Recovery can feel serious sometimes. We process difficult experiences and learn to cope with triggers. But there is much more room for playfulness in sobriety than in active addiction.
While addiction often causes impulsivity and risk-taking, that is not play. Playfulness connotes a lack of expectations and the freedom to explore, which are difficult to attain when your life is run by substances.
A small example: a few months into sobriety, I was at a friend’s house where there were a lot of instruments. We started making impromptu songs. At least an hour went by without my noticing. It occurred to me that it was the time of day I would have started drinking if I were in active addiction. I would have been antsy to find alcohol and wouldn’t have had that moment of play.
Recovery Connects You to Your Childhood Self
In recovery, you process the underlying reasons you used drugs or alcohol; you’re likely to dig deep into your childhood. This means connecting to the childhood version of yourself that may have been scared, confused, ashamed, or traumatized.
But it doesn’t have to be only negative. You can also reconnect to the playfulness of being a child. This takes work as an adult; we are much more self-conscious, and our minds are preoccupied by responsibilities.
If you weren’t given the opportunity to experience play in childhood, recovery is a chance to learn how to do so. Remember that you’re not too far behind, as most adults have to put in work to get there.
How Can You Connect to Play as an Adult?
It sounds counterintuitive, but one way to encourage play is to schedule unstructured time. As adults, this time often needs to be consciously set aside. But once you’re in it, you can do anything you want: explore your neighborhood or a nearby one, go on an unplanned day trip, listen to or play music, draw.
You might think of an activity that tends to put you “in the zone” and allow yourself to get immersed in it. “Flow state” is the more formal term for being “in the zone,” and while you are in it, your brain experiences numerous changes. An important one for play is that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain involved in self-monitoring also referred to as our “inner critic”—is deactivated. Adults often have a hard time playing because of inhibition and self-consciousness.
If you haven’t found what puts you in a flow state, that’s okay. Try to think of searching for it as its own form of play. Come to it with a sense of exploration and loosen your focus on the outcome.
If you have kids in your life, they can be a great model for playfulness. My nieces live in another state, so when I visit, I spend almost the whole time playing games with them.
Most kids know that their imaginary games are imaginary, but they still become fully immersed in the story. It feels like a boost to my creativity to play along. It also challenges my self-consciousness as I pretend to be characters or act ridiculous to make them laugh.
Play can be something you incorporate into your daily life in smaller ways. Many of us go about our day-to-day life in a kind of trance. Actively paying attention to your surroundings—for instance making a point to notice one thing on your drive to work—is a form of play. It takes you out of your thinking mind to engage in exploration. Regular meditation can help you pay more attention in your daily life.
Some people are seen as more playful than others, but anyone can cultivate playfulness. Recovery is a great opportunity to work play into your life.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. Amatus Recovery Centers offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. We offer recreational and expressive therapy, so you can learn to explore, be creative, and connect to the world sober. To learn more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.