Boredom and Relapse
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 14, 2019
The excitement of chasing highs, and scheming to support an addiction creates boredom in recovery, often leading to relapse. We must rediscover passion while befriending the difficult emotions of living.
The hard and fast life of addiction is full of emotional swings—very high highs and low lows. The drug user forfeits the joys of homeostatic quietness for the excitement of chaos. Life swallowed in the throes of addiction is driven by powerful urges. Contrary to stereo types of laziness, the addict is active, scheming, hustling, and consuming. The habitual busyness, however, creates a nasty surprise in recovery—boredom. In recovery, days are monotonous, lacking constant stimulations. The quietness stirs feelings of emptiness; and a dire impulse to fill that existential hole.
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Over time, the joys of intoxication diminish. The euphoric highs become necessary fixes. The strung out existence becomes sorrowful, only brightened by paradisiacal dreams of a different life. The trauma of homelessness, hunger, broken relationships, and battles with the law take a toll. The weary mind needs escape from the consequences of the habitual escape. Often dreams of “when I am clean,” provides relief—a bright light in the future. These dreams prepare the individual for change (pre-contemplative stage). Many people, not just habitual drug users, escape disenchanting presents with hopes for an improved future. These dreams provide a motivational prick. There is a slight problem, we are terrible at predicting. Once we arrive at the destination, we discover reality a bit different than the magic kingdom of our dreams.
Daniel Gilbert reminds, “When we imagine the future, there is a whole lot missing, and the things that are missing matter” (2007, pg. 113). During addiction, we fail to predict the boredom.
Many people, not just habitual drug users, escape disenchanting presents with hopes for an improved future.
Sobriety is rife with troubles, too. Perhaps, the stresses and challenges of sober living is why we haven’t been sober. In recovery, life is further complicated with carryover crap from years of neglecting life; we forfeited development for escape. The recovering drug user must confront feelings of shame and inadequacy, along with new feelings of boredom.
The pleasures of sobriety are unremarkable compared to the wild sways of emotions. The drug crazed busy of chasing the next high provided the stimulation to avoid the raucously bubbling chaos floating in our head. Normal living, honestly, is a bit boring. Homeostatic existence is flat; but the flatness is what makes life predictable and manageable. Certainly, sober living isn’t bad and can be joyful—intimate relationships flourish, health strengthens, and finances balance. Our bodies and mind stabilize and rejuvenate in calmness. Hot fast living, although exciting, is destructive. The slow steady pace typically triumphs over time, soothing many of the disruptive emotions by creating of a better life.
Many of the expected joys, however, are not immediately available. We’ve detoxed and are clean; but still exist in the old world. Life is empty. Our pastime conversations of jail, encounters with the law, and bad highs no longer seem appropriate. Old patterns of interacting spark discomfort and judgmental remarks. New social circles remind us of the differences, giving power to hideous feelings of shame. The biological pulls of chemical addiction have been broken, but habitual escapes remain strongly enforce. Triggered emotions often give rise to feelings that mirror the chemical withdrawal, beckoning a return to the past—relapse.
Years of heavy drug use tears through our lives, destroying other passions, nothing else matters. Previous enlivening thoughts of old hobbies, friends and amusements no longer elicit arousal. We just sit in sobriety alone, afraid and bored. The joys of sobriety that motivated change, now we have arrived, appear illusionary; while memories of the painful aspects of addiction fade. Motivations shift. Relapse appears attractive, luring us back to the darkness. Our fabulous efforts to recover painfully collide with a terrible reality of not fitting in this bright and cheery world.
These early moments are critical according to Mary Addenbrooke. She explains in her intriguing book Survivors of Addiction:
The early days after stopping drug use are crucial in the life of a person who has been addicted because they either lead to further discouragement and disappointment in the form of a relapse or, alternatively, the groundwork is laid for continuing recovery.
It is a time of unique vulnerability for the person who has just stopped, for they plummet into a time of radical readjustment without the familiar prop of the drug. If the pitfalls of relapse are avoided successfully, the experience of meeting the challenges successfully can form a basis for building confidence (2011, p. 89).
Hold on. Be patient. The dawning moments of recovery are not the crowning experience. The reward comes later, but only to the persistent, who lifts his or her gaze beyond the bleakness of the moment.
Relapse, just like addiction, has many causes. The powerful non-salient states of boredom are often overlooked. Many believe that once the chemical addiction is broken, the rewards graciously are given. Yet, instead of joy, the vacuum of emptiness is felt, and we seek resolution—excitement. The same impulsivity that drove us to addiction returns driving us back to using—relapse. Perhaps, a return to the same drug, or this time, to something different. Destructive replacements come in many forms, not just drugs or alcohol. Behavioral addictions (gambling, sex, gaming) also distract and disrupt, wreaking havoc on healthy recovery.
"An idle mind is the devil's workshop" H.G. Bohn
In boredom, we seek escape. We can alleviate this strong pull to habitual pasts through two approaches. We should utilize both.
The first is engagement. We must find new passions, other activities that arouse our system. We need more than the typical recovery work (group sessions, CBT, a sponsor). These are important, reminding us of the pain of the past, and provide acceptance and understanding. But we also need life development activities. Everybody does, whether in addiction recovery or not: gainful employment, enjoyable pass times, and growing social connections. We must preplan responses to boredom with planned activities that can temporarily distract. Eventually, we discover new passions, new arousals, new excitements.
The other answer is changing our relationship with emotions, befriending feelings of sadness, fear and boredom. Internal stirrings are not evil. We can experience discomfort without the necessity of an escape. True courage is walking into the discomfort. We can feel emptiness and sit with it, gathering wisdom from the intimate contact.
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." ~ Blaise Pascal
Our internal worlds can haunt. We’re afraid to sit with the internal pounding, reverberating through our bodies, so we run. We habitually seek anything and everything to blunt the noise. Our pattern of escape simultaneously dulls pain in the present while creating more pain in the future. This impulsive drive to sooth begins a cycle of replacing pain with addictions that creating more pain. We may kick an insidious habit of intravenous drug use, only to lapse into other debilitating addiction. Cured of one addiction but still living in servitude.
Why? Because we can’t sit quietly in a room alone.
Our pattern of escape simultaneously dulls pain in the present while creating more pain in the future.
I recently read a paper, examining low-frequency heroin users (Wagner et al., 2014) Sadly, the participants of the study that quit habitual use of heroin continued to live in squalor. None of them were rewarded with the joys of a flourishing life. They continued to struggle. They continued to rely on addictions—just different ones.
Many of these periodic heroin users were previously flow blown users. They quit the daily use only to switch to other intoxicants. The difficulties of their lives only marginally improved. They exercised enormous strength to move through the dope sickness of heroin withdrawal but still failed in recovery. Perhaps, their use of heroin was just a symptom of a deeper illness. These survivors needed something (anything) to blunt the feelings of reality.
This study provides both hope and a warning. Hope that heroin addiction isn’t a life sentence, many have escaped. But also, we find a warning, reminding that kicking the primary addiction isn’t enough for complete recovery.
Emotions can twist our bodies into knots and beg for relief. Painful pasts continually rumble in the present, hoping to forestall the pain, so we run and hide, creating barriers between our conscious brain and the billions of sensory bits flowing through our bodies.
Being bored invites quietness and quietness isn’t pleasant for a tormented mind. The stillness isn’t the promised peace. A lack of external sensory noise forces attention to the frightful vibrations of feeling. Without the distraction of busyness, barriers between mind and body collapse. Detox forces a collision between awareness and feeling. A ghastly surprise for the detoxing drug user is that the years of intoxication provided a convenient escape.
After the Titanic collided with an iceberg, several compartments of the massive ship took on water. The water pulled the front of the ship down, jetting the rear up in a vertical position. The bow full of water and the stern full of air fought between sinking and floating. The opposing forces ripped the ship in two. The stern, relieved of the watery weight of the bow, returned to an upright position on top of the water. The bow quickly sank. Passengers, lucky enough to secure a spot on a lifeboat, watching the disaster, reported feeling a wave of relief, believing the remaining passengers would now be saved from the tragic history. However, within minutes, the badly damaged stern, took on water and sank to its watery grave.
Detoxing is similar to the horrific sinking of this luxurious ocean liner. As the bow of our addiction rips free, we momentarily feel relief. We cheer of finding salvation, only to find that our stern is severely damaged, without rescue we also will sink. Just like the street heroin users, the murky waters still beckon for our souls. Our work in recovery must continue beyond the painful withdrawal.
Success demands we cautiously stand guard against counterfeit replacements. Life is full of nasty streams of sensory information that potentially can burn injury into our minds and sting our souls. We need help from supportive others and trained professionals to progress through these pulsating feelings. We can sit with these feelings. Maybe only for a few minutes at first, but slowly expand our capabilities, and eventually find joy in the dynamic feelings of living.
As we integrate feelings into our life, we emerge from the certain watery grave, and build a new life. The voices of menacing addictions soften, fading into the background, while the harmony of the present grows in prominence. When healed, we can sit in the quietness and hear the music. The boredom of balanced emotions transforms from unbearable emptiness to rejuvenating peace, testifying we have arrived, the joys we hoped for can now be experienced in their boring wonderfulness.
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Addenbrooke, M. (2011). Survivors of Addiction: Narratives of Recovery. Hove, England: Routledge. Retrieved from Questia.
Bohn, H.G. (1855) Hand-Book of Proverbs
Gilbert, D. (2007) Stumbling on Happiness. Vintage.
Wenger, L., Lopez, A., Comfort, M., & Kral, A. (2014). The phenomenon of low-frequency heroin injection among street-based urban poor: Drug user strategies and contexts of use. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25(3), 471-479.
Topics: Addiction, Relapse, Emotions