The Fixes We Chase in Sobriety
Now that you're sober, it's time to sleep around, shop, guzzle on sugar and find other harmful ways to soothe your psyche. Or you could meditate and get a massage. Meet the good, the bad and the fugly of sober fixes.
For us recovering alcoholics and addicts, it often seems like we never really stop trying to get that “fix.” I'm wired in some basic way to want to elude myself, escape my feelings. This did not go away when I got sober. On the contrary, once I put down booze and drugs, I discovered endless new and creative ways to temporarily alter myself. I don’t think I’m alone. It’s the dreaded “whack-a-mole” syndrome, wherein you put down one addiction only to have the disease rear its ugly head in another form. It’s no surprise, then, that many people with a decent amount of time sober end up in other 12-step programs as their “fixes” get out of hand (see: OA, NA, DA, GA, SLAA, etc.). I’m in AA and dabbled for a bit in SLAA. Here's my list of some of the dicier fixes I've tried—followed by some of the healthier options.
Right now, I enjoy blowing big billowy clouds of nicotine vapor into the faces of small children in public.
Sex: Known in SLAA/SA as “two-legged dope.” As soon as I got sober this time around, reeling from a devastating divorce, this was my go-to. I ran from my newly emerging feelings into the beds of B-list actors, C-list comics and the requisite drummer. The “high” of going to meet a new lover had the same heart-pounding, finger-trembling anticipation of going to meet the dope man. Even if the sex was bad—as it usually was—it was still a welcome, if brief, respite from the overwhelming sadness, boredom and emptiness of early sobriety. Impulsive frequent “sexcapades” can wreak havoc as surely as drugs and booze—physically (creepy STDs, unwanted pregnancies) and emotionally (compromising marriages, causing shame). And like booze and drugs, you build a tolerance and have to keep upping the ante. So, if you find yourself chained to a radiator wearing a clown mask (no judgment), or you date a guy who requires lederhosen, you might want to proceed with caution. Sometimes, if I need a release and want the flood of endorphins without the complication of another horny person, I masturbate. To quote Woody Allen: "Don't knock masturbation. It's sex with someone you love." There are actually a lot of health benefits to flogging the dolphin or roughing up the suspect. So, unless that’s one of your “bottom lines” in SLAA, have at it.
Self-Injury: I fell into the ranks of 13-year-old Goth girls when I picked up “cutting” early in my most-recent sobriety. Like a true novice, I cut where people could actually see (mostly my wrists) and I still have faint scars. I showed them to a friend once, and he proceeded to play tic-tac-toe on my arm with a pen to show the extent of my stupidity. I wanted people to know the extent of my emotional pain, as dramatic and self-indulgent as that sounds. But I soon discovered that cutting can be a powerful anesthetic and high. It is a “natural drug,” because as soon as you take that swipe with the razor blade, natural endorphins are immediately released. There is a sick relief in seeing one’s own blood, as any recovering junkie will attest.
Shopping and Gambling: I still spend hours on eBay, adding endlessly to my “watch list”—'80s rock tees, vintage hooker boots and Alexander Wang handbags. I’m always on the hunt for the next cool bargain. And as most of the items go up for “auction,” there's that added thrill of “bidding”—which I guess is akin to the excitement of gambling. Now that I've joined the ranks of the proletariat and am struggling to be “self-sufficient through my own contributions” (don’t ask how that’s going), I don’t have much money to buy things. So if you see me in new pair of Current Elliott jeans, I’ve probably been living on Kashi for a week. There’s only so much money to go around. I’ve never been a gambler, mostly because I never ever win. Gambling is based on intermittent reinforcement (you win some, you lose some) and the flood of adrenaline you get when doing it. Often referred to as the “hidden illness,” it can be disastrous. Just take a visit to some of the seedy toothless wig-wearing casinos in downtown Vegas to see where you could be heading.
Caffeine and Nicotine: Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. AA/NA meetings are notorious for their chain-smoking and coffee-swilling. You can even find an unknown meeting solely by the cloud of cigarette smoke and plethora of styrofoam cups. When I’m not guzzling five-shot iced soy lattes, you’ll find me perusing the supermarket aisles, hunting for energy drinks, soda and yerba matte. If you imbibe enough, you can actually spin above your looming depression and convince yourself that your jittery angst-filled buzz is happiness. Unfortunately, if you overdose on these weird energy drinks (especially the ones with Taurine) you can find yourself in the ER with heart palpitations or a seizure. It’s actually happened to me. The problem with these energy drinks is that they haven't been regulated by the federal government as “beverages.” So use in moderation or not at all. Most people don’t put down the smokes till they have some substantial clean time. My own sponsor told me to wait till I had a year, but I switched to e-cigarettes a few months ago. I am still ingesting nicotine and, like a true junkie, I always look for the cartridges with the highest percentage of the drug, but at least my hair and breath smell better. As the pharmacological and psychological characteristics that determine tobacco addiction are similar to those that determine addiction to cocaine and heroin, it’s no surprise that so many ex-addicts smoke. If you want to get “smober,” go check out Nicotine Anonymous. Right now, I enjoy blowing big billowy clouds of nicotine vapor into the faces of small children in public.
Food: Ever heard of “sober body,” the voluptuous shape we take thanks to the 20 pounds we pack on when we first get sober? Even as the bloat abates for drunks, they can turn to sweets to replace the voraciously desired sugar that was in the booze. Us cokeheads and junkies will “put down the spoon and pick up the fork,” and fatten up like Thanksgiving turkeys. I’m sure all the late-night fellowship at greasy diners don't help. It’s a scientific fact that when we consume sweet and high-fat foods, serotonin is released. You don’t need to tell me and my stash of Toblerone and maple bacon kettle chips any of that!
Medication: The comedian Rick Shapiro once said, “I’m on more drugs than when I was on drugs!” At five months sober, I was on six different psychotropic medications. With two decades of mental illness under my belt, anytime I took a dive—even though it was totally normal to be on a mental precipice as I was in treatment for the sixth time, going through a divorce, broke and homeless—I was sure I was heading back into some depressive abyss from which I would never return. I was damned if I was going to find myself in yet another psych ward, drinking shitty decaf in a flimsy green gown and doing puzzles. I would show up to see my shrink, disheveled and crying, and we would add yet another medication to my regime. I could hear my poor liver cry out as my doctor wrote a new script. I could not let go of the idea that this final pill would be the answer to all my problems, that I would finally feel normal without having to do any work. It never happened. (Note: if you have a mental disorder and take your medication as prescribed and it is helping you, please keep on. I am not suggesting anybody get off their meds. I am solely telling my story.) It was only once I topped out on all the possible meds I could take, that I retired my purple “Rx drugs are my life” t-shirt. My apologies to the pharmaceutical industry, as their stock, no doubt, took a dip.
Love: There is nothing like the high of being in love—the companionship, the acceptance, the shared expenses, that special somebody who will fuck you even if you haven’t brushed your teeth. Unfortunately this is something that just “happens” to us, if we’re lucky, a few times in our lonely, pathetic lives. For addicts, it can be hard to accept this love as it conflicts with our ingrained self-hatred. However, anything that creates feelings of pleasure, for me, can quickly become addictive. Love is not exempt. Go to a Love Addicts meeting and see for yourself.
Facebook: Whether it’s posting a funny comment that gets 52 “likes,” judging other people’s selfies or trolling for new love connections, Facebook can be addictive. It’s a virtual reality and a total time-suck wherein you can interact with strangers in your underwear from the safety of your room, face dotted with zit cream, and be whoever you want. Ever seen Catfish? You can get in flame wars with people you don’t even know, or flirt-a-thons with people you’d like to know. You can spy on your ex (if he/she hasn’t blocked you yet) and feel jealous about other people’s pretend lives. Talk about comparing your insides to other people’s outsides. But in the end, you are alone with your computer and the ability to put your insane thoughts into cyberspace at the press of a button. Restraint of pen and tongue out the window. Think I’m exaggerating?
So what fixes are good for you? Good question. Here are a few I’ve found to be helpful. Although the hits tend to be much milder, they're harder to abuse to the point of self-destruction.
Sleep: Naps aren’t just for babies. When I feel totally overwhelmed, upset or just plain tired, I take a nap. I put my phone on vibrate, slip on my Nick and Nora’s, crawl into the fetal position and just turn off my mind. Most times I wake up feeling energized and re-centered. I’m talking about a power nap (20 minutes), or even a longer nap of 30-60 minutes—but not sleeping all day, with the duvet over your head, avoiding your life (although I’ve done that too). Studies show that napping can give you an energy boost, enhance creativity, reduce stress and even decrease your risk of heart disease. So put on your sleep mask and hit the sack!
Exercise: One of the better healthier fixes that I tend to avoid. Thankfully for lazy fucks like me, it’s been found that even a small amount of mild exercise improves mental health. Different types of exercise release different chemicals, so if you’re anxious, try yoga. If you’re an insomniac, do Pilates. If you need energy, ride a bike. Need clarity? Hit the weights. Stressed out? Do Tai Chi. I find that I feel better when I take a long walk on the beach and throw seaweed at people, or hike the obstacle course of dogshit in Runyon Canyon with my bestie. For some, of course, exercise can become unhealthily compulsive. I’d like to meet those people and have it rub off on me.
Meditation: It’s the 11th of the 12 Steps. I’m not much for prayer unless I’m in a bind, but I recently learned Transcendental Meditation and found it to be invaluable for a chronically depressive, reactive person like myself. I try really hard to do it 20 minutes, twice a day, every day. Although it hasn’t been long, I can honestly say I am calmer, happier, less emotional and more creative. Studies show that it actually makes you more compassionate! These days meditation is becoming mainstream and many successful people are publicly attesting its benefits. It’s not hippie bullshit. It really works.
Community: I am, by nature, a loner and isolator—which is hard to be when you share a room with a bubbly blonde Brentwood mom in a Sober Living house. Even so, I manage to bow out of a lot of social invitations and watch Shameless or House of Cards by myself for hours instead. I feel better when I’m connected to people, even if I don’t want to be—when I call my sponsor, when I answer my phone calls, when I go to meetings, when I’m nice to my parents. Enough said.
Meaningful Work: Nothing makes me feel more fulfilled, boosts my self-esteem or gives me focus like significant, purposeful work—work that I pour my heart into, work that helps or brings joy to other people, and plugs me into a bigger picture and a sense of having value. I’m not talking about making big money. I’m talking about your art, your volunteer work, your sponsees—whatever it is that makes you remember why you are here on the planet, and that you’re bigger than your looks or bank account or relationship or addiction.
Massage: We all like being hugged and stroked. It feels good and there are biological reasons for that. Besides alleviating headaches, muscle pain, digestive disorders and insomnia, massage can also help with anxiety and depression. Massage reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lift mood and lower blood pressure. It can also boost the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine (which any good druggie knows are involved in depression and getting "high"). For $30, you can find a foot spa at your local mini mall and get a thorough hour-long foot and body rub-down. You can listen to the soothing sounds of bamboo pipes, stare at a bad wall mural of the Huangshan Mountains and bliss out. All for the price of a trendy lunch.
Laughter: We've all heard the saying, "laughter is the best medicine." It's been scientifically proven that laughter can boost immune response, increase blood flow, lower blood sugar, and promote relaxation and sleep. You wanna decrease your stress hormones of cortisol and epinephrine? Hunker down with your favorite episodes of South Park or Louis, or watch your large, sweaty, Welsh boyfriend dance around in his superman underwear. Having a hearty laugh is akin to a small bout of vigorous exercise, and God knows I'd rather goof on people then get on the treadmill.
And let us not forget the joys of providing laughter. As a recovering comic, I can attest to the very real "high" that making an audience of strangers (or even a bunch of drunks in a meeting) completely hysterical can provide. So be funny and laugh. It's good for you. And other people.
Amy Dresner is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about what to pack for rehab.