Should We All Be in Recovery?

Madeleine Shaw
17 min readMay 9, 2024

Quitting drinking is proving to be the beginning of addressing some other “everyday” addictions

Photo: Felicia Chang Photography

I recently celebrated my third sobriety anniversary, following years of yo-yo-like anxiety about my daily wine habit.

The first couple of years after I quit were mostly euphoric, punctuated with brief spells of sadness at no longer fitting into my former pinot gris-loving identity. The pink cloud had long passed into plain-old normal until a few months ago, when I began taking a look at some of my other habits through a recovery lens.

By recovery lens I mean that thanks to having spent several years contending with one addiction, I can now more readily identify similar patterns when they show up elsewhere.

I’m now pulling a thread that started with alcohol and has me wondering if recovery can be a helpful framework when it comes to addressing other unhealthy patterns. Specifically, I’m currently examining my relationships with my phone, social media and hustle culture.

If we define addiction as a condition where a substance, behaviour or belief controls us and compromises our wellbeing and peace of mind, then I am absolutely addicted to these things.

In citing these particular examples, I do not intend in any way to minimize that for many, addiction is a life-or-death situation. Rather, I’m trying to explore it as a spectrum where the less obviously harmful forms of it (shopping, for example, as opposed to heroin) are dismissed as no big deal, not a “true” addiction, simply normal or even fun. As such, the unspoken dictate is that they should be tolerated, even when we are experiencing negative consequences or feeling out of control.

When using an illicit drug, you likely know that you’re engaging in something risky and potentially harmful. Nobody is telling you that heroin will get you more friends, that it’s an indispensable tool, or a classy gift to take to your next dinner party.

I want to explore where we’re at with more socially sanctioned substances and behaviours like overwork, multitasking, binary thinking or body image obsession. Perfectionism, toxic individualism, needing to always be right, rage, sugar, video games. Codependency and other not-awesome relationship dynamics. This is a game that everyone can play, so don’t be shy about adding your own examples!

I’m not saying that any of these things are necessarily or universally addictive; I’m merely observing that for me, many of them follow a hankering-buzz-regret loop that reminds me eerily of alcohol.

“Everyday” addictions, if you will. Bad habits. Or just things that we simply do without much discernment, things that might seem fun at first, or just what everybody does. Their normalcy can be deceptive, though, making it harder to spot when we start to lose our grip and they begin to compromise our wellbeing.

As was the case with alcohol, the fact that it’s legal, free of warning labels and widely accepted as a source of good times absolutely played a role in leading me astray. It also made it harder to put up my hand when I recognized that it was becoming harmful and I was no longer able to take it or leave it.

So how can you tell when you’re veering into an unhealthy place? Obviously there is no cut-and-dry way to know when you’ve started to cross the line from recreational to out of control. That said, I do have some thoughts.

A French term for uncomfortable is mal à l’aise, meaning “ill at ease.” In English, the related term malaise is defined as “a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being.” For me, these terms are a fitting way to describe when something feels off in this way.

As in: I am ill at ease with how obsessed I can become with social media. I am ill at ease with my internalized belief that my self-worth is predicated on financial productivity. I am ill at ease when I catch myself taking my phone into the bathroom with me.

I once heard it said that “rock bottom is when we tell ourselves the truth.” Rather than a drastic, humiliating incident, this sense of malaise is a marker of truth when it comes to determining whether I am engaging with something in a problematic way.

Here are a few questions I ask myself to see if something is going off the rails.

How do I feel when I am engaged in the activity or belief system? How do I feel afterward? Does it support my betterment and wellbeing as a human?

Am I being coerced, manipulated or taken advantage of through my participation?

Is it what I actually need, or is it a substitute for something else? Is it taking more than it gives?

Or flip it around: would it feel good to liberate myself from this?

Note that these questions point to impacts far outside a reductive focus on addiction. The question: Am I an alcoholic? and its implication that there was an absolute yes or no answer to it, kept me stuck for years. There was no room in it for my reality, which was more like a darkening shade of grey. What I’m proposing here is exploration, not judgement.

What if we are all–in varying ways and degrees–”addicted” in this more spectral, socially accepted way, to something? What relief might come from framing our unhealthy patterns in this way? And what healing may then become available by seeing ourselves as being in recovery from them?

And if the notion of identifying as being addicted or in recovery feels like more than where you’re at, how about simply curious? Sober curiosity is a wonderful place where there is room for all experiences. Rather than seeking a label or prescribed solution, it asks instead: What’s this about for me?

Either way, I’d rather take the hint of being ill at ease than wait until rock bottom disaster hits to take action. All we need to do is hit pause, slow down and check in with ourselves without shame or judgement. Deeply, gently notice. Don’t make assumptions, compare yourself to others or tell yourself the same story that you always do. These things are different for everyone, and can also evolve over time.

As with my journey in reckoning with my relationship with alcohol, following paths laid by fellow travellers has greatly furthered my knowledge and healing. In my case, that looks like doing ongoing reading and podcast-listening and seeking feedback from a few key sober pals and supporters.

Gaining a better understanding of things like how social media platforms and business models work, and checking in with my beliefs about what it means to be an entrepreneur have been invaluable. Bonus: the neuroscience of addiction is fascinating!

How did I get here? Unfurling how I have come to this “recovery from everyday addictions” line of thinking stretches decades and presents a revealing timeline when woven through my path to sobriety:

  • 1993. Start my first company and begin identifying as an entrepreneur. The internet is not yet a thing.
  • 2006. Join Facebook.
  • 2005–2021. Slowly transition from occasional, celebratory partaker to daily, non-negotiable wine o’clock drinker.
  • Early 2000s. Start to feel the push of hustle culture in the entrepreneurial space. Largely driven by Silicon Valley tech startup culture, the overall vibe is accelerate, disrupt, and scale.
  • 2007–2024. Enjoy the buzz of others’ adulation for my social media posts, while becoming increasingly ill at ease with feelings raised around comparison, missing out and inadequacy. And: moments of joy seeing friends doing wonderful things!
  • Circa 2015. Begin wondering: Am I am alcoholic? Google various diagnostic tests. Compare myself to other ‘real’ alcoholics I have known and consider how their drinking is different from mine. Determine that I’m not like them (you know, other than that I am likewise a human being regularly consuming an addictive substance that I can no longer take or leave.) Conclude that I’m fine: I’m just someone who works hard and appreciates white wine. Then feels like crap and vows to drink less, but somehow never does.
  • 2016–2019. Do Dry January (DJ) in the quest for an answer to my persistent self-questioning. Feel amazing for 31 days, then resume my old drinking pattern, telling myself Nah, you’re good! And yet, the feeling amazing part of the exercise is a huge insight and inspiration. A potent seed is planted: what might it be like to feel this good all the time?
  • April 2020. Following a wildly successful 100 Day alcohol-free challenge, feeling wondrous for having rid myself of booze for an astonishing 3-and-a-bit months, I succumb to a cold bottle of champagne to celebrate my daughter’s 15th birthday. I mean, 100 days, right? I definitely do not have a drinking problem. And yet: there I was, “celebrating” the person most precious to me with my drug of choice. This moment revealed the truth, once and for all: alcohol had the upper hand.
  • 2019–2021. Read Quit Like a Woman, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, We Are The Luckiest, Nothing Good Can Come From This and a host of other ‘quit lit’ memoirs and podcasts. Become fascinated by the idea of being liberated from booze and my incessant self-questioning about it.
  • April 14th, 2021. One year and four days following my champagne-laced moment of truth, I attend my first online sobriety meeting, and am graced by the presence of Hope (her actual name!), who is celebrating her one-year sobriety anniversary. I am consumed with a desire to be like her, arriving glowing and triumphant one year hence, finally free. In that moment, like a prisoner whose cell door is magically opened, I recognize my chance to escape. All the games and trials and ‘not sure when but soon’s become a pure, sweet, simple Now. I have not touched alcohol since.
  • Thereafter: discover that being sober is even better than I had hoped (there she is again!), and that writing about it is a form of healing. Sharing my journey creates a strong, unexpected bond with others in similar straits, who had trouble identifying as someone with a drinking problem, but knew on some level that they were not ok. Overcoming an addiction is huge; freeing yourself from shame about it is the icing on the cake. Become increasingly proud and vocal about sobriety and recovery.
  • All the while: continue to struggle with social media. A panicked voice shows up in my head: Shouldn’t I be on Twitter? I’m missing out on things! People are tagging me and I’m not engaging! How will I be able to share my writing if I’m not using social? A successful post: people love me! I’m amazing! A bypassed one: I’m a failure, a loser, irrelevant. I even resort to social media coaching in order to get with the program. And yet something inside me always ultimately recoils. Continue to blame myself.
  • 2021. Delete Facebook and Instagram from my phone. Mixed feelings ensue.
  • 2023. Sell my business. Begin experimenting with new identities. The first time that I say I am a writer as opposed to I am an entrepreneur when introducing myself brings tears to my eyes.
  • 2023. Read Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and What to do About It by Johann Hari. I have been aware of his work in the addiction space for some time (he’s the one who said “the opposite of addiction is connection” in a widely viewed TED talk.) I had an instant, visceral reaction when I learned about this book. In a similar response to reading Quit Like a Woman, I saw myself in so many of his stories, and was finally able to understand that my social media malaise was largely by their purveyors’ design, as opposed to my own shortcomings. Came to understand that my attention is being deftly manipulated, with the very specific intent of making money off it.
  • 2024. Read How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I found this book to be a perfect followup to Stolen Focus, in that SF helped me to understand the problem (or some of them) and How to Do Nothing felt like a creative balm and antidote. Author Jenny Odell also introduced me to the idea of resistance through things like paying deep attention to birds and my local geography, flora and fauna. My oppressor also now had a name: the attention economy. This is a dense, imaginative book that I plan to read at least twice.
  • 2024. Quit Facebook and Instagram (I have never been much of a user of any other platforms.) Feel relieved, with some lingering anxiety about missing out. I am still using LinkedIn and Medium, which feel helpful and relatively mutualistic.
  • 2024. Read Rest is Resistance: a Manifesto. When I was still on Instagram, I enjoyed following The Nap Ministry. If you’re not familiar, I highly recommend it, or even better, read this book by its founder, Tricia Hersey. Again, a perfect followup to my last recommendation, with a critically important social justice message. Her writing is lush, hypnotic and poetic. Of all the layers of information and calls to change, this one has affected me the most, and helped me to see how all of the aspects of my recovery journey are connected.

As a result of all of this, what recovery now means to me includes things like reclaiming and nurturing sleep, focus, attention, sensitivity, presence, engagement, pleasure and slowness. These are not “coping mechanisms”, but rather deeply nourishing acts of self care and resistance to things that do not support me.

I’m thinking of it collectively as attunement. I am attuning to things that are serving me, the planet and my fellow humans, and divesting myself from things that are not. It’s simple, yet is taking me to some uncharted new depths when I think about it in this way.

I am not disrupting or dismantling. Rather, I am discovering, releasing, receiving, expanding and allowing. Or just being in a state of gentle flow and seeing what happens next.

As mentioned earlier, one of the things that sounded the loudest alarm bell for me when I was drinking was the Am I am alcoholic? mental loop. Between doing it and worrying about doing it, I literally could not stop thinking about drinking. It increasingly demanded my attention while simultaneously impeding my focus, health and happiness.

I also have this feeling with social media. Despite the fact that I find it liberating to write about deeply personal topics and share them publicly online, I have seldom felt truly comfortable sharing what’s happening in my personal life in this way. Call it a quirk: while I’m delighted to broadcast the fact that alcohol was a problem for me, I can’t bring myself to post images of my kid’s high school graduation. As I noted earlier, these things are different for everyone.

Social media has been an awkward dance pretty much right from the get-go, when I was informed by a self-proclaimed expert (circa 2007) that I should accept Facebook friend requests from anyone who asked in order to support my work as an entrepreneur (there’s a slice of hustle culture right there!)

Accepting this advice had the effect of blurring the distinction of what the term ‘friend’ actually meant to me. I found myself feeling awkward and exposed when sharing my life with–essentially–a bunch of curious onlookers in addition to actual flesh-and-blood people with whom I have meaningful relationships.

Other examples of social/hustle malaise showed up in concepts like personal brand and thought leadership. I knew that it was important for me to try to cultivate these things, and yet they still felt performative and even potentially deceptive in the context of social media.

And yet, I’m someone with wonderful friends, loads of opinions and passionate interests. How to square wanting to share these things without feeling like jumping out of my skin? If we accept that the medium is the message, the one I was increasingly getting was proceed with caution.

Over time, posting increasingly felt like trying to wear an ill-fitting, scratchy suit. Times when I found myself sucked into my phone to share a ‘perfect’ moment began to feel like a loss of actually being in that moment. I chalked my discomfort up to self-blaming things like insecurity, ineptitude with all things tech, and my age.

Looking back, it’s truly incredible to me how much time and energy I wasted trying to get the hang of social media and berating myself for my failure to do so.

One of the last straws to modifying my usage was an urgent feeling of preoccupation similar to when I was still drinking: how many views, likes, comments? I would catch myself constantly refreshing my screen, looking for another hit: I was not ok.

It reminded me of the days when I began to wish that I could still be a ‘take it or leave it’ drinker. How and when had it crossed the line from fun to frightening?

In case you glossed over the subtitle of How to do Nothing, it’s Resisting the Attention Economy. If the term Attention Economy or, even more scarily–Surveillance Capitalism–is new to you, I encourage you to investigate. Stolen Focus is a great place to start.

It’s basically the stark reality that social media users are not only paying to participate with their time, but moreover that interaction is carefully monitored to maximize “engagement” (how long we stay; how often we look, hover, comment, ‘Like’ and so on.) Users’ attention is then manipulated by sophisticated algorithms to feed them increasingly extreme examples of related content and images, which is highly effective at keeping them there for longer.

This functionality intentionally preys on a natural feature of the human brain called negativity bias. It’s the basic fact that our attention is more drawn to something horrible or violent than to something beautiful or peaceful. Platforms like YouTube, Facebook and X are abundantly aware of this, and create algorithms accordingly. The longer we stay, the more money they make: it’s that simple.

All of our engagement and personal data are assiduously collected and our patterns and preferences then packaged and sold to advertisers. If you have ever wondered how Facebook and Instagram are so absurdly profitable while offering a “free” service, it’s because your attention is essentially the product, or at least the raw material. For me, figuring this out was akin to learning that the ethanol (alcohol) in wine is carcinogenic.

My discomfort and manipulated attraction to a threat to my wellbeing is someone’s business plan. In my current thinking, this is formeting addiction for profit. This is capitalism at its worst. I am literally sick of it.

I know for sure that I am more present in my life because I no longer struggle with alcohol. When I was still drinking, between ‘taking the edge off,’ sleep deprivation and a perpetual low-grade hangover, I was simply less there. Being more there, rather than being tiresome, is exciting and wondrous.

Being (mostly–I’m still in the curiosity stage) off social media is similar: no more “quick looks” at Instagram that somehow morph into 45 minutes followed by “wait, how did that happen?” No more lingering insecurities about someone’s ideal holiday or perfect home, no more doom-scrolling.

Do I miss useful and uplifting posts from people I love and admire? For sure. I don’t feel as euphorically free the way I do as a non-drinker. Maybe moderation can actually be a thing for me with social? Maybe it will eventually be as good as being sober from alcohol? Or something else? All I know is that I need to pay attention, listen to myself and find out: to recover, in other words.

Speaking of attention, I now see it as one of my most valuable possessions. I am increasingly judicious about where I choose to “pay” it, while being mindful of allowing space for daydreaming, random conversations with strangers, silence and simply seeing what happens next. And yes, sometimes a sugar hit, a new item of clothing, some mindless TV or an ill-advised movie choice. I’m no saint.

And then there’s hustle culture.

Having opted out of what I perceived as numbing, greed-fueled corporate work very early in my career, I thought that entrepreneurship would allow for greater freedom and creativity. As the dot-com boom was building in the 90s, I was early in my career as a young small business owner and very much bought into its glamorous hype. I proceeded to try to emulate a machinelike “24/7” work ethic and to embrace the ethos of “disruption” and “killing it” as hallmarks of success.

I started my first company because some products that I created brought about a profound, healing change for me. Mass producing them and doing everything that I could to encourage people to try them in case they might enjoy the same experience was my North Star.

When I first set out, I understood the necessary path was to: 1) make a high quality, unique product or service for a cost that is acceptable to customers and yet allows you to pay you and your team reasonably 2) compellingly communicate its value to a relevant audience, 3) find the most sustainable ways to transact these activities and 4) rinse and repeat.

In the early 2000s, the Dragons Den reality TV phenomenon began to popularize a very different entrepreneurial roadmap. 1) Pitch hard and fast to raise investor capital, 2) Scale the business as quickly and dramatically as possible and 3) Sell the business, realizing a significant financial gain. By this measure, a higher quality product or more beneficial customer relationship is not of value. The point of the exercise had shifted to extracting as much value from the company as possible, as quickly as possible.

This change left me feeling empty, disappointed and kind of like I’d been had. The thing is, though, that I love to work, and see it ideally as a noble activity, even in its humblest forms. The tanglible act of creating something of value, exchanging it for a different form of value, and seeing its impact has always felt purposeful and satisfying to me. The new ethos had a circus-like energy to it that I did not relate to.

I did my best to emulate the “move fast and break things” credo, but found myself frustrated, disillusioned and depressed. And yet everywhere I looked, there it was: another pitch competition, another “hockey stick” growth projection, another ‘accelerator’ program to apply for. Clearly I wasn’t going fast enough. Is anyone? I wondered.

At networking events, when I would ask peers and colleagues how they were, a common response was “busy” or “exhausted.” Rather than being shared with sadness or regret, however, their voices rang with pride. As with social media, it never felt aligned to me. I might have been talking the talk, but my heart was never in it. I felt like a fraud, and then would berate myself for falling into impostor syndrome.

A few years ago I learned about British eco-feminist economist Kate Raworth. In a wonderful 2018 TED talk, she argues that companies–and a healthy economy overall–should be designed to thrive, not grow. Interestingly, she even uses the phrase “addicted to growth” to describe the state of our politicians, society and economy.

Raworth makes the case that this rapacious, extractive obsession with scaling is destroying the planet and that in order to create a just and sustainable economic and environmental future we need to abandon it as our unquestioned goal. Instead, she argues (and I wholeheartedly agree), we need to look to regenerative, mutualistic models that prioritize human and planetary sustainability.

As a sober person in the entrepreneurial space, I want to recover from hustle culture. As much as capitalism is a deeply harmful system, until it’s magically in the rear-view mirror, we need to try to change its governing values. Looking to ideas like Raworth’s as our guideposts feels not only morally right, but vitally necessary as a matter of survival on a liveable planet.

Questioning, resisting and healing from normative behaviours that we know in our hearts are not serving us are profound acts of non-conformity and liberation.

The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol is the subheading to Quit Like a Woman. It could work just as well with The Radical Choice to Be Present IRL in a Culture Obsessed with Online Status or The Radical Choice to Slow Down in a Culture Obsessed with Productivity.

I’m not saying that being sober qualifies me to do and say these things. It’s more like it’s given me a framework and language, sharpened my curiosity, and opened me up further.

This is what recovery feels like to me now: I’m stronger, clearer and less stressed and distracted. More relaxed, open, and curious. Quieter. Savouring. I have more power to see and change or relinquish what I perceive as broken or unhelpful. I am becoming more closely attuned to the things that make me feel most alive.

It’s been many moons since I came to see that sobriety is about so much more than refraining from doing something harmful. For me, becoming sober-curious was a critical jumping-off point that has led to a richer relationship with the worlds within and around me.

Sobriety and recovery are exciting, constantly unfolding adventures that are light years away from releasing alcohol from my life. I once heard someone say on a podcast that recovery makes possible everything that one’s drug of choice promises. This, I thought to myself. This.

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Madeleine Shaw

Entrepreneur, feminist, gardener. Author of The Greater Good: Social Entrepreneurship for Everyday People Who Want to Change the World.