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.