Dealing with Boredom in Addiction Recovery
Recently, I posted an article stating that addiction and its related-behaviors such as denial, rationalization and minimization are connected, at their core, to fear. I received a few emails of criticism that stated that addiction is really about desire. I stand by the statements I made in that article. Of course, desire is an important part of addiction. That’s obvious, even to the untrained eye. However, unless you have spent years in meditation like I have, and so many others, it is easy to miss the fact that fear truly lies at the core of addiction and its related behaviors.
Boredom is a related behavior. Everyone experiences boredom to some degree and from time to time. However, those suffering from addiction experience a high risk of relapse when boredom starts showing up a lot in their lives. In mindfulness, one can easily break down the mechanism of boredom, if there is a readiness to engage in effective mindfulness practices.. Mindfulness is all about being intimately aware in real time of EXACTLY what is going on in the body and mind during moments of stress, cravings and anxiety. From what awareness, boredom can be allowed and then dissolved.
When boredom arises, it is not just that we are looking for something to entertain us. That’s a very elementary view of it. In actuality, we are in survival mode. For those suffering from addiction, the mere thought of having nothing to do brings up a very deep-seated and highly unconscious fear of death or nothingness. As one participant said in a recent mindfulness retreat I gave in Victoria, Canada, “If I didn’t have that Starbucks coffee each morning, I don’t know what I would do.” Her voice was sincerely stressed, puzzled and worried as she said this. She was speaking to that fear of nothingness that arises in the face of not being able to act out on her addiction.
Boredom often arises in the first few weeks of being clean and sober at a recovery center or even at home, if one is recovering at home during aftercare. The mind is constantly looking to fill the space of the present moment with something that will fill that void, that fear of death or nothingness. It is often so subtle that, until you develop a strong mindfulness practice, you can’t really detect that fear and how powerful it really is. Without detecting and dealing with the fear, you are almost certainly locked into a lifetime of boredom and addiction to try and cover up that boredom. Even if you drop drugs and alcohol, you are likely to pick up a substitute addiction as another form of addiction and avoidance. Studies show that avoidance is intimately connected to addiction. And acting constantly from boredom is avoidance of what is really happening in our minds and bodies.
Many addiction treatment centers help people deal with boredom by giving them projects to do, like painting, going to a movie, shopping, etc. These “vacation rehabs” are merely teaching people to move from one distraction – drugs or alcohol – to another distraction. They are not helping people deal with the core issue that underlies the boredom – the fear. They are reinforcing avoidance, and therefore reinforcing addiction.
At the Kiloby Center, we have ways of working with and dissolving this fear and restlessness connected to boredom. It does take some work – daily practice. We use our mindfulness approach to help people visualize “the worst that could happen” if they do nothing for an hour or if they don’t engage in any of their regular addictive behaviors. Then we systematically teach them to dissolve that fear as it arises, in real time. What happens after these practices is quite amazing. The fear and restlessness around boredom quiets or greatly dissolves. As a result, addictive cravings dissolve. Why? . . . Because addictive cravings contain a built-in wave of boredom for many people. The boredom or restlessness actually drives the craving. After all, the feeling one has if they cannot use their addictive substance or activity is often the magnetic pull of the restlessness of boredom.
Granted, I’m not saying boredom is the only contributing factor to continued addiction or chronic relapse. But what I am saying is that if it is not dealt with directly through mindfulness or some other technique that actually dissolves the fear, the risk of using or relapsing stays high.
Vacation rehabs have done a disservice to people suffering from addiction. They have tried to entertain people, to keep them distracted from this fear. In this way, they are helping people trade one addiction – drugs, alcohol, food (all of which are avoidance and escape mechanisms) – with other activities that are equally avoidance- and escape-based. They send their clients to too many activities to fill up their time – not real therapy. Sending clients on field trips is helpful to break the monotony of recovery. But field trips should always be about learning how to live in the real world and dissolve boredom as it arises, instead of following its every whim.
A good rehab program does not seek to entertain its clients. Good rehabs are not vacations. They are atmospheres conducive to truly uprooting the underlying issues related to addiction. After all, there are no studies that say that going to the beach actually reduces relapse rates. It’s fun, but it’s not treatment.
A good program seeks to help them deal with the underlying issues around their addictions. Dealing with these issues – boredom included – is a major key in living a long life of fulfillment and peace in the present moment. When we are centered in the present moment, and not constantly looking for the next distraction, we find a profound satisfaction with life as it is, however is it showing up in this moment. We are fully engaged in life in the moment, not seeking a distraction in any form.
Luckily, we can still engage in the things that give us purpose in life including relationships, art, music, careers, education or helping others. But the difference is that all of that is not driven by boredom. It is not driven by the need to escape. It is driven by a natural passion for life and it calls upon us to live the most fulfilled life and to become the best versions of ourselves. And for those suffering from addiction, this kind of work around boredom, restlessness and fear can substantially reduce the risk of relapse so that clients can truly find their real passions in life and pursue them in the healthiest and most satisfying ways.
When deciding which treatment center to choose, ask yourself this: What would be more helpful to you in the long run – a center that entertains you constantly or one that helps you deal with the real issues underlying your addiction? For those that are serious about recovery, the answer is glaringly obvious.
A Post by Scott Kiloby