What Recovering Addicts Won’t Say About Happy Hour

Window of danger is why many take up running, art classes, volunteering — to stay on healthiest path possible

Leaving rehab can be a jarring experience. Former addicts who are in recovery suddenly find themselves back at work and back to their old routines — without the support of therapists, caring groups, and fellow patients who understand what they’ve been through.

The sudden shift can make it hard for people to avoid the same old destructive habits that got them into trouble in the first place. Social situations can be a huge trigger.

“Even if you’re convinced you won’t have a drink … beware.”

Fortunately, there are many ways for people in recovery — people who are our relatives, friends, neighbors and colleagues — to enjoy social times without going down the wrong path.

“Many addicts are under the misguided impression that drugs or alcohol are necessary to have fun,” said Dr. Rod Amiri, a psychotherapist and addiction specialist at Malibu Hills Treatment Center in Malibu, California. “To their surprise, these individuals soon learn there is an infinite number of people, places and activities to enjoy during their recovery.”

Jen Smith (not her real name) is a former addict from California who has been clean now for five years. She immediately felt unsettled once she was out of rehab, she said: “As a former drug abuser, I felt a pretty decent-sized hole in my life after getting clean. Drug use started out as a very social thing for me … When I first got clean, I wondered what people did with their time. How on earth did they fill their days?”

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If you or anyone you know is in the post-rehab stage and needs fresh ideas for social activities to enjoy that don’t involve addictive substances, check out these five recommendations:

1.) Find sober friends. Recovering addicts need the support of fellow sober friends. Following their rehab, they can enroll in both 12- and non-12-step programs to meet people. “Recovery communities (like 12-step fellowships and non-12-step options such as SMART Recovery and Moderation Management) are filled with sober men and women of all ages, races, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic groups who understand exactly what people are going through,” said Dr. Amiri. “Building a robust social support network is essential for long-term sobriety.”

2.) Get a new hobby. Taking part in healthy and fun activities while recovering is also a wise idea. While not all healthy activities are going to be the perfect fit, whatever a person does pick should be fun. “One key thing when starting out is to give new things a try,” noted Amiri. “Start simple. Take an exercise class, join a book club, go hiking or biking, take an adult education class — or volunteer to be of service to others.”

Running became the anti-drug for Jen Smith: “I started wondering how I could push myself out of my comfort zone. I started running. That boosted my confidence and my mood. I felt like I was starting to regain self-control — and control of my life in general.”

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She added, “I started seeking out others who enjoyed running. My social life began to bloom again. I began a friendship with a neighbor who ran with me. At work, I struck up conversations with people who played sports, which led to new friendships.”

3.) Be flexible. Those just out of rehab may feel stressed by the easiest of tasks. So whatever activity a person chooses should be convenient and fit into their newly sober routine — and starting out slowly is best.

To figure out if an activity feels right, a person should participate in it for two or three weeks before deciding whether to continue. If it’s dropped — it should be replaced with something else. “Something as simple as finding a television series that could hold my attention for hours was good to begin with,” said Smith. “I needed a distraction.”

4.) Avoid happy hour. After work, employees often go out to a bar and have a few drinks. For anyone recently out of rehab, this favorite after-work habit is a high-risk activity: “Even if you’re convinced you won’t have a drink, or you’ve abstained while hanging out with friends in the past, in most cases it is just a matter of time until you become convinced you can drink responsibly,” noted Amiri.

If people feel they won’t fit in at work or cultivate meaningful relationships without social drinking, they can try inviting coworkers out for a breakfast or lunch instead. Or they can schedule a healthy, fun activity during happy hour instead — anything from art classes to exercising to volunteer activities. Jen Smith shared this advice for declining the situations where alcohol is involved: “I remember my mom teaching me early on that ‘no’ or ‘no thanks’ is a complete sentence. You don’t owe anyone an explanation.”

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“Sometimes you have to tell someone twice when you get the ‘Aw, just one drink!’ response. But it’s never questioned beyond that and quickly forgotten. Remember that people are more concerned with themselves than they are with you. So far, it’s worked out fine for me.”

5.) Navigate eating out. Dining out with friends, family members, or significant others can be yet another trigger for someone in recovery. When going out to eat, people should invite sober friends, sit far away from the bar, turn their wine glass upside down as soon as seated, and order a large non-alcoholic drink to slowly sip throughout the meal, suggested Amiri. “A person should also “bookend’ the meal by calling his or her sponsor or sober buddy before and after, to frame the activity with sober behavior.”

So much of this is about support — and staying positive and determined.

“I make plans with people who are doing something,” said Jen Smith. “The people who are always outside, going somewhere, or planning something are the ones doing great things with their lives. This has been working for me. I’m nearly five years clean, now happily married, and I have two wonderful kids.”

Kylie Ora Lobell is a writer and essayist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Forward, and many other publications. 

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