In the trenches of substance abuse, the body becomes an effective punching bag, whether the user intends to consciously inflict harm on it or not. Depending on the extent of using, the body may feel beyond repair. Sobriety, however, affords you a chance for your body to undergo a variety of changes and your experience of – and relationship to – your body will inevitably change as well. These changes widely vary from person to person based on the specific substances that were used, the severity of use, as well as the unique constitution of our individual bodies. However, not all changes come easily or quickly, and may require a great deal of time, space, patience, and additional help despite the body’s natural intelligence and inclination to heal.
I didn’t realize how obvious my tendency towards self-flagellation was in early sobriety until my first mentor told me to “put down the bat and pick up a feather,” which baffled me at first, then made me feel a bit ashamed to have someone call me out like that. This is to say that putting down alcohol and drugs was the first step for me to gain sobering clarity around the ways in which I spoke to myself and treated my body. To the reader I say congratulations on taking the first step to eliminate alcohol and drugs out of the picture so your body can begin to restore itself and you can further nurture your relationship to the body.
Physical Benefits of Sobriety
There’s an abundance of positive physiological effects on the body from getting sober, such as an improved immune system (fewer colds!), better sleep, clearer skin, and a reduced risk of conditions such as heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and pancreatitis. Your senses will sharpen, which will enhance your everyday experiences, as well as reduce your chances of making regrettable decisions. The liver, which is the only organ in the body that can regenerate itself, starts to do so with gusto in sobriety, which reverses the damage of heavy drinking as well.
Your relationship to your appetite may change. Being under the influence of certain substances may have caused you to consume more food, whereas others may have lessened your appetite. Of course, in sobriety substances like caffeine, tobacco, and sugar can affect your appetite as well, but without the haze of alcohol and drugs, your body will recalibrate and you’ll start to get a better sense of true hunger cues.
Improved Quality of Sleep
Alcohol disrupts alpha waves in the brain and your ability to enter restorative REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, so a substance-free nighttime ritual can aid in a more restful, lasting sleep. When you sleep an adequate number of hours, your body produces digestive hormones called leptin and ghrelin that regulate appetite and satiety the next day. With sobriety, you are likely to experience better sleep – whether that means falling asleep easily or staying asleep throughout the night – and better sleep means your body has a chance to regulate the production of these hormones, normalizing your appetite the next day. Not sleeping enough means your body cannot produce enough of these hormones, causing you to feel hungrier and possibly ravenous the next day.
Physical Challenges of Sobriety
It may be easy to conclude that in sobriety, your physical body automatically heals as well as your relationship to said body, but while respite from the drink may alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression for some, for others, getting sober may exacerbate pre-existing mental health challenges like these. The gift of sobriety is that it awakens you to the stark reality of the conditions and belief systems that alcohol and drugs can no longer hide, a lucid picture of the extent of these challenges, which might encourage you to seek professional help and group support.
Self-Harming Food and Body Behaviors
If you struggled with using harmful food and body-related behaviors prior to and/or during substance abuse – such as disordered eating or exercise patterns – these behaviors may get exacerbated in sobriety, getting frustratingly worse before they get better. Some examples include: restricting, purging, and bingeing on food, over-exercising, and excessive concern with weight and body image, to name a few. Other nuanced body-based behaviors include body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRB), which is an all-encompassing term for impulse control behaviors that damage one’s appearance or cause physical injury, ranging from biting your nails, picking at your skin, and pulling out your hair, to cutting and other forms of self-injury.
Identifying Emotional Needs
Try not to be discouraged or sink into despair if these body behaviors flare up in sobriety, as this is fairly common. The knee-jerk response to pathologize these behaviors with names can be relieving, but can also be harmful in subtle ways. Know that underlying any desire to escape with harmful behaviors is a signpost that some of your emotional needs are not getting met, funneling the urge to check out of life. Substance and behavior abusers are ultimately seeking relief in whatever channel they find and it helps to have compassion for this part of yourself that is doing what it has historically known to do. Perhaps you are denying yourself pleasure in other areas of your life or feeling unseen or unheard at work or at home.
For many, the roots of physical self-injury tie back to childhood trauma, such as neglect and various kinds of abuse, but this may not be obvious at first. When engaging in self-injury, the user manages to become both the abuser and the abused. Though a cognitive behavioral therapeutic approach of refraining from the behavior may offer an immediate solution, it is often a temporary one until the roots of why someone feels the need to engage in such behaviors is addressed. This process of unwinding childhood trauma can take a lifetime, but it is never too late to start. One 12-Step fellowship worth checking out for healing in this realm is Adult Children of Alcoholics And/Or Dysfunctional Families (ACOA), which boasts numerous meetings in New York City.
The variables as to why someone engages in physical self-injury may be myriad, but take some time to connect with the parts of yourself that feel perpetually unfulfilled, dissatisfied, upset, demoralized and work on steps to get you to where you’d like to be with professional help and support groups.
Tools to Improve Your Relationship To Your Body
In early sobriety, it would be wise to seek out the guidance of a nutritionist, who can hear your story and speak with you about getting your nutritional needs met in a sane, safe, and stable manner, rather than indulging in the lure of a quick fix. Some general tips may include eating three nutritionally balanced meals a day to reduce the chances of using self-harming behaviors or focusing on food, having snacks on hand, eating when hungry and stopping when moderately full, and refraining from moralizing food (in other words, avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad”). Contrary to popular belief, you are not what you eat. Food intake and body appearances are not moral issues; when we make them such, we engage in self-objectification. It is as if we flatten our body into two-dimensional objects, dulling the edges of what is really a dynamic, incredible vehicle working hard for us every moment of every day.
Food and Body Support Groups
There are many support groups to assist you with healing your relationship to your body in sobriety, whether you are experiencing a full-fledged eating disorder or disordered eating and exercise behaviors that make your life feel unmanageable at times. Eating Disorders Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous are 12-Step programs based on the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The former program focuses on achieving balance in food/body behaviors and exercise, while the latter has a greater focus on abstinence from certain foods and behaviors. Both programs encourage enlisting the help of a nutritionist if needed as well.
SMART (Self Management and Recovery Training) meetings are another wonderful option if you want a more scientific-based, research-driven approach to working with addictive behaviors. Remember, you’re entitled to all the help you ask for, and there is a lot of help out there at your disposal (especially in NYC!)
Your Relationship to Exercise
Exercise can be a loaded word for some; for others, it may be a neutral one, indicating an intuitive activity that feels good in the body. For those of us for whom the word “exercise” brings up certain feelings, know that not all exercise looks the same. For some it may be cardio to work off pent-up emotions; for others it may be a restorative yoga class to calm down and relax. Whichever you prefer, try to get in the habit of checking in with your breath throughout the practice.
Remember to also schedule free time to give yourself permission, time, and space to do nothing. A body doing seemingly nothing is one that is doing a lot. It’s said that many great ideas are born out of moments of boredom or when one isn’t occupied with any activities or thoughts. Rest and relaxation are essential healing tools for the body that are often underemphasized; they also you to create an environment of emotional safety in your body. When a body is constantly in motion, it doesn’t have very many opportunities to recharge.
Boundaries Around Your Body
With greater clarity of mind, you’ll be able to see where boundaries can assist you in your newfound sobriety, especially as it relates to your body. When working towards a new behavior regarding your body and someone questions why, remember you never have to explain why you’re changing something up. Doing so may require a level of emotional labor on your end that might be exhausting, or you simply might not want to talk about it. It’s always OK to say, “I’d rather not talk about this” or phrase it in a general way, like “I’m trying out something new to see if it works for me. Can we talk about something else, though?”
Regarding internal boundaries, check in to see how much of your self-worth and confidence is contingent on what you perceive your body to look like. One question to ask yourself is, “If exercise had no effect on the appearance of my physical body whatsoever, would I still do it for other benefits?” Answering “no” to this question indicates that you may have an unhealthy relationship with exercise.
If you experience body shame or some iteration of body dysmorphia, using substances might have offered temporary relief to flee from the noise of that. Sometimes it can be helpful to work towards a balanced view of the body, which can include listing what it does for you on a daily basis as well as the layers of privilege that your particular body might have, such as being cisgendered (identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth), being able-bodied, and being of a certain height, race, or nationality.
In the span of a day or even an hour, you may go from cherishing to criticizing your body, or something in between. Know that both of these ways of thinking can exist at once. What’s important is to remember that feelings matter and self-criticism and judgment towards one’s body are signposts that there might be other areas of your life that might need attending to. The obsession with food and body image is usually an escape from experiencing real, valid feelings. Self-acknowledgment, self-acceptance, and self-love are a process–one that you may not be equipped to engage with on your own. Sometimes it takes support from others to acknowledge, accept, and love ourselves before we can give that back to ourselves and consequently others.
Substance abuse is a form of self-injury, though it isn’t solely relegated to one’s self. The effects can be felt by many, ultimately becoming a kind of “other-injury” as well. Remember that healing your relationship to your body in sobriety is not a linear journey. You may find yourself “relapsing” on old behaviors, coping mechanisms, or mindsets at times, but that does not undo the progress you are making. When taken apart, the word “relapse” may seem less intimidating; it simply means re-experiencing a “lapse” in judgment or thinking and going back to an old behavior that once served you. You are enough, worthy, and lovable without the crutch. You are so much more than what your body can do and what it looks like and it no longer needs to be the punching bag you once needed it to be.
Marina R. for Avenues NYC