Sober is Depressing

The other day a client asked me if being sober means being happy. This is a tough question. I don’t have a drug problem but does that mean I’m happy? Of course not. Some days I’m elated and some days I am grumpy and unpleasant to be around. These are just feelings, they come and go. But if you asked me if I’m generally happy with my life I would say “very much so”. Sometimes before you give up a drink or drug you want to know that you are doing it for something better. Unfortunately for some people that “better” life doesn’t come. A lot of people resent recovery but recovery alone doesn’t make you happy. It’s like “welcome to the misery called life but now you have to do it all sober”. But is sober life really that miserable? If you were completely happy using drugs or drinking would you even consider getting sober? I believe what makes recovery boring and depressing is a combination of unrealistic expectations and fear of what a sober tomorrow will bring.
If you haven’t read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, I highly recommend it. Gilbert’s fundamental principle is that we are the only ape who looked forward. Our brains are constantly “nexting” and imagining the future. We spend 20% of our day imagining tomorrow. This is not anything new. What’s interesting is that we are mostly wrong about what the future will bring and/or about how we are going to feel about it when it does happen, hence setting ourselves up for disappointment and unhappiness. Basically, our unique ability to imagine the future is the very thing that sets us up for unhappiness. How? For one, our imagination is subjective. Not only are we overly optimistic about our future, we overestimate how much we are going to LIKE our futures. This is very true for relationships. How many times have you heard your girlfriends say “he was not what I imagined him to be!”? Well, he is who he his, the only thing fooling you is your own imagination about who he would be with you and how you would feel about it. I hear my clients say “recovery is not what I expected it to be”. If your addiction is creating problems in your life choosing recovery is not going to automatically make all problems disappear. You still have to deal with the daily responsibilities and struggles that everyone else faces like work, bills, childcare, taxes, illness, parenting, relationships, loneliness and just general human suffering.
The reason we’re so oblivious to how faulty our future predictions are, is the fact that we mistake our imagination for reality. Imagining tomorrow happens almost automatically. Our frontal lobe is programmed to imagine and think about the future just like our heart is programmed to pump blood. That’s why meditation is so difficult because it forces our frontal lobe to be in the present and STOP thinking about the future (I thought there was something wrong with me!). Also another reason why our imagination is faulty is that it is based on the present. If you go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, you will most likely largely overestimate how much you need to buy. This is the reason why it’s hard for people to reinvent themselves and imagine doing anything that is not based on what they do now or what they have done in the past. This is why dreaming big is usually out of our realm of dreaming.
So how to make recovery fun?
First, check your expectations at the door.You are not entitled to an “easier” life just because you are choosing a healthier path. In fact, you are not entitled at all. No one is. Our belief that good things happen when we make healthy choices is faulty too. Sometimes terrible things happen to people who have flown “straight” all their lives and have done everything “right”. Sometimes “bad” people get away with murder. The sooner you accept that life is not supposed to be fair the sooner you’ll be on your way to finding happiness.
Secondly, stop comparing recovery to your memory of being high. Notice I said memory. Here’s the tricky part. We tend to remember the pleasant parts about our addiction and forget the unpleasant parts that made us want to quit in the first place. Pain is easier to forget. Unless you prompt your brain to remember. Also our memory is very unreliable. It remembers your addiction being fun but was it really? Question your own memory and you’ll get to the truth.
Thirdly, having fun sometimes is learned. Initially, the lack of drugs or alcohol will make you depressed no matter how awesome your life is. This is simply brain chemistry. You have to give your brain some precious TIME to break old pathways and create new ones. For instance, if you have been using opiates you have significantly effected your brains ability to produce natural opiates (endorphins) which kill pain and make us happy. You have to learn to be patient with your brain. It’ll come around. Time is crucial.
Most importantly, don’t use your unhappiness or boredom as an excuse to go back to drugs. But if you do, it doesn’t make you a failure or a “chronic relapser” (I disagree with my profession’s tendency to label people). It simply means you’re not ready to let go and that’s important to talk about too.

6 Comments on “Sober is Depressing”

  1. rebekah says:

    Happier sober? I’d be inclined to answer that with a big YES, but it’s all so individual. It takes time to get back to yourself … to your true emotions. I’ve never been high, but I’ve been drunk. This is not something I write about in my own blog. Anyway, when things fall into place, and you stay sober long enough, it can be pure euphoria. Before I quit for real, I never stayed sober long enough for my brain to recover … I lived more or less in a vacuum, with no true feelings. I quit 1993, but it took at least a year before I started to really recover, and longer before I could cry, but I was happy … and grateful. Grateful, because I’d survived, got my life back.

    Strangely enough, I don’t see those drinking years in any glorified light. I get frightened when I think about it. I’m an addictive nature, I guess, and I must watch out for boredom … when nothing really happens.

  2. Rebekah,

    This is so true. I’m glad you were able to find true happines without drinking. It’s possible but it seems to be a life long struggle for a lot of people, it does get easier with time but boredom is challenging.

    Thank you reading!

  3. […] Becoming Depressed: You mourn the loss of alcohol/drug and you feel the sadness and grief. You naturally miss it. But you start to rationalize your future actions based on perceived inability to handle the sadness. […]

  4. Hb says:

    Very helpful, thank you. I’m 4 1/2 yrs sober and wondering why i feel so depressed and unenthusiastic. Sometimes it helps hearing it from a professional in this stage of recovery verses just another sober alcoholic.

  5. Definitely good advice to check your expectations at the door.

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