When you first get sober, people in your life may treat you with gravitas. This comes from a good place—they understand the seriousness of addiction recovery and want to be supportive. But sometimes you need levity.
I still remember the first few (respectful) jokes people made when I was struggling with new sobriety. Actually, the first was right before I entered recovery. I told a friend I was worried my friends would think I was boring sober. Her response was: “At a certain time of night you repeat the same thing over and over until you pass out. We might go through a mourning period, but we will pull through.”
The joke concisely clarified several things: my intoxicated self was not as charming as I thought; my worries about no longer being accepted were unfounded; most importantly, the friend supported my sobriety.
Sure, there is a place for direct statements of support. But over the years, a lot of my friends have expressed (and showed) encouragement; I deeply appreciate it, and yet this friend’s comment is one of few specifics I remember.
Numerous studies have shown humor increases memory retention, though it doesn’t seem like we know why. My guess is that some of the best humor is unexpected or incongruent, making it stand out.
This might also be the reason humor helps with creative problem-solving, according to a study published in The Open Nursing Journal. In recovery, we need creative problem-solving to cope with craving a substance we know is bad for us.
As the study authors note, “Incongruity [in humor] looks at situations that make sense and do not make sense at the same time…They [people with Substance Use Disorders] might gain new perspectives through humor by identifying with some of the contradictions in their thoughts and behaviors and reconsider alternatives.”
To put it less cerebrally: laughter is fun, helps with creative solutions, and feels good. I have very specific memories of the relieved pressure I felt laughing at that joke my friend made—probably because it released two forms of stress simultaneously.
It gave me permission to let go of psychological pressure; I didn’t have to worry about upholding a limited idea of “fun.” And laughter is pressure release—it activates and then relieves your stress response.
In recovery—especially early recovery—stress release is much-needed. People often come to sobriety beaten down and facing an uphill battle. Humor helps. Using humor in early recovery can imprint the experience as positive in your memory.
It’s a delicate balance—you never want to make fun of or downplay someone’s struggles. In general, you don’t want to “punch down.” This means laughing at the expense of a group you’re not part of that has less political or social power than you. Sometimes comedy is seen as biting or even cruel. But when done well, humor has an almost unmatched power to connect people.
If you read the stories on our website from staff at our recovery centers, many speak about the sense of camaraderie they felt at our centers during their own early experiences in treatment. It’s rare you find bonding without laughter.
As mentioned in the profile of Matt Bohannon, a Behavioral Health Technician at Blueprint Recovery Center, “Bohannon says that bringing laughter, fun, and positivity to clients is the best way to show them that a life in recovery isn’t dull. The alternatives are too dangerous.”
People may be afraid to make jokes when they see someone struggling. But if it comes from a place of lifting people up rather than bringing anyone down, it can be healing.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is help available. TruHealing Centers is open through the pandemic, with hospital-grade sanitization and telehealth options. At our recovery centers across the country, our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will provide a sense of camaraderie and support as they help you build towards long-term recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.