I think of myself as a numbaholic, prone to disengaging in not-so-healthy ways. Alcohol was by far my favorite way to numb but I still have others. Food, immersing myself in books, playing Angry Birds, keeping busy, cleaning (maybe this one isn’t so bad), reading blogs, over-spending, picking at my cuticles…these are all ways that I numb myself.

We all have the tendency to tune out the noise and chaos of our lives. We all have holes that we try to fill with external things. But those of us with addiction issues need to be especially wary of replacing one addiction with another. That’s why recovery is so much more than just staying sober.

The first year after I stopped drinking, I decided that I could have as much sugar as I wanted. I reminded myself of all the years I didn’t order dessert because I wanted to save the calories for alcohol. Now, I could eat dark chocolate after the kids went to bed instead of having wine. A better choice, certainly, but it could’ve led to other problems. Fortunately, I have an ingrained off switch when it comes to sweets. I can have a small, reasonable portion and stop. That’s not the case with other forms of numbing.

It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between numbing and relaxing. I distinguish between the two by recognizing that relaxing is an activity and numbing is a behavior. Chilling on the couch with my husband watching our favorite show is relaxing. Watching a Mad Men marathon and not wanting to move for 6 hours is numbing. Reading is one of my favorite activities but reading so that I don’t have to deal with something that needs my attention is numbing.

By far the most difficult numbing behavior (besides alcohol) that’s been toughest for me to stop is picking at my cuticles. I’ve done it since I was a little girl and watched my mom do it all my life. I’ve spent a lifetime curling my fingers in so that no one notices my bloody stumps. I call my thumbs my “worry thumbs” because they get picked the most, especially when something is troubling me. It may have served a purpose for me at one time but it became a habit that I just couldn’t break. A couple of months ago, I finally came to the conclusion that I couldn’t stop by willpower alone. I prayed to God to release me of the desire to hurt myself and to help me resist the urge to pick at my cuticles. The response planted in my heart and mind proves that God is equally feminine and masculine. “Girlfriend, just grow your nails and paint them pretty. I’ve got your back.”

I'm not ready to claim "mission accomplished" yet but it's a good start.
I’m not ready to claim “mission accomplished” yet but it’s a good start.

Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, writes, “We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” I spent many years numbing both and it’s becoming easier and easier to break the pattern.

What do you do to numb? How do you know you’ve crossed the line between unwinding and numbing?

42 thoughts on “Numbaholic

  1. I think someone mentioned it above, but as I was reading this (I’m 4 months sober), I found myself thinking “Is the fact that I’ve been pouring over booze blogs for an hour and a half numbing or an activity?” I have always gotten lost in numbing behaviors, and don’t even get me started on the cuticles thing! It’s like you’re in a trance.


    1. There’s also a thin line between numbing and seeking distraction. When I find myself pouring over blogs, it’s usually a form of procrastination. What is I’m trying to avoid? If I’m trying to avoid a feeling, it’s numbing. If I’m trying to avoid an activity, it’s procrastination. Now, if I’m avoiding an activity because I don’t want to feel the emotions tied to it, it gets a bit muddy! I tend to over analyze. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts!


  2. This title in your sidebar caught me as numbing has been a little more evident for me lately. Not see easy to stop and it can camouflage itself so well. I think our churches are full of this behavior that is easy to hide behind and feel safe. Thanks Karen!


    1. Yes, it can camouflage itself so well. Submersing ourselves in routine and what feels safe can be a form of numbing too. I guess anything that keeps us from being right where we are in the moment falls into that category. I’m curious to hear more about what you see in our churches. I’m a new church goer and am still trying to make sense of it all!


      1. We could have an interesting exchange, Karen, as I’d love to heat your impressions as a new church goer too. Having a worship service with men in recovery has changed my views a lot. I guess in the traditional church I see a lot of hiding behind Jesus instead of walking next to him. Worse is when we try to lead and that is a daily dance. In our denomination I see a lot of obesity so I think numbing with food is common. I think we have trouble accepting ourselves. I also appreciate Brene Browns writing and speaking about this. We all still have a lot to learn. Feel free to email me any time. I would especially like to hear your thoughts as a new church goer as you describe yourself. We can learn from each other.


  3. To say this post hits home would be the understatement of the century. I can say, unequivocally, that I cannot differentiate between numbing and relaxing, and you have given me something to ponder, so thank you for that. Maybe that question will spark necessary changes.

    My newest venture into a healthier lifestyle involves a lot of what you write about… eliminating that which is done for no other reason than escape. I am focusing on food, and the biggest offender for me, is soft pretzels. I have turned the process of eating them into an art form, and it has grown uncomfortably close to the way I treated past addictive substances, so the first hurdle for me is to eliminate them, much the same way that I eliminated mind-altering substances from my life. And, no surprise here, the same tools that help me stay sober are helping me steer clear of soft pretzels (praying as you mentioned is a big one!).

    But of course there are lots of little numbing habits for me as well, and most of them have been mentioned in the comments above: Candy Crush, reading, reality TV (or, as I like to call it, Train Wreck TV), all activities that allow me to turn off the noise in my head.

    Great post, Karen, I will be going forward in my day with the question “is it numbing or reaxing?” in my head!


  4. What a great post – exactly right. I remember being in rehab, early days, listening to a gambler who was the focus of the group therapy and they said that the whole point of gambling wasn’t the buzz, wasn’t the winning, the losing it was simply a process which “numbs me from the world around me”. That was the point I realised that was exactly why I drank… and did other things in an unhealthy way too at times. It opened the lid on my inside need to just shut the world out.

    I sometimes worry … I get stuck into a good book, is that good or bad? As long as I do things I need to do it is ok, if I start avoiding things I should be doing to “read another chapter” that is bad. Same with music I can lose myself in music easily – that is often really good. But I have to shake it up – change the music, listen to new stuff etc. and make sure again it doesn’t mean there are dishes to be washed, people to be called on etc.


    1. I sometimes worry too that I use reading to numb. I have so little practice with healthy stress release that I can’t always tell the difference between something healthy and something numbing. I’m definitely getting better at knowing when an activity doesn’t feel right. Thanks for your thoughts!


  5. Girlfriend…you’re nails look amazing!!! Mine are so thin and peeling I have to keep them short to avoid having to paint them every freaking night!

    Let’s see…what’s been on the numbing agenda lately? Solitaire, Bejeweled and real estate apps. Yep, that about covers it.

    As for relaxing? Crocheting, cooking for my family, watching American Idol with the hubs.

    And don’t worry, I love me some JT.



  6. Oooh. So good. Thank you for sharing this. Mine lately has been Pinterest, yikes. Especially yikes because I notice this breeds envy and jealousy of others’ possessions… not a good character quality.


  7. Yes, yes, yes and yes! Except “Bejeweled” is my “Angry Birds.” I find also that I tend to escape in running, in listening to music and planning running music playlists–and listening to one video on Youtube invariably leads to another related video to another to another and then I’ve spent two hours just messing around on Youtube, sigh. Food Network and thumbing through cookbooks are another escape. I still use sugar to a degree to numb out, and carbs and breads… that seems to be an ongoing battle, but one that I will choose any and every day over alcohol. ~ Christy


    1. Agreed! Now if I can just get better at recognizing when I need to relax and choose a good activity instead of automatically trying to numb. Keeping it top of mind seems to help. Thanks Christy!


      1. Mindfulness… yes. It’s hard to be mindful of each and every moment, but it gets easier with time and practice. Look how far we’ve come in that arena!

        (I’m happy Heather’s book inspired you to write more on your recovery! I go back and forth with how much I want to share and focus on recovery, but bottom line, it’s part of my life and my DNA now and it’s focus will ebb and flow throughout all of my writing and activities. I just need to follow my thoughts where they go and not ignore them or numb them… see, back to mindfulness 🙂 )


  8. Hi.. just found you through BBB’s blog. Great post. So interesting.. numb vs relaxing. I’ve just read a book about depression by a top sports star in this country (New Zealand) and he describes himself as an ‘active relaxer’.. aren’t some of us just like that? Ooohh it’s tricky…at what point does the activity become destructive rather than rewarding. OK 6 hours of Mad Men is probably a bit much. It’s just a constant vigilance that us ex-boozers have to keep on top of isn’t it. Anyway, saying hi. Mrs D xxx ps I just wrote about numbing vulnerability and Brene Brown recently too… she’s amazing, must get a book out, have only watched clips on YouTube


    1. An active relaxer…now that’s an interesting concept! I can relate to that but I wish I was more comfortable doing nothing without any form of entertainment. I’ve been reading your blog too! Thanks for visiting.


  9. I have played and finished all the Angry Birds. I LOVE AB. I don’t numb with it…I relax. So glad to hear you say that about AB! I love also the difference between numbing and relaxing you mention – never looked at it that way. I have started to know the difference and it’s given me the opportunity to enjoy the relaxing part (at least, as much as I can – this is one small step at a time thing for me) and to look at the numbing part. Numbing has been sugar for me, absolutely. Like BBB, I have no off switch at all. I am just finishing (hopefully) my last sugar spree. I am actually getting tired of it, and is doing me no good except an expanding waist line and regret. Ugh. So I am allowing myself to explore this and other issues in the same way I did my alcohol. Surrendering. Uncovering, discovering, discarding. The usual.

    great post – good food (non sweet) for thought 🙂



  10. Drinking, dark chocolate and finger issues? WOW, you sound quite similar to me and my numbing behaviors. I’m glad you visited my blog so I found your blog. I look forward to reading more about your journey. –Fern


  11. I tend to lose myself in books, games, and movies, too. When I was going through detox from MS Contin, which commenced 8 weeks ago as of today, I got through the moments of highest anxiety by reading and watching movies to keep myself focused on something else besides the truly awful experience of the worst parts of the process. I am looking forward to reading more of your blog! Congratulations on your continued recovery!


    1. Thanks so much! Detoxing is hell. I definitely think there are healthy ways to ease anxiety that don’t fall into the category of numbing. Thanks for your comment and congratulations on 8 weeks!


  12. I just got a hold notice from my library for that Rene Brown book, so I’m going to pick it up today. I can’t wait to read it.

    I can relate to all of this, except replace angry birds with candy crush because angry birds was too frustrating and I had to delete it. Also, I have no off switch when it comes to sugar.

    I find myself wanting to be free of all my various addictions, but I’m still working on recognizing which I should keep to help me decompress. (Some seem easier to reign back in too.) I am only starting to distinguish between relaxation and self-destructive distraction.


    1. It’s a fantastic book! Angry Birds made me angry but I played anyway. A sign maybe? I think so many of us have a hard time distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy ways of relaxing because we live in a world where we’re constantly stimulated. Even our “down time” is often spent doing something stimulating or entertaining. I’m really bad at doing nothing.


  13. Ah so much truth and wisdom. A group of us last night were talking about those that substitute one addiction for another – and the bottom line is – are some more prone to addictions than others? If this is genetically so – what is the best alternative? It is far better to numb with nail biting than drinking – or is it something that someone can stop altogether? I don’t know. I numb with books – I have always known that I read to escape – that I am as addicted to reading as people are to drink – but I can live with that. Sometimes I need to tune out – I need a little numb so that my brain can relax and sort through all the worry and thoughts. How do you draw the line btwn mediation and numb (or relaxing and numbing? Yes, the marathon vs watching a movie is a good example – but how about the ones that are not so clear cut – that’s what makes me wonder.

    But then again – I’m kinda out of sync at the moment 🙂


    1. I think it’s different for everyone. I need books to escape too. For me, it crosses the line when I’d rather read than engage with the people who need me even though I know they need me. When I find myself saying no instead of yes, I have to look at what’s keeping me from wanting to engage. Personally, I think there is a genetic aspect to addiction. But, we’re complicated so there’s no easy solution except to keep making the next best choice.

      When you get back into sync, I’m going to nickname you ‘NSYNC and sing you all my favorite Justin Timberlake songs (yes, I love JT and I’m not ashamed to admit it).


      1. You’re lucky I have a deep and profound love for you – that would be the only way to cope Justin Timberlake….
        I won’t judge you – or at least too harshly…

        Yes – we are complex – so who KNOWS… I know when I’m deeply engaged with a book – I will say “no” – but I don’t have those hours of freedom to just read like I did when I was in my 20s – so I FEEL like I read to relax (and I like to think that I’m setting a good example for my child to see me reading…and I’m sticking to that) – but I know it’s also a coping mechanism… b/c if I’m having an argument and I don’t want to engage – I will read – even though I know I’m not absorbing any of the content and I’m reading the same paragraph over and over again – it let’s me disengage and hopefully calm down so I can think clearly.


        1. That doesn’t sound like numbing. It sounds like giving yourself breathing room. Sometimes it’s a fine line but your heart knows if it’s healthy or not. I plan on indulging in a fun, mindless romance novel later today!


              1. I think historical fiction is my closest to ‘romance’ – but it has to be GOOD historical fiction – not fiction based on the fact that those people lived then but not much else.

                I loved “The Greatest Knight” by Elizabeth Chadwick (she’s really cool – I get to talk with her on FB) – I absolutely fell in LOVE with William Marshall –


  14. Okay, that’s it. I need to paint my nails too. I also watched my mom pick away at her cuticles and now I find myself doing the same thing. It drives my husband crazy and it’s awful when I’m out somewhere and one of my fingers starts bleeding and I have to quickly find something to stop it from gushing all over the place. What a lovely thought! It’s embarrassing but it’s true. And, the thing with dessert. Yep, do that too. I used to have wine for dessert, now I give myself “permission” to indulge more often than I should. Progress, not perfection. Great post and great honesty! Thanks.


    1. I’ve had those bleeding in public incidents too! I’m glad I’m not the only one. This is the longest time I’ve gone without picking and I feel strong. It would kill me if my daughter started doing the same thing because of watching me. End the cycle.


I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s