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Recovery Won't Get Better Each Day
The recovery path is filled with detours and missteps.
I have a video game on my phone that just might be the dumbest video game I’ve ever played. It’s called “Tap Titans 2” and the basic premise is that you just tap on your screen again and again.
You play as a little man with a sword and as you tap on the screen he swings the sword at a monster. After enough attacks, the monster disappears and a new one takes its place. The monsters never attack back, so there’s no way to lose. You just keep tapping and swinging away.
As the game progresses, allies join your screen, the characters level up, and you find equipment to make your player stronger. Through it all, though, the game remains essentially the same: You just tap and tap as you watch your stats steadily increase higher and higher.
By now you’re probably wondering: Why would I waste my time playing a game like this? What on earth is the appeal?
Originally, I downloaded it as a way to keep my hands busy while practicing Spanish. I wanted something that let me fidget but didn’t require any brainpower. Tap Titans 2 fit the bill perfectly. It wasn’t any fun, it was more like the electronic equivalent of those spinning toys that were popular a few years ago.
However, I have to admit that the game has grown on me. There’s something unexpectedly appealing about a game in which you can’t lose—a game in which you just get stronger and stronger no matter what you do.
It’s relaxing to see easy, steady progress. There are never any challenges to face and there are no ways to screw up. I just keep tapping and the little man on the screen keeps slaying monsters.
Real life is not like Tap Titans 2. Real life doesn’t have steady, measurable improvement. Real life doesn’t always allow us to make progress day after day.
The game got me thinking about my sobriety. One of the biggest challenges with quitting drinking was that it didn’t immediately improve my life. It took over a year of sobriety before I felt like I was making progress.
Even later in my sobriety, I didn’t always feel like my life was getting better. I had plenty of good days, but I also had plenty of bad ones mixed in. I even had bad months.
My mental health, for example, took a big dip when I first quit drinking. It got better during the second and third years, but then I had a resurgence of depression. These days, I’m feeling great again, but it wouldn’t shock me if I experience depression again in the future. It’s extremely common for depression to reoccur, whether a person is sober or not.
When I go through rough patches—whether it’s depression or other problems in my life—I’ve sometimes questioned whether getting sober was worth it. It’s a miserable feeling to have gone through so much work to overcome an addiction, only to feel like your life hasn’t improved at all.
It would be much easier if getting sober was like playing some dumb video game on my phone. If I could see steady progress day after day, never having a single setback or failure. However, that’s just not how sobriety works.
Sobriety, like just about every other part of life, can be a bumpy road. Even if you’re doing every single thing right in your recovery, you’re still going to sometimes wake up feeling worse than you did the day before.
So, how do we stick with sobriety when the benefits aren’t always so obvious? There are two tricks that I’ve learned along the way, that have helped me a lot.
Early on, I kept a very close count of how many days I had been sober. This running count was clear, measurable proof that something was getting better in my life. Even if I couldn’t see the changes, I knew that I was reaching a higher and higher number of days without alcohol.
It’s a simple trick, but our brains seem wired to love these easily observable, constantly increasing numbers. By counting the days that I had stayed sober, I was creating something analogous to the “stats” that we see in video games.
The other trick, which is along the same lines, is that I tried to find hobbies that had easily measurable progress. For example, I tracked the books I read, used a GPS watch to time my runs, and started keeping a notebook as I learned to draw.
Even these hobbies have their ups and downs, but between all of them, I could always find improvement in some parts of my life. During a day that I was feeling depressed, I could at least see that I had just run my fastest 5k, finished another book, or gotten a little better at drawing.
It’s tempting to belittle these improvements and write them off as nothing more than pastimes. However, I know from experience that these hobbies can be real lifesavers when the rest of our life is going poorly.
Focusing on these measurable traits was a great way to get me through the ups and downs of sobriety. Recently, though, I’ve had to use them less and less, because these days my life is far better than it ever was during my drinking years.
Although I still have plenty of ups and downs, I’ve spent enough years sober to see the pattern that on a large scale, my life is improving.
So, it’s true that life is a lot more complicated than Tap Titans 2, but ultimately, maybe that’s not the end of the world. The challenges we face are a part of what makes us human, and despite our setbacks, we can keep moving forward, and eventually find the progress that we’re after.
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