The Escape Habit: Using Drugs and Alcohol to Avoid Life
When you learn to stop escaping life, you will find it is much richer
We all wish we could mentally check out some days. Sometimes days run together without excitement. The minutiae of everyday life, all the little tasks that must be done to keep ourselves fed, clothed, and safe from the elements are often exhausting. Then there are the major events that cause us additional pain and uncertainty: a broken-down vehicle, sudden unemployment, a nasty breakup. With so many responsibilities, stresses, and disappointments, is it any wonder that humans enjoy the escape that drugs and alcohol can temporarily provide?
Why we like to escape
The human brain is an amazing organ. It has allowed us to do incredible things that no other animal could. But the brain has its drawbacks. It has no off switch, for one. We are often plagued by unpleasant thoughts and feelings that are all too tempting to run away from. Many of us learn in adolescence that drugs and alcohol do a decent job of turning down the noise of daily life, allowing us to focus on other things or focus on nothing at all. They are a quick and easy fix, making them all the more seductive.
We like to escape lots of uncomfortable feelings: boredom, loneliness, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, past mistakes, or a future that can’t get here fast enough. For me, getting loaded was a way to put those feelings on mute. If I was stressed about something, I could use alcohol to numb it. If I was bored, I could get drunk or stoned to pass the time. If I couldn’t sleep, I could get so fucked up I would pass out.
Furthermore, drugs and alcohol gave me something to look forward to at the end of the day. The thing about addiction is that, at a certain point, instead of using a substance to enhance an activity, the substance use becomes the activity. You don’t have to worry about pursuing other interests. I was perfectly fine watching the same YouTube videos over and over again as long as I was drunk. I could avoid my lack of fulfillment by getting a buzz on so strong that I didn’t care. Drinking and drugging allowed me to ignore the fact that, stripped down and laid bare, my life was void of purpose.
Getting sober helped me see this clearly. The problem, however, was that I was so used to escaping my life that sudden sobriety made me restless. I could see how hollow my existence was. I knew I was going to have to make big changes if I wanted sobriety to stick. Removing the chemicals was a start, but it wasn’t enough on its own.
Embracing a life fully felt
If your main reason for using drugs or alcohol is to escape, it’s going to catch up to you. You’re on the road to a real problem, and you’re probably better off getting clean.
It’s not so obvious how you should spend your time when you get sober, though, especially if you get sober without the help of AA or a similar recovery program. Lots of people get sober on their own, and that’s fine. But if you don’t start changing the way you live and view the world, relapse is more than likely.
If you are new to sobriety, especially in the first 60 to 90 days, I have a few suggestions that will help fill your time and give you a sense of purpose as you adjust to the sober life.
Keep your schedule full: There’s no getting around it, the first few sober weeks are going to be a bit uncomfortable. Not only will you experience the physical withdrawal of the drug, but you will also realize how much extra time you now have. For me, getting loaded was the main event of the day. All the Netflix and social media I did under the influence were mindless, passive activity. When I got sober, those things didn’t have much appeal to me anymore. Sitting alone in my house each night with nothing to do was torture.
So it’s a good idea to make yourself stay busy. Sit down and write out a plan of how you will occupy yourself those first few weeks sober. Get out of the house if you can. Go to the gym. Take long walks. Meet a friend for coffee. Go to an AA meeting if that’s your thing. If you do stay home, make sure you find something else to do besides watch TV. Bust out a puzzle. Cook an adventurous meal. Study a language online. Call your family. Idleness and boredom are sure to bring thoughts of checking out with old habits.
Start developing a long-term recovery plan: The suggestion above is only a short-term strategy. You won’t be able to distract yourself forever. You need to develop a new sense of purpose for sobriety to stick. You need to change your outlook.
There are several components to a sobriety plan. You’ll need to identify your triggers. You’ll want to develop guiding principles or a spiritual plan. You’ll need to find a community of other sober people to lean on. You’ll need hobbies and a daily routine. I won’t lay out all the details in this post, but you can find a good outline with a template here.
Learn to feel uncomfortable emotions: This is the big one. The allure (but also the problem) of drugs and alcohol is that you can push away those uncomfortable feelings of boredom, stress, loneliness, anger, etc, without addressing them. But it’s only a temporary fix. Wake up the next day and the issues are still there — only now you’ve added a hangover.
Learning to accept and feel uncomfortable feelings is so important in sobriety, but it isn’t easy. It takes conscious effort. Urge surfing is one method you can try. The basic premise is that you allow yourself to fully feel the craving. When you can accept the way you are feeling, you’ll often find the craving dissipates.
Urge surfing helps put your cravings into perspective. What is a craving anyway? What happens if you don’t give in to it? Will you explode? If you can learn to sit with craving and accept it, you’ll find it has no power over you and will dissipate on its own.
Meditation is another practice that can move you into the present moment and put you at peace with your body and mind. There are lots of ways to approach meditation, so I won’t tell you how to do it, but the internet is awash with information on it.
Thriving in sobriety is about being able to sit with yourself when those uncomfortable emotions show up, and they will. Sometimes life is just boring. Sometimes feeling sad or angry is inevitable. These emotions are not bad in themselves. They may be indicators that you need to take action. Other times they are meant to be felt for their own sake. If you can learn to sit with these emotions without grabbing for the escape hatch, you can experience the clarity of what might need to be done to make it better. That’s an important life skill that too many in addiction don’t have.
Switch your focus to self-care: Let me state the obvious: drug and alcohol use is unhealthy. They wreak havoc on the brain and body. The best way to counter the destructive nature of addiction is to flip that destruction on its head by treating your brain and body with kindness. It becomes much harder to justify ingesting poisons when you are in a habit of treating yourself well.
This is why many addicts turn to green smoothies or distance running when they get into the swing of sobriety. Self-care also gives you something to focus on so you aren’t stuck on the couch twiddling your thumbs. The better you start to feel in sobriety, the more you realize what you have to lose.
I suggest you start slow. Don’t commit to an extreme powerlifting routine right out of the gate. You can start with something as simple as a walk around the block or skipping that third cupcake. Like anything, it gets easier to build on as you go. You don’t need to change into a health nut overnight. Start small, but get started all the same.
A sober life is worth living. It is a life that is fully felt, fully experienced. When you learn to stop escaping life, you will find it is much richer. It takes time and practice, but the payoff is better than any high you can experience with chemicals.