I love laughing and making other people laugh but, ten years ago, I gave mostly everything good to alcohol — including my capacity for joy, humor, and fun.
In the ‘90s film Say Anything, Llloyd Dobler says to his depressed sister, “You used to be fun. You used to be warped, and twisted, and hilarious.” Someone close to me quoted that line to me a few years before I got sober. In the movie, Constance smiles and says, “I still am.” I couldn’t say that, because I knew it wasn’t true for me. At the time, I barely remembered that person, and didn’t know how to get her back. Most of my humor by then was cutting sarcasm, a weapon of my deep shame and rage over the mess of my life that I didn’t know how to solve. If I was ever enjoyable to be around at the time, it was an accident.
When I got lucky enough to get sober, I didn’t laugh right away, either. I was too scared, and healing takes time. I didn’t understand life without alcohol, and stumbling through that first year, I felt deeply lucky to be alive, but also like a newcomer to life in general.
Most of the sober people I met seemed happy, though, and not in a fake or gross way. They laughed a lot more than I would have expected, and seemed to genuinely enjoy hanging out together. And for some reason I trusted them when they said I would get better — a smart move because I had honestly run out of better options. I hear the fear I felt then from newly sober people now — mostly that they’re afraid they’ll never have fun again without drinking. What I didn’t consider until later myself was that I hadn’t really had fun drinking for years. I based all of my ideas of fun and enjoyment on an outdated model of my life where a drink was necessary for everything from opening my email to having a real life conversation. With that option gone, I needed to redesign everything.
“There is a common thread that people who are in pain seek relief,” says Devra Gordon, MSW, a substance use intensive outpatient therapist based in Fairfax, Virginia. “Substances such as drugs and alcohol are for the most part pain relievers. They numb. They cover up. What they don’t do is remove the pain entirely. Either pain heals and ends or we learn to manage the suffering from the pain. Humor is a tool to ease suffering.”
Most of the sober people I met seemed happy, though, and not in a fake or gross way. They laughed a lot more than I would have expected, and seemed to genuinely enjoy hanging out together.
Not much is funny about being burdened with substance use disorder and its many related problems, and the early days of sobriety — full of those previously numbed feelings Gordon mentions — can be a challenge.
“We live in a society, for the most part, that is not comfortable with suffering,” she said. “Think about it? We crack jokes to ease tension, we poke fun at our own pain to make another person laugh through tears. Learning to sit with your feelings, to manage distress is a key part of managing addiction. Addiction is a disease of feelings, not merely a brain disease.”
I was so uncomfortable with suffering that I’d been medicating it with alcohol for years, with no relief. But as time passed, I did learn — with daily practice and much support from giving people — to manage it without harming myself or anyone else. I know today that the joke isn’t always on me, except when it is, and that doesn’t have to hurt either. Life can be fun, and also funny, in a new and better way. Here are a few things that helped me.
1. Owning My Story
Many of the things I did and experienced in my years of active substance abuse were not at all funny. I’m aware of the times I wasn’t good to my loved ones, my work, and my community. But I have carefully considered that history and those behaviors, decided I don’t want to live that way anymore, brought my story into the light with help from caring others, and made what amends I can for the things I did and didn’t do. I’m always accountable but I don’t have to tip over into shame. The truth is out in the open, so it’s easier to see myself accurately — good and bad — and to have some perspective, and even humor, about it all.
“We laugh because we can only cry for so long,” said Jessica Lahey, author of The Addiction Inoculation, due from Harper in 2021. “We laugh because addiction and sobriety are absurd, like living in the upside-down. We laugh because it’s our shared language of healing and support. We laugh because we get each other and understand that the darkest moments come just before the light shines in on us and humor is the tool we use to break through.”
Befriending the reality of a past I can’t change, so it doesn’t further hurt me or others in my life, is a new and transformative option.
“The severity of the things I have done — if I don’t treat it as comedy — will become a tragedy, and I choose not to live morosely,” said one of my closest friends in recovery, whom I’ll call Rebecca. “It’s gotta be funny, because it’s not neutral.”
2. Use Your Darkest Moments for Good
I learned in recovery rooms that laughter can redeem the most depressing experiences, even for an hour. I’ve heard myself speaking about things aloud that I never intended to tell anyone — that I hated to admit even to myself —and found myself shaking with laughter. And every time I take that risk, someone approaches me afterward to tell me they had just that experience.
“It’s kind of like that dark humor that emerges around a funeral,” Lahey said. “It would sound callous and unfeeling to anyone not immersed in grief, but those jokes are a lifeline into the sadness, a promise of laughter and happiness to come.”
If you can get through rehab, a foreclosure, a divorce, a layoff a death, or your own impulsive behavior on a random afternoon, maybe I can too. And maybe if we laugh about it, we have some hope in the game, too.
“Humor for me has always been a vital part of my recovery,” said Janelle Hanchett, author of I’m Just Happy to Be Here: a Memoir of Renegade Mothering. “First of all, let’s be real, a lot of the things we did while drinking were just plain funny, but beyond that, the laughter is a release valve, allowing us to recognize the ridiculousness of ourselves, our thinking alongside the very painful memories. And the connection it creates, laughing with other alcoholics about things that perhaps the rest of the world wouldn’t find very amusing.”
3. Find — and Keep — Your Funny People
I need people around who can laugh with me, and only occasionally at me. Many of these people happen to be sober, too. It’s not that every person who makes me laugh a lot has a substance use disorder, but if I did my typically shaky math, I’d say the funny stats skew in our favor. Several years in, I have a solid network of sober people who challenge me, support me, make me think, and crack me up. I know, relate to, and often laugh at their stories, no matter how dark. And sometimes they’re really dark. (See #2.)
I can also better share humor and fun with other important people in my life — my best friends and my immediate family, none of whom share the recovery path with me but were there for me at my worst and still are — more than I ever have. I don’t have to drink with them to enjoy them, or vice versa. I’m comfortable in my body and my mind for the first time in my life, so it’s easier to be honest, relaxed, and open to the beautiful and the ridiculous in life and in myself, in ways that I couldn’t before. I listen better. All good changes.
4. Look for the Good
I remember the first time I could laugh at myself and mean it in sobriety. I showed up at my usual meeting, and a friend said, “I can tell you’re doing so much better because you’re really taking care of your hair!”
I had a choice: Get upset because they were basically telling me it was great that I didn’t roll in with my hair looking like hell anymore, or thank them for noticing what I hadn’t: That I didn’t roll in with my hair looking like hell anymore. I could choose between my habit of taking every perceived slight personally, and smiling because someone cared enough to notice that things were changing in my life, at least where my hair was concerned. I had stopped taking care of myself, and then, when I got better, I started again. It felt good to take it as a compliment, and to laugh at myself without hating myself, or anyone else. Growth.
Getting and staying sober — like most other things in life — is not always fun or funny. It’s a sometimes difficult process of swapping old, unhelpful thoughts and actions with better ones.
It’s not surprising that it takes awhile to lighten up, after years of crisis, trauma, and disconnection from myself and others. Learning to take myself far less seriously has taken time and a lot of help from my support system, after years of being the center of my own boring, depressing universe.
“DBT and CBT techniques are integral in managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, but being able to follow rule 62 [Recovery-speak for ‘not taking oneself too seriously’]? Now you’re talkin’ my language!” Gordon said. “I do take my clients seriously, I take their recovery seriously, but I have found that material that is fun to learn and taught with humor is easier to remember.”
In therapy and in daily life, easing up on ourselves helps.
5. Dare to Be Silly
I didn’t try most new things for years — especially in groups — because I was afraid to look silly, and also just afraid in general. Fear is a joy killer. (See Rule #62.) Building a life and a network in sobriety can change all of that, ready or not.
Case in point: I’m not a fan of water sports, or a strong swimmer. Last summer, I got over this enough to spend a day on the river with friends, and watch them tube and windsurf while I sat from a safe, life-jacketed distance in the boat. An hour or so in, I realized that I was laughing more than I had in a long time, with people who all incidentally had a fairly sad backstory that should have made that kind of day impossible. It is one of my most joyful recent memories, and while it might look like it had little to do with getting or being sober, I was only there at all because I dealt with the big stuff that scared me for years.
“It’s the shared experience,” said Hanchett. “It also helps me remember not to take myself too seriously. I’m not that big of a deal. I am rather absurd, actually. And I’m grateful today just to have a functioning life. That’s my baseline. Even that, if you think about it, is pretty damn funny.”
One of my favorite memories from early recovery is a man telling the story of how he had made his first trip to the post office, ever, after years of paralyzing anxiety holding him back from going there. The room full of people applauded and laughed with him, and I realized two things: Most people outside would probably think we were very strange for finding this funny at all. And also, I had found my people.
What’s funny about struggling with substance use disorder and anxiety so much that you can’t run a basic errand? Not much, until you’re on the other side of it — not drunk or high anymore, able to do the things you couldn’t do before, and share the win with people who get you. That’s when it’s a little easier, and much more healing, to laugh about it.