Gifts of Sobriety: True Friendship

Rebecca Rush is sharing her reflection on being two years sober, the pandemic, and what it means to be and to have true friends.

When I got a year sober after a decade of failed attempts, I looked around the room full of happy sober people from a podium in a large West Hollywood 12 step meeting. It was 12/29/2019. I shared for a minute and sat back down. As the buzz from being celebrated – and the buzz from achieving a milestone that had been just out of reach for over a decade, wore off, I started to wonder.

I had been sober a WHOLE YEAR. How was I not famous yet? I hadn’t sold my pilot or my book. How was this the life beyond my wildest dreams that I had been promised?

A little over two months later the world came to a stop and I was able to see what I did have. Friends. Real friends. More than that, I was a friend. What good would career accolades be anyway, without anyone to share it with?

For a long time, I knew I was supposed to connect with other sober people, other people in the program, and I did that, but always from a place of, this is a sober person I am supposed to spend time with or reach out to. Over that first year of sobriety as I worked to repair the ways I related to myself and the world around me, I built real friendships. People that I became so close to that I forgot that they were even in the program until one of us needed to talk about related things.

True intimacy eluded me all my life. I had a lot of maladaptive strategies when I was drinking and using in regards to others. I would con an entire group (that’s what it felt like because I hated myself) into being my friend, blow it up, get kicked out, and start over.

I made intense instant “best” friends with no boundaries that never ended well. I chose the wrong people, and I was the wrong people. I had unrealistic expectations, expecting others to have my back and my best interests at heart when I couldn’t even do that for myself and had no idea what my best interests even were.

I did a lot of triangulating – gossiping about you to your friend you had introduced me to was the only way I really knew how to bond other than over substances. If someone had drugs, well, then they were my friend. Until they ran out. I thought doing drugs and alcohol made people cool.

I chased people. Nothing made me want to be friends with someone more than them having zero interest in me. I could relate! I had zero interest in me. If someone seemed to like me, I found that suspicious. I didn’t like me, so if you did there must be something wrong with you or maybe you just didn’t know me well enough.

I didn’t respect boundaries. If you didn’t call or text me back, I called and texted more. I just kept trying, not understanding that I was pushing you further and further away. Because I didn’t care about you. I only cared about validating my needs at the moment. I had a lot of bad weather friends, people that were there only to hear about the drama as I lurched from crisis to crisis. I didn’t ask questions or listen. I was too lost in my own pain.

The friendships I was able to hold onto for more than a season suffered frequent blowups – I called the cops on one friend while we were living together when she smashed a peanut butter sandwich in my face after I said something terrible as she was walking away. The cops recognized me when they arrived – I thought from my career as a stand up comic, but it was actually because I had just gotten a DUI the week before.

I made up with that friend after a period. I made up with lots of friends after a period of not talking. I never wanted anything badly enough to be willing to apologize or appear to change my behavior until I had lost it. The moment we seemed to be back on solid friendship ground, I came to stay with her for a weekend, drinking her booze, holding court in the backyard, taking acid with her neighbor, having sex with her neighbor that SHE had a crush on,  being late to our tattoo appt, which I wore her shoes to without asking, and then, when she went out of town for the weekend and didn’t trust me to stay in her place without her, I went to return the shoes and helped myself to her shower, because her neighbor that I was now staying with had no clean towels and that was somehow on her. I was going through something. Why didn’t she understand?

“I’m sorry,” she texted me when she returned and found my dirty bandaid in her shower, “This is goodbye.”  I was angry AT HER because I thought her boundaries were TOO STRICT and unrealistic. This year I had the opportunity to make amends to this person. I am so grateful that they were willing to meet with me. Recovery has taught me that the only thing I can change is my own behavior. Therefore, that’s the thing to focus on.

I was so used to being a bad friend that when people started telling me what a good friend I was in sobriety, I thought they had gotten together behind my back to play a trick on me. “It’s so weird,” I thought. “They don’t even know each other.”

“You’re a really good person now and you’re gonna have to learn to deal with it,” said another friend. The self-concept, for me, lags behind the change and action. I was one way for so long. Even as I change, it’s hard to think of myself as this somewhat evolved individual. But it does come. It’s here now, or else I wouldn’t be able to write about it.

First I had to learn to become my own best friend. To have my own back, to stop judging and being so hard on myself. And then I became truly curious about others. As my life calmed down, as the storms became manageable, I was able to connect to my own heart, and then to the hearts of others. The less I desperately needed people, the more people came into my life that were less desperate. As I built my own boundaries, I learned to accept others. The friends that had stood by me the whole way – those relationships grew deeper and more reciprocal. I no longer kept track of favors because I learned to give what I could freely, without expectation, which meant I didn’t go as far out of my way for people, but I didn’t resent them for it either because I expected nothing in return except the joy of giving.

I have found my tribe, and I keep finding more of them, and my friendships and relationships continue to deepen and grow and I continue to be more interested in others than I ever have been before. I also am perfectly happy being completely alone. I have choices today and so much love.

And that? Is beyond my wildest dreams.

Little Sobriety, Big Reach: The Dangers of Newly Sober Influencers

Several months ago I got a follow on Instagram that caught my eye. The account claimed that recovery was the new black. I immediately shared it in my sober group chat.

“My culture is not your costume,” we joked. The idea that it is trendy, or fashion, to abstain from alcohol and drugs is a terrifying idea for those for whom it is a matter of life or death.

On one hand, it’s great that high bottom, grey area, or even normal drinkers are exploring what it means to live life, or even a month, without relying on alcohol and other substances. What I can’t co-sign is taking that excitement and turning it into a brand, especially when the person in question has extremely limited experience in actually being sober. Being attractive, good with a ring light, and having a month free of alcohol does not make one an authority on sobriety. But there’s nothing stopping them -Instagram is a free market.

Looking further at the account, and others like it, I saw a post, a very nicely curated photo – proclaiming – “Keep your quarantini off my Zoom!”

“Wow,” one of my friends remarked. “She owns Zoom!” The idea that the world should change because you have gotten sober is a common early sobriety idea. But people in traditional 12 step programs are taught right away that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

The world will never change because we got sober. In early sobriety, we take precautions to protect ourselves from needless exposure to alcohol and related triggers. It’s normal to get upset about any of the facts of society that make it difficult for us to turn one week into one year. That’s why it’s suggested that we turn to those who have more experience with being sober than us. What is not suggested is to take your excitement at early sobriety and attempt to use it to build fame, a business, or followers.

While a good online presence and good sobriety are not mutually exclusive, there needs to be substance and experience behind it. Addiction is serious. It is scary. It kills, and for those, it doesn’t kill it makes for a life not worth living.
Presenting a shiny, happy package with no struggle to back it up adds a layer of pressure to an already seemingly insurmountable task.

Presenting the idea that all one needs to do to live a magical existence is quit drinking for a few months is dangerous. For real alcoholics and addicts, removing the substances is but a beginning. Life gets worse before it gets better. We need to find new and healthy ways to cope, to relate to ourselves and others, to spend our time.

“In my experience sober influencers make the brutal reality of recovery look like an easy, optional process of self-improvement. Any deep or not Instagram-friendly issues are entirely hidden. They make it seem like if you don’t fit into the influencer box, or don’t have problems fixed with yoga and a smoothie, you are irreparable. That joy and freedom are reserved for skinny women in yoga pants who can treat their substance abuse with bullet journaling and mocktails. If you have reach and aesthetics you can put yourself in a position of authority, because people will listen to you. Recovery and sobriety can be sexy, but marketing that as the work and reward bypass a lot of what it’s about; recovering the lost and broken parts of yourself in order to live a fulfilling life. The idea of a sober influencer curating a digestible, easy-breezy fix for the deep-seated issues that make recovery a necessity is a shallow dive into a deep pool,” says Lauren M., creator of the meme account @brutalrecovery.

And what happens when an influencer relapses? Relapse is part of most people’s recovery journey. If you look through sober hashtags you will see large accounts that are branded as sober and contain beautiful posts marking very early recovery milestones – such as three months. My sobriety would not have been able to withstand the pressure of deciding to make sobriety a brand in the first three months. What is really behind a decision to broadcast the often painful days of early recovery as some magical perfect adventure? There is magic in early recovery, but it’s a roller coaster. To put out the idea that there are only ups and no downs is disingenuous, and as harmful to the producer as the consumer. How could you face your fans if you slipped? Alcoholics and addicts are sneaky by nature and accustomed to hiding their use from those around them.

The pressure of having thousands upon thousands of people hanging on your every post would make it hard to admit that you’d slipped. As someone who struggled with relapse for a decade before achieving continuous sobriety, what was required each time for me to get sober again was to admit that I had slipped. How can you admit that when you’ve styled yourself as an authority?

Recently one of the meme accounts I follow posted that they had slipped. It was hard for them to admit because they have a large following. However, their memes poke fun at the insanity and truth of the struggle of addicts. Their account never pretended to be superhuman, the perfect mom, afloat in a field of daisies. And yet, it was still a difficult task to get honest.

Another question to ponder is, if it’s that easy, are these sober influencers even real alcoholics?

“Sober influencers are loud. They proudly put themselves out there, “destigmatizing sobriety.” Why is this a problem? Most of them are playing pretend. I don’t care if those who don’t drink for other reasons want to sell merchandise or create yoga courses. My problem is their placement and volume in the recovery sphere. Clicking on the “sober” or “recovery” tags might lead you to fashionable, trendy pages of those who quit drinking and want you to join them too! While that’s great for those who aren’t addicts, those who are struggling may be taking advice from people who don’t know what they are up against. Telling someone with alcoholism that a HIIT class and an online accountability group is sufficient to help them stop drinking can be deadly. They have commodified a deeply painful and challenging process. They claim they can speak to drinking problems as much as anyone. How can someone who was able to quit on their own self claim to know anything about what it feels like to have the disease of addiction? Addiction is not a trend. Treating it as an area to grow your business will lead to deaths. While some are clear they haven’t struggled and can’t help those who are, not all are. There is nothing wrong with sharing your story. But be clear that you cannot and do not understand addiction, and be mindful of the audience you decide to speak to. Alcoholics can be desperate for any way to purchase their sobriety, and to play into that is morally questionable at best. “ Jill, creator of meme account @Fatandsober

Recovery is not the new black. It is neither new nor fashionable. While it’s great that normal drinkers or the newly sober are excited enough to want to shout it from the rooftops, maybe, don’t. I’d love to see people own their sobriety without claiming to be an authority on it, or making it their whole thing. Having an image to uphold can be extremely detrimental to one’s own ability to be honest with themselves and others, a foundational trait of successful recovery. And while I am always happy that more and more people that don’t have the disease of addiction are choosing to live a substance-free life, my culture? Is not your costume.

For People in Recovery, Trust Around COVID Can Take Time

A few months ago I went back east on a rescheduled amends tour from March. Having had Covid in May, I felt pretty confident about it.

My Covid experience was as such – my friend Mary and I woke up the same day with the same symptoms, after spending time together in the car every week to go be in nature.

She went right in to get tested. I felt too badly to leave my house, but called my acupuncturist from back home and had Chinese herbs overnighted, which I began taking immediately. I got herbs for Mary as well, but wasn’t able to get them to her until I started to feel better five days later. That day I went in for a test.

My results came back within a few days. Negative, though when I sent my acupuncturist a picture of my tongue, he was pretty sure I had it, having flown back to the US from Taiwan in March to treat Covid patients.

Mary and I decided my results were her results, and felt relieved, although she was still ill with about half the symptoms on the list. Weeks later, her test results came back – positive. We had had Covid.

Mary went in to get tested for antibodies to give plasma. I didn’t go. I was afraid to give away my antibodies. I needed them, to go back east and make my amends.

My father and I talk nearly every Sunday. I explained this story to him, sure that he would believe me.

Why wouldn’t he? I am sober. I stay sober by living a life of rigorous honesty.

 “A lot can happen in the next month,” he kept saying, putting off making a decision because he didn’t believe I would actually get on the plane. There was a mandatory two week quarantine in place for travelers from California into Connecticut. I found an exception – if you had gotten a test and results within the last 72 hours, you would be exempt. He countered that the rules were changing every week.

Then my sister, whom I rarely speak to, told me that she didn’t feel comfortable seeing me because she has kids to think about. I held my tongue while looking at her Instagram feed, populated with photos of her attending large maskless gatherings both inside and out, and even eating in restaurants. With her children.

It hit me. She doesn’t trust me. The trust I have built with myself exists because I exist with myself on a daily basis.  I moved to California before achieving continuous sobriety. Much of my family’s knowledge of a sober Rebecca is via the phone. Their memories of the havoc I caused while drinking and using are more vivid than text messages.

Every time I spoke to my father I detailed the precautions I would be taking to be legally exempt from quarantining, and to stay safe. I would be getting the rapid test, throwing my clothing and mask from the plane in the trunk of my rental car for several days, leaving my luggage outside for a day, washing myself and everything, immediately.

A week before I flew I got an email from my dad. It devastated me because of the contents, but also because he felt he had to email me. He didn’t feel comfortable setting this boundary over a phone call, where he feared I might argue or interrupt.

He said that I really didn’t know that I had had Covid, as I had never had a positive test of my own, and also I would be flying on a plane. My stepmother has an elderly mother and a pregnant daughter that she has to see.

I know enough to know that there is nothing to be said about another’s Covid precautions – this is as much emotional as physical, and everybody has to decide for themselves what risks they are willing to take. Scanning my sister’s Instagram again, I realized it was a matter of priority. Mine was low in their lives, as theirs had been in mine for decades. I knew better than to explain masks or social distancing or being outside to them. They knew these things.

I called my sponsor, who told me about a friend of hers who had recovered from Covid but she still didn’t feel comfortable seeing him.

“He’s unpredictable and untrustworthy,” she explained. “He’s always relapsing and getting into insane situations. Even though he has antibodies now, who’s to say he couldn’t carry it to me on his clothes from a meth binge?”

That must be how my family saw me. It simply takes more time, especially at a distance. They could never accept that relapse is part of many addicts’ process. They put effort into my first rehab, and when I relapsed and went back to my abusive marriage after nine months, they closed their hearts to me.

I only know this because I did get to make that amends. I chose to process my hurt with radical acceptance and understanding. I focused on the people who did feel comfortable seeing me, on the amends I could make and the love I could share visiting my homeland for the first time ever sober.

A week into my trip, my dad called. The weather was nice, he said, why didn’t I come up the next day if I wasn’t busy and we could do the amends in the backyard.

“What would you have done if I was an asshole when you set the boundary?” I asked.

“Well, I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to see you,” he laughed.

In that way not only did I pass my father’s test I passed my own.

We don’t get to decide other’s timelines, not for Covid, not for rebuilding trust, not for anything. All we can do is radically accept the harm we’ve caused in the past and make a living amends every day by doing no more harm.

Because I trust myself and know myself today and have people in my life who trust and know me, it doesn’t matter as much when people don’t. Even when they are family.

If you’ve noticed that your family is treating you during the pandemic like you’re always actively shedding Covid, know that you are not alone. That as addicts we are seen as untrustworthy and unpredictable. And we can look for our part. If I had forced myself to get a test right away, or gone to give plasma, I would have had evidence. And it’s more than they fear we are lying to them, it’s that they fear we are lying to ourselves.  We are the ones who created that history. More than anything, there’s just so much fear to go around right now. And perhaps some addicts are less afraid because we’ve looked at death so many times already.

There’s an old saying that time takes time. Rebuilding familial trust in the era of Covid takes even longer. Acceptance is the answer to all our troubles today.

How To Return To Your Routine In Four Easy Steps

“When the world is crumbling around you, cling to your practice,” my yoga teacher once said. My yoga practice is an important part of my routine, the structures in place in my life that make me feel good and help me move forward.

There are so many things that I’ve found over the years that center me and prepare me for life. Meditation, journaling, a daily inventory, showering and getting ready for the day even when I have nowhere to go, yoga, long walks in nature listening to podcasts, putting effort into a creative work in progress, reading. When I do these things on a regular basis,  they become my routine. They are the known things in my day, the things I can count on, the things I look forward to.

Then, like someone with schizophrenia who stops taking their meds the moment they start working, I fall off. We all do that. I used to spiral so deeply into shame over the things I was not doing that I could not bear to face doing them again. The routine I should be doing became a wall against which I banged my head. Even though I knew that it would feel so good when I stopped.

Over the years, I’ve learnt to return to my routines quicker and quicker, as the veil of self hatred slowly lifted. It was only a few years ago when I would go months without meditating, writing, or doing yoga, talking about how I wasn’t doing it, how I needed to do it, and how I should do it, the whole time. The longest I’ve fallen out of my routine this year has been two weeks, and this year has given us all more gusts of wind to knock us off course than any previous. I don’t measure my life by how often I fall down anymore, but how quickly I get back up.

What follows are four tips to help you return to routine.

  1. Start Practicing Self Compassion

First you must forgive yourself. Being angry at yourself or shaming yourself about what you have not been doing will make you more depressed, feel worse about yourself, and feel less worthy of doing things that make you feel good. It happens to everyone. Humans are cyclical. We are not robots. And even robots don’t function perfectly all the time. Have a conversation with yourself. Tell yourself it’s okay that you got off track and that you are going to start getting back on track because it feels better, not because it should, but because it serves you. Whatever reasons lie behind abandoning the routine temporarily were valid. And now it is time to return to yourself.

  1. Start Slow

It is not necessary to jump back in to doing all the things you were doing at the apex of your routine. I am an Ashtanga yoga student. Ashtanga is a certain series of poses in an order. I do it Mysore style, which means I learn the entire series piece by piece, and keep adding on. I didn’t do any Ashtanga for about six months in pandemic. When I renewed my commitment, I couldn’t go all the way to navasana as I was when I left off. I started by just doing the opening postures, by beginning as a beginner again. It took me two weeks of daily practice to get back to where I was when I stopped. The first few days were really hard even though I was doing so little. My shoulders ached in the mornings. Every day it got a little easier. I kept adding on. Today I went two poses further than where I was at when I stopped. It’s so easy to forget how good our routines make us feel. It only requires a willingness to begin again to remember.

  1. Start in Today

Just as you can’t really catch up on sleep, you can’t really catch up on routine. Thinking of how behind you are in all the things you need to be doing will overwhelm you into paralysis. There is no catching up, there is only moving forward from this moment. Similarly, trying to plan out all the things you will do tomorrow can make you abandon today. If my diet starts tomorrow, I will eat five cheeseburgers today. Tomorrow never exists. Today is the only thing that’s real, the only place of power and potential. Today I will do one thing that’s part of a healthy routine, I will meditate, if only for five minutes, knowing that when tomorrow is today I can build on that.

  1. Start Restructuring

This is the year that I went from getting upset at myself for not doing certain things if I got tired or felt uncreative by the afternoon to restructuring my routine based on priorities. For me, morning brain is the best brain. A friend of mine can’t do creative work until after 11 pm. I began accepting myself for who I am and how I work best and rearranged my day to reflect that. Writing, journaling, meditation and yoga must come in the morning, or else I may not do them. And those things are most important to my wellbeing. Some days, like this one, I find myself motivated to write in the afternoon, but I can’t count on that. Once I have written, the rest of my productivity feels like a bonus. The day feels like it truly belongs to me now, and I feel like my life is moving forward. We all have something like that. Find yours, and prioritize it for the best possible time of day for you.

I leave you with the single best piece of advice for getting back into your routine: Start.

The Best Revenge Is Letting Go

We’ve heard it over and over – the best revenge is living well. But how can you live well when you can’t let go of the pain of the past? You can’t. I couldn’t.

In entering recovery, it’s easy to expect that life will be all kittens and ice cream and rainbows. But sobriety does not promise that. What it does promise is that life will not be devoid of those things. Beyond that, recovery promises that when unwanted events, emotions, and trespasses occur, that we will be able to meet them with a clear heart, and not make them worse.

When I originally pitched this article it was because I had just been through a week of reliving a traumatic series of events, triggered by one of the recent waves of #MeToo. Although I, like many women in recovery, have a significant sexual trauma history, this wasn’t about that. It was about a time three years ago when someone who had assaulted me, that I confronted via text when drunk, spread rumors that I was an abuser in order to silence me and discredit my claims before I made them. That’s who I am when I drink. A person who thinks demanding an apology from a rapist will work out.

I wore that story like a pair of Spanx. I told it on the street, and I told it in Bali, and I told it in 12 step meetings, sure that no one could possibly get me without knowing that people were out to get me. Sure that if I didn’t tell you first, someone else would beat me to it. Thinking that others are always thinking about you in a bad way is the most useless form of narcissism. It took a year before I stopped telling it, years before I stopped thinking about it on a daily basis.

So last month I relived it.  And I relived it so hard that when I shared about it in a weekly Zoom with my most trusted sober friends, one of them suggested I call a lawyer to get a cease and desist letter.

“Oh, no,” I responded. “This is all happening in my head.”  Perhaps the lawyer could write a cease and desist letter to my brain.

 I thought about how I cling to these victim stories. Before that event, which, as harmful as it was, started me on a path of healing that resulted in complete and continuous sobriety, I clung to stories of bad boyfriends and breakups. Prior to that I identified with my abusive marriage, my identity as a coked out housewife in South Beach. And if you did cocaine with me in my twenties, you probably heard about my parents divorce. And definitely my mother.

The pattern revealed itself. It was never about the event. It was about holding on to the past as an excuse for the illusion of not enough-ness in the present. It was about the delusion that my pain is what makes me unique. But our pain is not what makes us unique. Our pain is what connects us all.

For a long time people told me I needed to let go. I would get anonymous messages to my Tumblr – “I hope you find lasting, internal peace.” What an insult I took that as. I clung to the idea that I didn’t know how to let go. I couldn’t let go of not knowing how to let go. But I don’t need to know how. I just need to intend to move forward. To let go is to stop resisting the present moment.

In Melody Beattie’s The Language of Letting Go, she writes, “Many of us have learned, as part of our survival behaviors, that the way to get the attention and approval we want is to be victims. If life is awful, too difficult, unmanageable, too hard, unfair, then others will accept, like, and approve of us, we think.”

 When I was drinking I often only had what I thought of as bad-weather friends. People that would only listen to me if I had a sad tale to tell.

Just this past weekend, August 2, something bad happened. The kind of thing that I thought could not happen in sobriety. The kind of thing that left me feeling paralyzed for several days, jumpy, and afraid. Actual danger. I am lucky that I have trusted allies to whom I could talk about it. Each shared a comforting perspective I hadn’t thought of along with empathy, love, and validation.

But after talking to several people and a therapy appointment, I caught myself wanting to tell the story again. That’s the holding on. I decided to treat it like an intrusive thought. I have investigated, and discussed, and processed. I am no longer in danger. It is done.

It helps me let go when I depersonalize things. As addicts and alcoholics, the tendency is to take things personally. But they are rarely truly about us. The person that harmed me moves on to their next con. They are not still thinking about me. And they con the next person because that is just what they do, and they will keep doing it until it no longer serves them. And it is okay if I am not there to see poetic justice. I can know it in my heart.

Things fall apart. And then things balance out. There is nothing that I have been through that hasn’t eventually shown me a meaning and a lesson and even strange gifts. We may not always know the meaning when things are happening, but that does not mean it will never be revealed.

In the meantime, we process, and we let go. And then we can exact true revenge. The business of living well.

Dopamine Detox: Level 3

After spending nearly 24 hours sitting with myself I can confirm that my old therapist was right—I am exhausting.

It took three weeks after my last fast to carve out this time. After the whole experiment was concluded, I looked up the science. What I found was pertinent to addiction. “The turbulence of dopamine swings related to addiction effectively drowns out signals from all other realms of life,” writes Walter Piper, Neuroscience Researcher at NYU.

Yet, as I continue studying the thoughts on the dopamine detox from people a bit more educated than the 16-year-olds in Minnesota on Reddit, I find that it’s only one part of a strategy to improve focus, motivation, and time management.

It is neither snake oil nor panacea.

Just like we use a cornucopia of strategies to get and stay sober, so must we to connect with ourselves and disconnect from other forms of pleasure-seeking that deplete us.

Spiritual teachers since the beginning of time have advocated the value of sitting with yourself. As addicts, it’s what we run from most.

While clearing our minds will allow us to enjoy pleasures more, it’s about more than dopamine. What matters most is what you do with what you learn. In the week between my first two fasts, I didn’t turn my phone on until I accomplished several tasks that are important to me.  And then I backslid, just as it was starting to feel really good.

The third fast was draconian, but it got me back on my bullshit. Like Mark Twain once said, “I’m glad I did it, partly because it was well worth it, but mostly because I shall never ever have to do it again.”

In level three, dubbed the “Time Theorist” by Youtuber Andrew Kirby, there is no reading, writing, exercise, caffeine, music, or food.

I found myself busier than expected in level one and two, mostly out of fear. But at the third level, I had no choice but to surrender to the void.

I woke up as I always do, at seven am, to the terrible opera of my pets announcing their morning needs. This time I went back to sleep after tending them. Waking finally at nine, I sat on the couch for a while and thought and stared at the wall. I’m grateful I went back on Keto three weeks ago in a bid to lose the quarantine fifteen. The diminished hunger as a result of being in ketosis would help me later.

All morning, minutes passed as slowly as high school detention.

I did breath work, which gave the wall a break while I stared at the ceiling, took a bath with Epsom salts after turning up the AC, and played bird-on-a-stick with my cat for a solid hour.

The first hunger came on in the afternoon. It arrived and departed like waves breaking on the shore of my consciousness. I drank more water.

Tara Brach, meditation expert, author, and one of my favorite spiritual teachers, distinguishes below the line (of consciousness) from above the line activities. It is only above the line things, such as quiet contemplation or meditation. that truly rest us. Below the line activities, such as true crime programs or Candy Crush, are simply an escape that doesn’t benefit us in any real way.

Typically, on a day when I say I am doing nothing, my brain doesn’t know I’m doing nothing. Looking at a screen is looking at a screen, whether it be for work or a game. So I return to life afterward feeling unexcited to tackle my tasks, but duty-bound to make up for the time I wasted.

By midafternoon, memories I thought I lost come flooding back. I walk through scenes of the past, struggling to hold onto the memory of a dream from the night before. I can’t write the dream down until night falls. It is almost my birthday, and I sort through what life was like seven, six, fifteen years ago. Five years ago on this day I moved to NYC and began my life as a big city dweller. With nothing else to do, I am able to go deeper into the scenes and construct a narrative. I have come further than I have given myself credit for. It’s been less than two years since I got sober. I had dedicated the entire first year just to achieving lasting sobriety, and was ready to really jump into life when COVID hit. And that, it seems now, was just another thing that was meant to be. This collective pause. As I look back and back, I see that nothing that happened was without its rewards, although often it didn’t feel like it. Meaning reveals itself when it is ready to, and never before.

I do an entire hour of meditation at my altar on my cushion, timing myself with the kitchen timer and burning an entire candle down as I stare into the flame. I stick another candle in the melted wax left behind.

With less than four hours left till my fast is concluded, the hunger comes back and does not abate. I am done, I decide. I get it. I got it. I’m good.

I eat and go to the store, avoiding talking to people by using self-checkout. I realize I don’t have to fully break the fast. I don’t have to turn my phone on.

I take a sip of Coke Zero, and the caffeine hits my brain exactly the way it did in rehab when they gave us real coffee Christmas morning, a month in.

After my cauliflower crust pizza, I lament that I’ve never practiced fasting. As a Jew, we have a fast day—Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. I’ve only fasted on Yom Kippur once, by accident, because I was on cocaine.

I crack open Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” with two hours left to go. It’s a book, ironically, about not giving up.

I do make it a full 24 hours without screens or masturbation. These are a few of my favorite things.

Afterward, I feel more centered, more excited to do the big picture things that further my goals, creative and otherwise. The biggest shift in all these fasts is returning me from an “I have to” mindset back to “I get to.” I do not have to write this piece. I get to write this piece.

I stay up until four am reading “Wild.” I decide that any detox I incorporate going forward will be strictly of the digital variety. It’s just not a reset day without books.

Dopamine Detox Diary: Intermediate Level

I learnt a lot from my level one detox last week.

The benefits did, as hoped, bleed into daily life. On Sunday, I was watching the episode of the new Zac Efron show where he visits a self-sustaining intentional community of expats in Costa Rica. A man said, “sometimes the problem is the solution,” and I thought about my writing and my phone. He was talking about human waste and fertilizing crops, but it translates. If my problem is that I get sucked into my phone, draining my time and focus to write (and here you can substitute anything in your life that is your true purpose and is thwarted by excessive screen usage), then I can easily not turn the phone on every morning until I have written the industry daily standard of one thousand words.

I add journaling and meditation to the “before I turn on phone” list so that I can make sure I also do those things every day. It works. I am making my brain work in my favor. I am so motivated to turn that phone on that it becomes motivation to do the other things first.

In the week that includes the detoxes, I write over seven thousand words of essays and two thousand words of articles (this one and the previous) by hand in a notebook. I start turning the phone off by ten pm at night because that helps me relax. Even if I’m still watching television, with the phone off, I actually watch the television.

I sleep better. Once I complete these goals for the day, the rest of the day feels like it truly belongs to me. I feel like I can really enjoy it.

I know the upcoming detox will be more restrictive, which I deal with by not looking at the list of added restrictions until Friday night. I know music will be out, so I listen to the new Taylor Swift while cooking on Friday afternoon. I recall that talking to people is out too, so, no errands. It’s going to be tricky to avoid talking to my neighbors. We’ve all grown friendly while quarantining together.

During the week in between, I find myself more tuned in to the angst that comes from the digital world, often throwing my phone in a drawer when I’m doing something I want to focus on. That is a big result of detox one: I am much more aware of how screens make me feel, and when they are beginning to usurp my time and focus. I start to write designated phone checking times into my daily schedule.

Because I’ve refused to look at the list for level two all week, I am surprised and upset to see two of my favorite things in life—coffee and books—on the No list.

I’ve deluded myself. I didn’t spend as much time reading during level one as I thought I would, but the idea that it isn’t an option is freaking me out. Just like last week, I convince myself that I am going to have to spend Saturday staring at the wall. Friday night I have a friend over for dinner. We originally planned to order in, but I cook instead, leaving two full sinks of dishes to give myself something to do the next day. A spice rack I ordered arrives as well, and I leave that project, too.

The morning comes. I walk the dog, meditate, and eat oatmeal, but I can’t wake up and have a low grade headache. Caffeine. I climb back into bed and sleep until noon. I decide that I hate detoxing off chemicals I’m not trying to quit. It reminds me of the dozens of times I quit drinking or adderall or weed, only to return with a vengeance the next time I relapsed.

I cave and make coffee. I feel a little guilty but also so much better. I don’t time my schedule today, which makes it easier to stick to and allows things to arise naturally.

Here’s what it looks like:

Breakfast

Meditate

Nap

Coffee

10th Step

Journal / plan day

Write 500-1000 words, finish essay

Swim

Shower

Lunch

Food prep

Photo project

Spice project

Laundry

Article 1

Dinner

Art

Article 2

Breathwork/meditate

Okay, so it looks like I won’t be staring at the wall this time either. I don’t feel nearly as content or spiritual today as last week. I have discounted how great an impact human connection has on my well-being. When I’m back online, I’m going to look up the rules of Shabbat and come up with a plan that works for me. It turns out that I am not that interested in depriving my brain of dopamine in the hopes of resetting it. I just need a day to recharge without screens.

I am somehow busier than on a normal day. I get to all the chores and projects I’ve been putting off, and get a prodigious amount of writing done. I still have a bit of a headache just from attempting to not have caffeine.

Next weekend I will be in Arizona performing all weekend with the last of my antibodies. I have shows at eight and ten on both Friday and Saturday nights, so I won’t be able to do the third level of the detox, also known as the “Time Theorist.”

It will have to wait until the following week, but next week I will find a middle path and spend most of the day Saturday offline. When I do the Time Theorist level, I’ll have to wean myself down off caffeine for a few days prior so I can follow the rules for that level to the best of my ability.

Another day down, it’s time to go to bed. Right before I do, I stare at the walls a bit. I love it. My brain is a safer place to be as a sober for a while person than I’ve been giving it credit for.

How To Come Back From A Relapse During A Pandemic and Civil Rights Movement

Coming back from a relapse is tricky. The shame of having done the thing you swore you would not do again combined with the physical compulsion to do more and the desire to numb rather than face whatever damage you have now caused your life is a wretched trifecta.

Coming back from relapse during a pandemic where we were forced to sit in our homes, many of us unemployed, some making more money on unemployment than we were before, with alcohol and drugs one of the few things still available to do is even trickier.

Coming back from a relapse during a pandemic where we were isolated, during a time of tragedy, as people of color are murdered by the cops weekly, watching people we thought we knew to express horrifying opinions on basic human rights, while an exciting but intense civil rights movement includes police using excessive force at protests against the use of excessive force by police?

That’s enough to make a person say, “I’m not even going to try to get sober until they arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor.”

But it can be done. I know this because I know people that have done it. Thanks to the internet, I know a lot of people that have done it. And they are glad they did. So, with their help, I have compiled a list of tips to help you get your sober glow back. Even now.

  1. Forgive Yourself

I have never been able to change anything until I stopped hating myself for doing it in the first place. It is more understandable to have relapsed during the past four months than to not have relapsed during the past few months. It’s been pretty scary out there. It is okay that this happened. You are still alive, so you get another chance. That’s good news. By indulging your urge to use, you got a fresh reminder of why that doesn’t work out for you. It happened. Relapse happens during the best of times, and we are currently dealing with a world unlike any other we have ever known. There’s a saying that “an addict alone is in bad company” and we have all been mandated to be pretty alone. Drinking or using may have felt like an old friend, one you didn’t have to wear a mask around or stay six feet away from.

  1. Get Honest With People

Get in touch with the people who have supported your sobriety in the past and tell them the truth. This is an act of commitment to getting sober again. It will help you release some of the shame you are carrying around to talk to someone who accepts you and your current reality. It will also help you stay accountable. Do not call them when you are high or drunk. My sponsee, someone I am guiding through the 12 steps, went to rehab before the pandemic lockdowns began. He ended up leaving and drinking, not fully comprehending what he was leaving to go towards – a changing world.  And also, no matter how much the world was on fire, he wanted to drink. He called me drunk and angry and I told him to call me back when he wanted to get sober again. He called the very next day. And he has been sober over 45 days now. He didn’t just call me, he called the friends he made in rehab and the people in his life that support his recovery and got honest with them too. Without that, it would have been too easy to continue thinking nobody would know. You know they know. Because you told them. A relapse is a burden that nobody has to carry alone.

  1. Befriend The Mute Button

In the past three months, there has been a significant uptick in normal people drinking and using more heavily. Add to that the lack (until recently) of other things to post about and that resulted, at least in my feeds, of a disproportionate amount of posts and pictures depicting or glorifying drug and alcohol use. I completely understand that everyone is coping their best and that many people are able to set limits for themselves and follow them, however, it’s not what I need to be bombarded with, and, had I recently relapsed, it would be even more triggering. Feel free to mute, unfollow, and unfriend people posting things that trigger you. The more of a safe environment you can create for yourself now that you are back in the early days, the better chance you have of getting sober again.

  1. Consider Online Support Programs

If you have health insurance, you may want to consider taking a refresher course – and having a structure that will help you stay accountable – by signing up for an outpatient program that is being held on Zoom. If 12 Step is not your thing or you are having a hard time finding a sponsor, there are sober coaches available – I like the program She Recovers for this for female-identifying people. She Recovers also holds free daily Zoom check-in meetings, links to which are posted in their Facebook Group. You may even want to go to sober living for a month, as a friend of mine did after drinking on Memorial Day and crashing her car. She doesn’t love it but sees it as a necessary consequence of her drinking.

  1. Set Yourself Up Financially

Money is a huge trigger. Too much of it, and it feels like using will have little consequence, too little of it, and it feels like everything is ruined anyway might as well use our last $100 to get messed up. So much of what we are seeking in our addictions is a sense of security. To enhance my sense of security during very uncertain times I have diverted much of the money that comes into my checking account into enhancing my sense of security. I paid off my car insurance in full, my rent is paid several months in advance, I rebuilt my savings account, and have begun to refill the investment account I drained back in March. With my money spread out like that in ways that enhance my future, I am less likely to look at a lump sum in my checking account and think it should equal drugs. I am also less likely to work myself into such a state over the idea of paying rent in September that I need to quiet that fear by drinking today if rent is actually already paid for September. Although I have not relapsed during the pandemic, I believe in treating myself like I am in early sobriety during uncertain times.

You know that you can do this because you have done it before. And although it may be tempting to keep going because nothing bad has happened, it will be so much worse if you keep going before something bad happens. You are worth it. You can do this. I am with you.

Dopamine Detox Diary: Beginner Level

As we’ve collectively experienced the trauma of the crisis that is 2020, all of us have needed extra help to cope.

Normal people, i.e. non-addicts, have the luxury of drinking a bit more in the evening, sparking a joint earlier in the day, and also the occasional pill to relax or fall asleep.

Addicts do not have that luxury. As nearly every human interaction moved online, and even getting out in nature felt scary, and, at times, forbidden, our screens and overeating feel like all we have.

“I wake up in a panic every morning at 3 am, and scroll Instagram and the news until the birds start chirping,” confessed my friend Alex, a fellow alcoholic.

Sometimes I do that too. I begin to notice that the days I took “off” simultaneously half watching TV, playing Candy Crush, and cruising my socials weren’t making me feel relaxed or recharged at all. It feels like all the bad parts of cocaine. That feeling of the next hit of whatever is going to feel good even though the previous three thousand haven’t.

Entire days pass which starts with a reasonable to-do list and end with me running out of time and steam with not much accomplished other than an increasingly heavy presence on social media and an impressive dent made in the catalog of every streaming service.

Could my problem, and therefore my solution, be the screens?

When I read Amy Dresner’s article about shopping, smoking, and eating, it dawns on me that my brain’s reward system is being hijacked.

Dopamine. That’s what my brain is chasing. With this revelation, it feels less personal and shameful and more like a challenge I can work to overcome. I pivot into solution mode and find a group on Reddit called Dopamine Detoxing.

There are three levels, each increasingly restrictive, so I decide to do all three on Saturdays and report my findings.

The group does it every Sunday, but for me, it feels right to choose Shabbat, my people’s traditional day of rest.

Level one is no screens, no stimulating foods, and no masturbation. I can still have coffee, read books, listen to music, talk to people, exercise, walk, and eat.

I wake up excited. It feels like a relief to not have to moderate my screen time, similar to the relief of no longer having to moderate my drinking. I am just not doing it.

I make a tight schedule for the day and plan to hit every task. Without the phone, my planner is my touchstone.

Here’s what that schedule looks like:

9 – 9:45 Coffee, play with the cat, scoop litter box
9:45 – 10:15 Meditate
10:15 – 10:45 Journal
10:45 – 11 Change sheets, clean up
11 – 12 Walk to bank & grocery store
12 – 12:30 Lunch
12:30 – 1:30 Pool, read

I stay on track, mostly, until after swimming. I don’t count on being hungry by 9:45, or wanting to shower and nap after the pool. Usually, my pool time is brief. I float, read, and hop out to the siren call of my phone. This day isn’t like that. I suddenly remember that swimming is also for exercise. I was on the swim team for most of my school years. As I swim lap after lap, I recall how some of my best thinking happens this way. I plan on working on my book after the pool. Working on my book, or lack thereof is my main motivation for doing this. I get to it after my nap. It takes me all day to get there, which is much better than the previous two weeks in which I kept telling myself I would write ‘later’ and then find the day ending without it having happened. With less instant gratification options available, it is easier to get to the things I truly want to do in a larger picture sense.

Here’s what my afternoon schedule ends up looking like, about an hour behind due to eating and napping and things just generally taking longer than I expect even after all these years on this planet living in this same time construct.

2 – 2:15 Walk dog
2:15 – 4 Shower, nap
4 – 5:30 Write book

After breaking my non-writing streak I feel really good, and throughout the day I notice that I feel more centered in my body, less rushed, and more deeply relaxed than I have been since I went to Costa Rica three years ago.

My focus has shifted from in my phone to in myself and it feels luxurious.

After that, I eat an early dinner. I don’t recall what I ate for lunch or dinner, so I know I did a good job of eating non-stimulating foods.

It was hard to find a definitive answer to what non-stimulating food is, so I went with no processed sugar, no white flour, no cheese, and nothing with a lot of fat. Basically, nothing that feels exciting to think of.

After dinner, it occurs to me that I can walk over to my close friend and AA sponsor’s house who lives less than a mile away. If she is home and unoccupied I can hang out – talking with people is on the list of things I can do at beginner level detox, which is how I was able to run errands earlier. The rules said nothing about driving, but I decide not to drive today as a nod to the little I know of observing Shabbat.

I leash the dog and we set out. As much as I enjoy listening to music or podcasts or books on tape when I walk, which is a normal part of my quarantine routine, I feel more in the world without it, and though I’ve walked this exact route dozens of times, I notice buildings and plants I’ve never seen before.

I get to her house, and not only is she home, but she also has a sober friend over whom I very much like. I stay for almost two hours. She knew of my plan and kindly paused the movie they were watching. We hang out in a very present way. It is such a relief not to have the nagging feeling that I should be checking in on whatever is happening in my phone. It is also a relief not to feel the guilt of not being present while I was checking it.

I walk home, meditate another half hour, then just sit on the couch for a bit, thinking.

I get in bed with a book and fall asleep by ten pm, deeply relaxed.

This is definitely something I can do, and need to do, on a regular basis, though I am already nervous about the stricter rules of the next level. I am excited to see how this experiment carries over into the following week.