One of the things that made me sad about the idea of getting clean and sober was that I thought that I would never have any fun again.
Without the ability to get drunk or high any more, how was a person going to reward themselves? How could they ever let loose and have any fun again?
I was genuinely concerned about this. It kept me stuck in denial for many years. I did not want to get sober just to be bored all the time.
So I stayed stuck in addiction because I believed that getting drunk and high was the only way that I could have any fun in life.
I did not realize that in trying to achieve maximum pleasure every single day through drinking that it had become routine and boring for me.
Can a reward system be helpful in beating addictions?
I believe that a reward system can be helpful in beating addictions. I have never tried this with drugs or alcohol, but I did use a reward system when I quit smoking cigarettes, and it worked out very well.
What I did actually was to try to quit smoking several times, and I failed repeatedly. So at some point I decided that I would prepare in advance to set up some rewards for myself so that the next time I tried to quit I would have an advantage.
So I did exactly that. I actually planned a full vacation during my planned quit time, so that I was massively distracted (and also rewarded) while I was going through the quitting process. This worked wonderfully. I was so busy on vacation that I did not have as much time to dwell on smoking and the fact that I wasn’t doing it.
Of course vacation is not free (or even cheap) so I had to save up in advance to do this. But it was all worth it because after I quit smoking cigarettes I saved an awful lot of money by no longer smoking.
This is another critical idea when it comes to overcoming addictions: Price should really be no object. Whatever you can do in order to quit an addiction can easily be justified, because the reward of that freedom is so incredibly high. You save so much time, energy, peace of mind, and money by being free of addictions that no amount of sacrifice is too great in order to quit.
So I am not sure if you could implement a reward system to help you overcome drug or alcohol addiction, but I know for sure that it helped me greatly in overcoming nicotine addiction. And planning a vacation or a healthy distraction is certainly a worthwhile tactic if nothing else has worked for you.
Your idea of fun will shift in addiction recovery
It is important to note that your idea of “fun” will shift in recovery.
I was terrified that this would not happen for me. I was worried that I would be stuck in recovery forever and I would be bored and unhappy because I could not get drunk or high.
It turned out that this was wrong. What I was doing was projecting my old idea of “fun” onto a lifetime of sobriety, and figuring that this would make me miserable.
The truth is that it would have been miserable, but instead my idea of what was “fun” had shifted after I got sober.
It did not shift overnight though. This is an important point.
So if you take an alcoholic and sober them up for a week, they will still be judging their experience of life based on their old standard of “fun.”
So they will be sitting around, not drinking, and complaining that they are not having any fun in life. They will be bored and restless. They want to drink. They still judge their happiness based on whether or not they are drunk or not.
This takes time. It doesn’t change overnight. In order to change your idea of what is “fun” in recovery you have to reprogram your brain.
Now you might be wondering, how exactly do you reprogram your brain in recovery? Can you just make a snap decision that you don’t want to drinking to be your only source of fun any more? Can you just tell your brain that this is the new way that things are going to be? Will that work?
Of course that won’t work. You can’t just tell your brain to change immediately and expect it to listen. Instead, you have to retrain it. You have to show your mind that there are other ways to have fun in life. That there are other rewards out there in the world that don’t involve getting drunk and high on chemicals.
And so you have to do this, one day at a time, one experience at a time.
And it simply takes time.
So you take an alcoholic, you sober them up, then you start guiding them through life and showing them various experiences in which they get to enjoy different things. And all the while the alcoholic is sober and so they are not associating any of these new experiences with drinking alcohol.
And it takes time. So after a year of sober living, has the alcoholic made the leap to this new life? Most likely they have. If they haven’t, then they probably just haven’t gotten out there enough and done enough new things. You have to explore your world a bit. You have to get out there and try things, go see things, meet new people, get a taste of the sober life. And if you do enough of this exploration while maintaining sobriety then guess what? You will invariably start to enjoy life again.
This is what I never believed would happen for me. I never thought that I would be able to enjoy life again in sobriety if I was permanently sober with no hope for getting drunk or high. I thought I would just be miserable forever.
And instead, I started to explore my new world in recovery. And at first, everything was boring.
This is normal. You are alcoholic, and you are basing your idea of fun on getting hammered on booze. Of course everything is boring. The only thing that excites your alcoholic mind is drugs and booze.
But this changes. If you maintain sobriety, even for a few short months, you will force your brain to reprogram itself.
Now your job is simple–get out there and start living your life. Start exploring. Find new things to enjoy, to try out, to see. Some of it will be boring, but some of it will excite you.
And at first, none of it will excite you the way that alcohol and drugs did. But eventually it will. Because your standards will shift over time. Maybe this is what it means to “grow up?” I’m not really sure. But as you remain sober and start to explore you will learn to appreciate more subtle things in life: Dinner with an old friend and conversation. Exercise and the natural high that you get from working out. Time spent with friends or family. Or even helping others in recovery.
All of those things and more can become “fun” in recovery. But you have to give yourself a chance to detox from the drugs and alcohol. Not just short term detox, but you have to detox your lifestyle, your habits, your old life. So that new things can become interesting and fun for you again. And this is a process that simply takes time.
So you have to give yourself that chance. Meaning, you have to give yourself a chance to start enjoying “normal” things again in life, and that takes time. If you relapse before this happens then you lose any chance that you had at achieving this new life in sobriety.
The only way to really give yourself this chance is to stick it out and remain sober long enough for the miracle to happen.
Learning to reward yourself in healthy ways
You can still reward yourself in recovery. The rewards just have to change.
I have to admit that when I first got clean and sober, my new reward was food. Sweets. Or a fancy steak dinner. That was my new reward system for myself in early recovery, at least for a while.
Of course you can get addicted to food as well, so there is some danger in coming up with a new reward system for yourself. But for me it was definitely worth it to use this new reward system in order to get off of cigarettes. The smoking was killing me and eating sweets or steak every day was not nearly as detrimental to my health. It was far better for me to get off of the cigarettes at that point. The lessor of two evils, perhaps?
But it is also possible to reward yourself in ways that are completely healthy. For example, maybe your guilty pleasure is going to the movies. Or maybe you get a professional massage. Whatever the case is, you don’t necessarily have to indulge in unhealthy things in order to reward yourself. You can find healthy rewards that are still able to motivate you.
Indulging in things that are good for your recovery
When I first went for a jog I did not consider that to be a reward. In fact, it was downright painful. It was uncomfortable. I was out of shape and my entire body was screaming at me to just stop already. Jogging was not fun.
But it became fun. I kept doing it, and I kept doing it for long enough that eventually it was easy and rewarding. This took a long time, maybe over a year even. But suddenly I realized that I had been jogging for long enough that it was no longer a chore to me. Now it was free and easy and just part of my routine.
And it was a reward of sorts. Actually, a part of me still sort of dreads going out for a six mile run, but every time I get back from such a run I have an incredible endorphin rush that feels fantastic. Getting myself motivated to go out the door can still be tricky, but once I get back I am so glad that I did it. It feels fantastic.
So I believe it is possible to find rewards for yourself that are healthy in recovery. Sometimes you have to work at them for a long time before you get to the point where it feels rewarding though. All part of the lifelong challenge in recovery.
Learning to have fun in long term sobriety
I really think that the key is to use a volume approach in long term recovery.
In other words, do lots of things. You can’t just get sober and then complain that “the only thing that I like to do is drink alcohol and get high.” That attitude is not helping you.
Instead, you need to adopt a different attitude. The attitude you want to adopt is one that says: “Let’s see what I can try or learn about myself today.”
You need an attitude of exploration. You need to be willing to try new things in recovery.
Because there are going to be plenty of things that you try in recovery that turn out to be boring for you. And that is OK. Because there will also be a few things that you try in recovery that are really fun, that may even be healthy for you. Jogging was something like that for me. I had to break through this barrier and realize that jogging was not only healthy and good for my recovery, but was actually enjoyable too. I did not enjoy it though until I had practiced it for quite a while.
So maybe patience is really the lesson here, much as I know everyone hates to hear that. No one wants to be told that they need to be patient in order to have fun, right? No one wants to hear that.
But it would seem to be the truth. There is wisdom in that truth. If you do the things that you are supposed to do in recovery, eventually you will be having fun.
If you do the hard work in sobriety, eventually one day you will look back and realize that you are having fun.
You may not notice when this occurs. You may not realize when it happened, because when you started out in sobriety everything was boring. Nothing was fun in early recovery. That’s normal. You are alcoholic. The only thing that is “fun” during your first week of sobriety would be a relapse. Drinking would be fun. Nothing else is fun at that point though.
But over time this will change. In the long run, you will learn to have fun again in sobriety. It takes time. You have to give yourself a chance. You have to give yourself time for the miracle to happen.
The first thing that you need to do is to give yourself this break, to give yourself this chance. I had to commit to sobriety and total abstinence without really knowing for sure if I would ever be happy again in sobriety. That is a leap of faith. I was quitting drinking on the off chance that maybe I would not hate sobriety one day in the future. I honestly had no real faith that this would turn out to be the case, I was just doing it because I was so sick and tired of being miserable. But I had no hope that I could be happy again in recovery.
But happiness I found. It took some time. I can remember being in long term rehab, wondering when it might all change for me. Wondering if it would ever change for me. Wondering if I would ever be happy again. I was miserable during those first few weeks of sobriety. Because I was measuring my happiness based on how drunk I was at the time. And of course I was completely sober without any real hope of drinking again any time soon. So I declared myself to be miserable, even though a new world was slowly opening up all around me.
Pay attention to that new world. Watch sobriety start to reveal itself to you. There is this whole new world in recovery and it can be downright exciting, if you let it. But you have to let go of that old attitude, the one that says you are only happy if you are self medicating. You can find happiness in sobriety if you let go of your old life and your old attitude.
One of the nice things about pleasure in recovery is that you can actually remember it. When I had really good times in my addiction, the bad part was that I could never remember those good times! I had been too drunk and high to even remember what was going on. And that just makes no sense when you can experience the same sort of fun in sobriety, and you get to remember it all and cherish those memories instead.
When they told me this in early recovery and I was still stuck in denial, I said “yeah, right.” Because I did not believe that I could possibly have any real fun while being sober. I actually pitied sober people and felt bad for them because I thought that they were “missing out” on something by not getting trashed all the time like I was. But now that I am in recovery and I can have good clean fun without getting wasted I can see the fallacy of this thinking. What good is “having fun” if you get so trashed that you cannot remember any of it? Wouldn’t you rather be able to experience pleasure and remember it? This is one of the perks of being sober.
One of the other perks of sobriety is that the world opens up to you again in terms of pleasure. Alcohol and other drugs never really enhanced what I could do, but instead they always restricted it. For example, I would avoid most social outings because it was not convenient to drink alcohol, use drugs, and smoke cigarettes during them. Or it was a hassle to try to manage all of that drug intake while also interacting with the real world. Go to the movies? No thanks, I’ll stay here on the couch and drink. Go camping, or hiking, or mountain climbing? Well, do they have booze, and drugs, and do they cater to smokers? Can I use drugs and alcohol the entire time? Do I have to risk going without my supply, where I might have to be sober for more than two seconds? That was the kind of thinking that dominated my mind during my addiction. I did not want to go do things or go out anywhere because it might interfere with my drug and alcohol intake.
Instead, I think I would have preferred being hooked up to a drip IV in which drugs were just continuously fed into my system 24 hours each day. Just feed and water me periodically. Don’t bother me otherwise. I am trying to stay medicated. What kind of life is that? That’s not fun! There is no pleasure in that life.
What about you, have you learned how to find real pleasure in recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!