spent trying to avoid the internal work by focusing on the external were counterproductive. It was only when I found balance, that this problem was taken care of.
I still enjoy and am passionate about exercise and fitness. Health is an important part of my sobriety and I not only work out, but try to eat well, engage in moving meditations like yoga, and love being active in the outdoors. But I am very clear today on the fact that my recovery (and a list of other priorities), come long before the gym.
While a poker night with close friends in sobriety can be a great way to connect, blow off some steam and relax, gambling can quickly become an addiction on its own. In fact, there are some individuals in recovery who choose to abstain from gambling all together, because of the way they feel it effects their spiritual condition. All things in moderation? Well for addicts, moderation is nothing more than a fancy word to describe something we don’t have much experience with.
Gambling has it’s own 12 step programs dedicated to helping individuals who are thoroughly addicted recovery, and is treated just as seriously as drug or alcohol addiction. That does not mean that a sober addict who takes a weekend trip to Vegas or has a poker night with the friends just relapsed though. Like everything else on this list, there is no black and white. But it is important to be able to identify the way that the feelings gambling can provide can often mirror the experiences of ups and downs that drugs and alcohol gave us.
Understanding that gambling works on the brain in much the same way that drugs and alcohol do is important in making sure that it does not overtake a sober life. Unfortunately, I have seen more than one relapse on drugs and alcohol precipitated by unhealthy gambling and the following financial insecurity and instability that too much of it can create.
However, just like the other items on this list, when we focus on actual recovery, rather than abstinence, it loses much of its draw. The basic ones and twos of recovery apply here – connecting with a community, giving back to those around us, and striving to connect with our conception of something greater. Rather than attacking any obsessive behavior head on with self imposed restrictions and rules (“controlling and enjoying our drinking”, anyone?), we focus on the basic components of spirituality and watch most of these problems slip away from us.
This is a hot topic in many 12 step meeting rooms across the country. While conventional 12 step wisdom says that waiting until someone has finished their steps and accumulated some time sober is important before getting into a relationship, the advice is not always followed, and even maligned by some. Whats the big deal with getting into a relationship anyway? And how could something like that be considered an addiction in sobriety?
Well, lets jump back to our whole concept of dopamine release and neural reward pathways for a second. Remember your first kiss? The first time you had strong feelings for someone? The butterflies that accompanied the moment? That feeling was dopamine working its way through your mind, creating the unmistakable euphoria that so often accompanies a deep connection (or not so deep…) with another person. For an addict, that feeling can easily become addictive.
This carries a couple risks in early – and later – recovery. First of all, as long as that person is an active participant in your life, you feel amazing and you can ride the high. The problem is, the high is totally dependent on someone else. If they get mad at you, are unresponsive, or decide that maybe you aren’t the person for them, the high goes away. Also, the very nature of a high is that it is temporary – so even if the relationship doesn’t end, the initial honeymoon phase will. No more constant euphoria.
For an addict, this can lead to chasing the high. Jumping in and out of unhealthy relationships, dangerous and risky behavior, and ignoring the internal work that real, long-term recovery requires, for the quick fix of a temporary rush. Relationships, while an amazing part of life and a truly awesome gift of sobriety, can also be used to catch a feeling, at the expense of true recovery.
This isn’t to say stay away from relationships altogether. But do yourself a favor and figure out who you are before you go throwing yourself at someone else. Chances are, the person you become might not even be interested in them anymore.
Social Media and Smartphones
If you have ever been to a 12 step meeting where young people are present, you’ve seen at least one (or 10) people on Instagram, Facebook, or playing Candy Crush Saga. While they may seem innocuous, smart phones are one of the biggest distractions this generation of young people getting sober face. And they aren’t going anywhere.
If you find yourself compulsively checking your phone many times a day, regularly obsessing over how many likes one of your photos gets on Instagram, or experiencing your moods fluctuating heavily depending on the response that you are getting on a social media post, chances are you have an unhealthy relationship with the medium. Nancy Jo Sales wrote a powerful book about the state of American teenagers and social media and it’s lessons are even more pertinent for recovering addicts and alcoholics.
The obvious damage comes from missing out during 12 step meetings, being disengaged and unaware of life happening all around you, and the inability to authentically connect with other people when most of your relationships are crafted and maintained in the digital space – but there are other effects as well. Young people getting sober become so connected to so many people and things at once that they are constantly comparing progress, body image, success, relationships….you name it and someone else on social media looks like they are doing it better. This can have a huge impact on how someone feels about themselves and sets a ridiculous standard for people to compare themselves to. Body image becomes distorted and self-esteem takes a blow – things that can be hard for addicts in early recovery.
And of course there’s the dopamine. Studies have shown that social media impacts the brain chemically in a way very similar to drugs and alcohol. All those likes on your post and the accompanying rush you feel? Someone leaving heart emojis on your Instagram photo and the way your mood instantly changes? Those experiences are rushes of dopamine filling the brain – and can be just as addictive as drugs and alcohol.
Taking the time to focus on real relationships goes a long way toward countering the obsession that social media and smart phones can create. Mindfulness meditation is a good way to get present and release yourself from the grasps of social media and the other distractions that smart phones provide. Any time you find your recovery taking a backseat to social media, it’s a good idea to pause and evaluate what you can do to take contrary action.
Being a big fan of food myself, I could write pages about the joys associated with sugar, treats and cheeseburgers. And by no means are these things bad in moderation. But guess what “comfort foods” do to the brain? If you guessed that they released our old friend dopamine, you’re right on the money. Because of the way that binge and “emotional eating” causes chemical releases in the brain, they are huge candidates for process addictions.
While the key here is again, balance, picking up healthy eating habits rather than subsisting on a diet wholly comprised of In-N-Out and Wendy’s is a good idea if you want to remain healthy while sober. But the biggest thing to pay attention to is what’s behind the eating.
If you rely on eating junk food to make you feel better after a hard day, or to comfort you after a fight with a loved one, the same mechanism of checking out that makes drugs and alcohol as well as the other process addictions so effective, is at work. There are important considerations to take into account when looking at your relationship with food – do I feel shame after eating, is my eating reactionary, do I constantly obsess over whether or not I have sweets at home – these are all signs that your relationship with food may be unhealthy.
Addicts can quickly turn to food in sobriety if they are not maintaining their spiritual condition. While going on crazy diets and placing unhealthy restrictions on your eating is equally unhealthy, using food as a fix is ultimately just a substitute for dealing with underlying issues and working a spiritual program.