Photo of addiction peer coach Heather Lister

Ask a coach

As a coach, Heather specializes in mental health issues, helping professions, criminal justice, disabilities and mothers in addiction recovery. She was 22 when she started her addiction wellness journey.

Q: I’m utilizing the coping skills I’ve learned – why don’t I feel better?

A: Substances like alcohol and other drugs shortcut the brain’s natural reward system, and it takes time for that reward system to heal and perform normally. Your brain may need to redefine fun and build an emotional tolerance to life again.

It’s important to keep in mind that you may be dealing with life’s stressors sober for the first time. Many people use drugs as an escape, coping mechanism or way to numb their emotions. The other coping skills you’ve learned may not feel as instantly gratifying. They’re hard work, but they’re crucial to maintain.

When I first got sober, I tried to keep a similar social routine I had while I was drinking. The problem was, I wasn’t the same. What used to be fun seemed boring and bland. I couldn’t feel that excitement, joy or care-free sensation I once had participating in those events.

For example, I realized basketball games weren’t as fun when I wasn’t drinking. It turns out I didn’t enjoy watching basketball. It took me a lot of trial and error to learn what really brought me joy and what was actually just about the drinking. 

Going to parties and hanging out with friends was also difficult. After a while, I ran out of things to talk about. I’d get bored and leave after a couple hours instead of stay all night. My relationships with my friends became centered around events – playing on a sober softball league, going to a waterpark, meeting for dinner or coffee. Attending an event or activity was very helpful for me. There was less pressure to fill the pauses in conversation and I got to try new things to see what I truly enjoyed. 

It’s really important to treat the first year after heavy drug use as a self-discovery journey. Trust the process – that natural dopamine will start flowing through you again. You’ll find your new “normal.”  Remove your expectations of what normal “should” be. Find out what it looks like for you, and only you. 

Forming new, healthy habits will take time. If you feel like you’re struggling, please lean into your support system. Surround yourself with people you care about and try new activities you may enjoy.

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