A couple years ago, my life was soaked in alcohol. My friends and colleagues were champion drinkers. My hobbies — frequenting bars, playing guitar after 10 beers, knocking back $5 pitchers at Buffalo Wild Wings — relied on booze. If I wasn’t drinking, I was savagely hungover.
As a result, I had absolutely no clue what to do with myself when I quit. I lost friends, hobbies and my sense of direction in life. I didn’t even know what I enjoyed anymore, and to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure I do. What’s more, I had so much added time on my hands.
It’s moments like these that can make a person turn right back around and plunge into those $5 pitchers. Trust me, I did just that many times. But all I needed was a little help figuring out who I was without alcohol. If you’re in a similar spot, there’s hope up ahead. Let’s walk through the steps together.
It’s easy to get sucked into scurrying away from your addiction and rushing into a whole new life. You want to try all the things you planned during those drunken, coked-filled nights but never got around to because you were hungover. You’ve been through a lot, and you’re feeling the need to make up for what your anxiety likes to call “lost time.” But sometimes that can be more harmful than helpful.
You see, it’s easy to become overwhelmed when you overplan, which can result in you feeling confused and doing nothing at all (or worse, slipping back into your old ways). In situations like these, Dan Mager, author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction, calls upon the Tao Te Ching for advice in the form of a Chinese proverb: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or as the recovery community likes to say, “One day at a time.”
You already reached sobriety. If you continue forward with that same energy, the rest will fall into place. As I discovered when I polled the folks on r/Sober, patience often leads to a natural emerging of interests. Just start somewhere — anywhere.
Now that you have some separation from your addiction, rather than turning a blind eye to what you’ve been through, consider ruminating on it. As addiction counselor Heather Hayes tells me, there were good times scattered throughout her skirmish with drugs and booze, and while she’s certainly grateful to have survived, she’d also do it all over again. That’s not to glorify addiction, and everyone’s different, but it’s also worth remembering that you’re here and sober because of what you’ve learned along the way, so don’t be too quick to disregard where you’ve come from.
Get Into a Routine
A lot of us miss out on having our basic needs met during addiction. Our sleep schedules were messed up. Our meals were sporadic. We almost certainly weren’t taking care of our bodies. But these are requirements for having the energy necessary to move forward, so there’s really no better place to start. Your body and mind need time to heal, and activities like yoga, meditation and exercise are all great ways to accomplish this. Plus, being on a schedule provides a strong foundation for your sustained abstinence.
The one caveat, however, is that having your needs met may bring some grief and trauma to the surface. You might begin to realize that you missed out on a lot because of your addiction, or you might recognize that not having your needs met was the very impetus for you developing a substance use disorder — say, your parents neglected you because of their drug habits, so you never learned how to properly take care of yourself. If that happens, Hayes says you may need additional help in the form of therapy to get over that trauma.
Go Back to Basics
According to Hayes, many of us, especially those who fell into addiction at a young age, missed out on “developmental milestones” like learning social skills and how to express our creativity. As such, it can be helpful to go back and relearn these things. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to doing so. “It’s a process that unfolds gradually and progressively and requires figuring out,” Mager says.
If you’re an extrovert, engaging in this process with like-minded people in recovery groups can be helpful, and make you feel like you’re putting all that extra time to use. As an added benefit, having sober companions will help keep you accountable, and it’s likely that you’ll find new, healthier ways to have fun together. In fact, even some of my old, non-sober friends have been more than happy to join me for sober-friendly activities, like hiking, fishing and eating endless amounts of chicken wings.
If you’re more of an introvert, however, recovery coach Michael Walsh tells me that he’s a fan of several journaling methods. These include the Wheel of Life and the Recovery Capital Scale, both of which are helpful for calling attention to areas of your life that need more consideration. He also likes a technique called the Top Ten Positive “Yets,” which is virtually a gratitude journal for all the things that will happen in your life because of your sobriety.
Exercises such as these can help you nail down exactly what you’d like your new life to look like. Even still, Walsh adds that sometimes the only way to figure out what’s next for you is “through research and testing the waters.”
Sobriety is great, but don’t fall into the trap of believing that you’ll have the same highs as you did during your addiction. “Nothing’s going to feel like that surge of cocaine, because that’s not normal,” Hayes says. “But nothing will come with all those consequences either.” If you’re really craving adrenaline, try activities like snowboarding, surfing, rock climbing and even riding sweet roller coasters until you nearly puke.
But remember, sobriety is about balance and not having to constantly clean up your own messes. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not feeling like you did mid-bender. In time, the steady success of sobriety will far outweigh the occasional highs (and constant lows) of addiction.
As Mager explains, recovery is often about “reconnecting with the parts of ourselves and the parts of our life experience, including interests, that we gradually let go of and grew away from as our worlds became smaller and smaller.” In other words, you may find pleasure in the hobbies you lost to addiction.
Mager, for instance, reestablished his love for bowling after going sober. “It was wonderful,” he says. “It was a sort of coming full-circle experience.” Hayes, on the other hand, fell back in love with horseback riding in her sobriety and says the adrenaline serves her well.
But don’t be afraid to try something entirely new either, especially if your old hobbies are triggering because they remind you of your addiction. “There are so many TV shows I used to watch hours of that I can’t even get through 10 minutes of now,” says Danielle Tcholakian, a 35-year-old New Yorker who’s in recovery for drugs and alcohol. “My brain is like, Wait, we’re supposed to be stoned if we’re watching 10 hours of Criminal Minds.”
Once the dust has settled, you may realize that larger aspects of your life have been long neglected. For instance, Walsh says some of his clients decide to change careers after becoming sober and recognizing that their jobs contributed to their substance abuse. “Some people want to explore going back to school,” he adds. Others want to start dating again (we happen to have a handy guide if you need help with that).
Of course, there’s no easy way to take on such momentous tasks. It really comes down to exploring your limits, but you’ll know when you know. As Mager says, “Recovery is an ongoing process of learning, growth and healing. That process is lifelong. There’s no graduation.”
Phew. Glad to hear I still have time to figure out what I like to do.