When we recently covered the disease model of addiction, we noted that many addicts and alcoholics indulge in substance abuse as a means of filling a spiritual void. Of course, it never really works. If filling the void were really as easy as doing some shots or smoking some dope, addicts would be the happiest, most fulfilled individuals in the world. Instead, we wind up engaging in a pattern of self-destructive behaviors until the consequences become unavoidable and we find ourselves in addiction treatment. This is ultimately for the best, but the problem lies in the fact that sobriety itself does not always cure us of our need to fill that void.
This is why so many treatment centers will often encourage their patients to begin formulating a relapse prevention plan before they graduate treatment. A relapse prevention plan tells us who we can rely on when our obsession beckons to us. It tells us which meetings are closest to us. We also usually brainstorm our responses to potential triggers. But those of us who are truly serious about relapse prevention should also spend some time devising activities geared toward filling the void. Otherwise, the emptiness and isolation of our former lives will return, and we will no longer see the value in our sobriety.
There is no greater error in recovery, aside from taking the first drink, than to leave our void perpetually unfilled. Below, we will talk about the importance of filling the void, along with a few methods of doing so. You may find some of these useful, even if only for the sake of acting as a springboard so that you may find your own means of filling the void left behind by your addiction.
The Importance of Filling the Void
As noted above, filling the void is one of the first things we must do when adjusting to life in sobriety. While it is important for recovering addicts and alcoholics to learn how to cope with boredom, one should never strive for an abundance of downtime. We must find productive and fulfilling pursuits to help us fill our day. This is essentially what we mean when we talk about “filling the void.”
And we should note that we are not just talking about the emotional void that often spurs our addictions in the first place. When we really stop and think back on it, we will often realize that addiction was actually one of the most time-intensive activities we had ever undertaken. Sally, a member of About.com’s Smoking Cessation forum, notes that even abstinence from cigarette smoking left her with quite a bit of extra time to be filled. Consider for a second how long it takes to smoke a cigarette. Three, five, maybe seven minutes? Now consider how long you spent drinking or abusing drugs each day. Toward the end of our addictions, we probably tallied hours on the activity.
That’s a lot of empty time to be filled. When fully immersed in our disease, we often had time for little else. Those of us who fed our cravings in secret spent almost as much time crafting and maintaining our lies as we spent on the indulgence of the act itself. As our dopamine receptors became damaged beyond repair and our tolerance diminished, we had to spend longer periods of time drinking and abusing drugs if we were to scratch our eternal itch.
Those of us who were really over the barrel likely spent quite a bit of time trying to acquire our drugs in the first place, sometimes through legally tenuous means. And while finding ways of dealing with our legal issues may fill some of our time, there is still quite a bit of time left over. But filling the void is not just about finding ways to occupy our time. Addiction is a disease that attacks our body, mind, and spirit. Such a powerful disease cannot be cured through sheer distraction. We must go about filling the void in a manner which subdues our self-inflicted need for chaos, so as to ensure that we do not long for our old ways.
This is why filling the void is so important. The addict is a being of arrested development, stunted in spiritual and emotional growth. As we succumb more and more frequently to our physical cravings for drugs and alcohol, we inevitably find ourselves reinforcing numerous other unhealthy behaviors along the way. It can be hard to break free of these inclinations. But we must find a way, for our previous chaotic lifestyle is forever entwined with our addictions, and giving in to old habits will almost always lead us back down the same dark path from which this journey started.
Filling the Void by Spiritual Means
Since one of the primary motivations for filling the void is to ensure we do not relive our old destructive lifestyle, it stands to reason that spiritual means of self-fulfillment should take point when devising this particular aspect of our relapse prevention plan. Many spiritual means of filling the void are naturally recovery-based. Some people double down on going to 12-step meetings, finding fulfillment as they seek out new groups and become involved in numerous recovery communities. In doing so, they will often succeed in building a strong and sober support network to fall back on when they find themselves slipping.
Of course, some of us are not exactly social butterflies. We may become involved in 12-step meetings by chairing meetings or taking on a service position, but we may feel little need or desire to stray too far from our home group. Those of us who are less socially inclined may find solace in recovery-related literature. We may rigorously study the books of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, or even AA’s Grapevine magazine. We may also find recordings of AA speakers and delight in listening to their stories. (James Serenity Tapes can be contacted for those who wish to purchase recordings by numerous famous people in recovery such as Anthony Hopkins and Robert Downey, Jr.) There is no shortage of reading and listening materials for those who truly wish to find them.
If we truly wish to make a full turnaround from the frequently selfish and morally nebulous lives we lived before, then our spiritual remedy of choice may be service work. We might choose to volunteer at a hospital, or a charitable organization such as Good Will. We may choose to service other addicts and alcoholics by volunteering at a treatment center or working with them one-on-one through Twelfth Step work.
Sometimes, service work can be as simple as doing a nice thing for somebody else without expecting anything in return. To really get the full benefit of this, try performing one anonymous good deed each day. In Volume III of Life’s Little Instruction Book, author H. Jackson Brown advises: “Occasionally leave a quarter in the change return slot of a pay phone. Somebody always checks.” Pay phones are on the verge of extinction, but there are vending machines everywhere. The Secret Society of Serendipitous Service to Hal, a secret society consisting entirely of people who perform good deeds under the veil of anonymity, actually has a list of anonymous good deed ideas. Just be careful. Some of them, such as weeding someone’s garden or cutting their grass, could get you arrested if the recipient of the deed in question catches you in the act and misconstrues your attention.
Naturally, some choose to fill their spiritual void through religion. While spirituality and religion are not the same thing, we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least make mention of the role that religion plays in the lives of many recovering addicts. An article on Psychology Today notes that both religion and addiction often appear to fulfill our fundamental need for “a sense of connection that binds our lonely little selves to something else, something bigger, something that feels like certainty in a world that is beyond control.” The feeling of desire affects numerous sections within the brain, so anything that can meet our desire for connection with something greater than ourselves has the capacity to offer neural relief on a grand scale. Religion is not for everyone; however, for those who truly believe in a Higher Power, the pursuit of a connection with this idea results in filling the void on a major scale.
Finally, many attempt filling the void through meditation. There are a number of ways to go about this. There are numerous books for addicts which offer daily verbal meditations, such as Twenty-Four Hours a Day and Daily Reflections. But there are also more metaphysical forms of meditation such as walking meditation and the more traditional Zen sitting meditation. Many addicts have minds that seem to move at warp speed, and we often use drugs and alcohol as a way of slowing down. Meditation teaches us how to accomplish this while completely sober.
Spiritual means of filling the void are among the most important, and it wouldn’t hurt to find ways of adopting most of the practices named above. But there are also a few means of physically filling the void which we will now briefly address.
Filling the Void by Physical Means
There are several physical means of filling the void left behind by our addiction which, much like many of the spiritual means listed above, serve the dual purposes of filling our time while also helping to fill the hole that allowed our addiction to become so bad in the first place.
For instance, proper nutrition can actually act as a boon to mental health. By eating a well-balanced diet consisting largely of protein and produce containing a wide array of vitamins, we will ultimately allow ourselves to feel better both mentally and physically. Since preparing these meals ourselves will fill up a fair amount of our time (while also promoting a highly beneficial life skill), we will find something to do with the hours we once spent preparing and imbibing our nightly cocktails. Furthermore, alcoholics who spent years living on a liquid diet and addicts whose drugs of choice diminished their appetites will find themselves feeling healthier than ever, thereby promoting an increased sense of well-being.
Exercise is another great way of filling the void through physical means. There is a wide array of activities available, depending upon one’s personal inclinations. Some might enjoy circuit training, allowing them to combine cardiovascular exercise with incremental weight training in order to improve their general health and overall physique. Thrill-seekers may get the proper adrenaline boost by concentrating primarily on weights, whereas those who simply need to expend some energy might enjoy spending their time on cardiovascular activities such as jogging or cycling. If the recovering addict desires a sense of accomplishment, they might try training for a competitive event such as a marathon or triathlon. Some of these events may even act as a form of service work, given the large number of marathons hosted by charitable organizations. One might also consider taking a class in dance, boxing, martial arts, or aerial silk. For those who enjoy the water, swimming also offers a number of benefits, both mental and physical.
Sports can offer many of the same benefits, while also adding a social element that promotes teamwork and camaraderie. While most people instantly think of the more common team sports such as baseball, basketball, football or ice hockey, one can also try finding a place to take in a friendly competitive game of golf, tennis, racquetball or even ping pong. Younger addicts might enjoy something along the lines of ultimate Frisbee or Frisbee golf. Those who are inclined toward extreme sports may also enjoy skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding, or downhill skiing, all of which still offer something of a social element depending upon the venue. You’d be surprised at how many outlets there are for such sports in most areas, many of which can easily be found through a simple Google search.
Here at Amethyst Recovery, we are actually incredibly vested in the therapeutic benefits of physical activity. We even offer outings every weekend, during which we emphasize team-building and physical therapy through adventurous activities such as sailing, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, zip-lining, and even the rare trip to a labyrinth maze. We also offer equine therapy through horseback riding.
Whether your thing is mountain climbing, paddle boarding, fencing or motocross, you can probably find a way to get out some of your energy while decreasing boredom and having a bit of fun. If you wish to combine the physical with the spiritual, you may also try taking a yoga class or two. If you just want to have a bit of fun without breaking too much of a sweat, then find a place where you can ride go-karts, take to the batting cages, or play a game of laser tag. Even taking a daily constitutional can be a great way to clear your head while keeping the blood pumping.
If filling the void is truly a concern of yours, then you’ll want to try and engage yourself in some sort of physical activity on a fairly regular basis. Not only will you find a way to spend your time while feeling a lot better about yourself, but you’ll also be giving yourself a nice little reminder that the world outside your front door is full of endless possibilities for fun and entertainment. And every time you leave the house without having a single thought of hitting the bar or calling your dealer, your recovery will grow just that much stronger as a result.
Other Methods of Filling the Void
Most of the best means for filling the void have been covered above, and we definitely recommend adopting a regimen of both spiritual and physical activities in which you can immerse yourself on a weekly (if not daily) basis. That said, there are a few other things we’d like to briefly mention on the off-chance that they might not have occurred to you.
First of all, try taking up a new hobby (or re-engaging yourself in an old one). This can be combined with some of the above pursuits. For instance, if you are trying to focus on your mental nutrition, then you might benefit from a cooking class. If you have always been something of a creative type, then you might try taking some classes to improve your skills at writing, musicianship, or visual arts. There is definitely a spiritual side to such activities, as you will be able to better express yourself through your own creations.
You might also try starting a collection of some sort. Some people collect figurines of one type or another, and find themselves experiencing a feeling of accomplishment whenever they’ve added something neat to their collection. Those who are interested in history, geography, or culture may benefit from collecting rare coins or other artifacts. A collection can even give our life a renewed sense of purpose. Did you know that Charles Darwin’s interest in the science of living things began with a simple collection of beetles? As noted on Psychology Today, collecting can also offer a number of mental benefits such as increased pattern recognition and a stronger aptitude for organization and observation.
The most important thing to remember about filling the void is that sometimes the need can hit us when we are not expecting it. We might be engaging in both spiritual and physical activities on a regular basis, with a plethora of hobbies and collections to keep us occupied. Then, out of the blue, that rush of emptiness and self-doubt will hit us like a ton of bricks. In such moments, we may feel a little lost. We might question the state of our lives, and try to trick ourselves into believing that we are out of reasons not to start using again. But it usually passes with time. This need will pass as our lives become more fulfilling, but even people with upwards of thirty years sober may experience it every once in a while. If the problem is that our lives have become too routine, then we must simply try something different. Go to dinner at a new restaurant. See a movie with a friend or family member you don’t see too often. Just do something.
As long as you keep filling your spiritual void, you should find that recovery becomes much easier over time. And who knows? One day, you might wake up and discover that there is no void left to fill. The emptiness that used to fill you up like a black hole and eradicate the inner light that makes your life so precious to those around you has finally given way to something better. That is when you will finally understand what we in recovery mean when we talk about the contentment and serenity that accompanies long-term sobriety.
More Resources for Addiction Recovery
There’s a lot of ways to get help with overcoming addiction. If you need additional help, the first thing is to contact us. We can help you with treatment and directing you to get the help you need.
While we do not provide treatment for overcoming tobacco addiction, you can find fantastic resources to help you quit at Tobaccofreelife.org.