Boredom—Problem Itself or Symptom of Something Else?
The Secret to Learning to Live in Long-Term, Sustainable Recovery from Addiction
I love the Internet. I love it so much as to intentionally capitalize it, which is saying something at least from a grammar-nerd or wordsmith point of view.
But seriously, haven’t you ever gone down that quiet, Sunday-afternoon rabbit hole? You open your laptop (or flip on your tablet or smartphone) to search for some obscure tidbit of information only to find another hyperlinked article only vaguely related to your initial query. Then you bounce, Frogger-like, from article to article until you realize that, once again, you’ve finally ended up reading new articles about a topic that never ceases to fascinate you.
With me, it’s aliens.
Nowhere else in the vast recesses of, who knows—from some rusty server stashed in a damp, rural Michigan basement—can you find such utterly bizarre, thoroughly idiosyncratic tidbits of juicy information. As long as people can still look to the sky, I guarantee that I will still be able to banish boredom. As long as I still have a good Internet connection at least.
But don’t let my prosaic wanderings prevent you from reading further to learn what I really want to talk about. It’s not the Internet in all its wonderfully chaotic glory. It’s that quiet Sunday afternoon I mentioned above. Because, you see, life has lots of quiet Sunday afternoons and, truth be told, there are only so many wacky alien stories you can read about or watch a YouTube video of.
From one recovering addict to another, I want you to know that I get it. I understand you, because I’m a lot like you. The fact is that if there were one trait I had to name that every person struggling with addiction owned, I’d have to say it’s our tendency to become easily bored. That, and also thrill seeking, I suppose. But they are related.
We don’t like being bored. It’s one of the aspects about addiction that “normal” people frequently do not understand. We started using drugs and/or drinking so hard, because it’s really fucking fun! My little insertion of the f-bomb wasn’t just a slip of my fingers from my keyboard, either. The emphasis was intentional—drugs, alcohol, partying . . . whatever floats your addict boat—they’re interesting.
The problem with us is that we took that interesting, wonderful activity and turned it into all there was or ever would be. Unfortunately for us, long-term abuse of drugs or alcohol simply isn’t sustainable or healthy. What’s more, the other problem addiction causes is perhaps more insidious: it turns the things we once found interesting and life-giving into boring tasks we just have to wade through.
So what’s the answer? How do we learn new ways to banish our boredom? Below I’ll share the secrets I’ve learned that seem to work for me. But first you need to know one other big point.
Boredom Itself Isn’t The Real Problem
What makes something boring? It certainly isn’t because any one task is intrinsically boring. I mean, it’s a matter of perception, right? Mowing my lawn I suppose is boring. I wouldn’t want to have to do it as my job. But I really like the way my lawn looks after I mow it, so I do it.
Other times, “boring” simply means I cannot think of something exciting to accomplish and I sit around, waiting for it to hit me alongside the head. “Oh yeah! There’s X I can do! That’ll be fun!” Sitting around rarely stirs up this response, anyway.
Before I got sober, drugs and alcohol were always in the picture. Even if I had to bear through whatever tedious tasks or lack of stimulation the hours would offer, I knew at the end of it I’d have time to celebrate.
The real issue with boredom is that it is a symptom, not a problem itself. I get easily bored, because I’m wired to like excitement. I love to get off and have a great time! And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that life isn’t one giant roller coaster every single minute.
The real problem behind boredom is that we are uncomfortable allowing whatever exists in any moment to simply be. Children and adolescents are frequently bored, especially in western, developed cultures. I think it’s telling that many addicts or people struggling with addiction find themselves in a similar frame of mind. Point taken—lots of addicts never want to grow up. Boredom is only a symptom of this larger issue.
So how to deal with it? I don’t claim to be an expert with this problem, because I still struggle from time to time, but here are some things I’ve learned about dealing with boredom in recovery.
Step #1: “Now” Is All There Ever Is
Without getting overly woo-woo and pretending I’m some eastern yogi to impart this wisdom to you, realize first that I have to remind myself of this fact. Interestingly, some scientists say the now is all there ever is, and that time itself may be an illusion. But even if this isn’t true, that doesn’t mean that I can’t allow each moment to be, simply as it is meant to be. Boring, or not.
What this boils down to when applied to the problem of boredom is that it’s okay to be bored. It won’t last forever, and, in fact, may be a helpful tool to motivate you to make healthy decisions to alleviate your boredom. Later, when the “now” becomes exciting, interesting, or at least less boring than you were earlier, you’ll see that boredom is only one way of existing. It’s not particular comfortable, definitely not fun, but it’s part of the human experience. Everyone is bored at some moment in their life.
Step #2: Expand Your Possibilities
You’re bored. You’re sitting in your living room, wondering what to do. You go through lists of things you need to do, things you’d like to do, and things that sound just as boring as your current activity.
Which one do you do?
If you’re like me, you’ll try to think of the most enjoyable things and try one of them first.
This is nearly always the wrong choice.
As people in recovery, we have the unenviable task of realizing that our first instinct in most situations is often the selfish choice. And, please realize, I’m not saying that sometimes the right choice is a selfish choice. It’s just that the first choice of “what to do” is not continually the selfish one.
Expanding the possibilities to escape boredom requires that we choose another activity that may seem on the surface to be really kind of boring or at least take more effort than sitting around thinking how bored you are. The surprise comes when we discove
r . . . Hey! . . . This isn’t as bad as I thought!
Another reaction might be more like: You know . . . this really sucks. But whatever experience you have, as a person in recovery you realize that any choice that leads back to using can only ever make the situation worse. Here’s one article that claims that boredom isn’t such a bad thing after all. Embrace your boredom! Think differently! Expand your possibilities!
Again, the process of recovery is really quite simple—it’s about rewiring your brain through specific actions in the long term to make a difference at the end of the day. That’s it. The great thing about this is that, as you practice it and it becomes habit, you’ll find that you’re not as frequently bored as you once were.
Step #3: Serve Others and Graciously Receive Service From Others
This last one is perhaps the most important aspect to confronting boredom of them all. I don’t think we always need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to addressing certain aspects of our lives. That is to say, with respect to this topic, there are societies in which boredom is virtually unknown. That isn’t to say that individuals in these societies never experience boredom—it is a human experience, after all. It’s that in primitive or pre-modern societies the people needed a greater sense of interconnectivity to survive than the ever-isolating and increasingly individualized west.
Don’t get me wrong! I’m not a luddite nor do I wish to return to a time when we foraged for berries and dined on moose-steak for dinner. It’s telling, however, when looking at photographs of people from other cultures that a sense of boredom is mostly non-existent. (The clever or careful reader will realize the irony in my choice of URLs for the previous link.)
I think the reason behind primitive cultures lack of boredom is that they were so much more interconnected and live for the sake of each other than we do. In fact, many Twelve Step programs list service as the basis upon which any solid recovery is founded.
I’m apt to agree. Mostly because when I reflect on my own history, I found that the times where I abused chemicals greatest were often directly correlated with times where I had isolated and removed serving others from my daily tasks. Perhaps not surprisingly, when I first entered treatment I was even unwilling to allow others to help me! Ironic when you think that it was my own choices and behavior that had gotten me to that place to begin with.
In retrospect, boredom is seldom something we seek, but often something we find. The counter-intuitive aspect in this is the more we’re willing to allow boredom to simply be, and allow it to move us to serve others and find new, exciting expressions, the less we find ourselves bored.
And the less we find ourselves bored, the less risk we have for a relapse. That’s a good thing.
Daniel D. Maurer is a freelance writer, an award-winning Hazelden author, and a public speaker on recovery from addiction. He lives with his family in St. Paul, Minnesota.