It’s easy to become bored when you initially give up alcohol. Your calendar may open up with free time that can’t be spent in the same way with friends who still drink. Maybe being around alcohol causes anxiety or cravings, and you need other activities to occupy you. Boredom and uncertainty about how to fill time may be exacerbated at this strange time when we’re engaging in long-term physical distancing (I’m calling it “physical” rather than “social” because there are still ways to be social, virtually!). Fortunately, a tool known as VACI from the science- and empowerment-based recovery organization SMART Recovery can help, whether you’ve given up drinking or just cut back.
What is a VACI?
VACI is short for “Vital Absorbing Creative Interest” and refers to any activity that not only helps fill time, but is also pleasant, healthy, and riveting. A VACI could be anything from taking up a musical instrument to painting, learning a language, or restoring a car. VACIs can help you to become more engaged, curious, inventive, and contemplative in your everyday life. They can even help you replace some of the benefits you once perceived alcohol to bring, such as euphoria, feeling funnier or smarter, and reducing social anxiety.
VACIs allow you to reflect on and revisit what you used to enjoy before you started drinking – and to explore new activities that you’ve always been curious about but lacked the time, energy, or motivation to try. Maybe you didn’t think you could try them in the past, but have developed a new sense of self-assurance and are ready to do so now.
Many of us feel just as busy despite physical distancing with things like work, cleaning, taking care of children, and keeping in touch with friends and family. This post is certainly not intended to tell people they should be just as productive or more than they would be under normal circumstances. These are not normal times, and many people are struggling and mourning.
But if you live alone or have a lot of idle time (or perhaps you’re getting tired of a single activity you tend towards such as gaming or streaming video), trying out new VACIs can broaden your go-to activity set and open you up to things that may be surprisingly fulfilling. These may also serve as welcome distractions if you have roommates or family members who live with you and are still partaking of alcohol.
Even in normal times, it’s a good idea to explore activities you enjoy doing alone, because you can’t rely on people in your circle to be available when and how you need them to be. That said, if you can find supportive friends to have one-on-one or small group hangouts to do these things (virtually, for now), that’s great. Or, you can find local and virtual communities in which to do them.
One thing to remember when exploring VACIs is that not every activity is enjoyable for every person. It’s important to “try things on” and see how you respond. Does a new hobby feel a little awkward or uncomfortable? Does it fit just right and fill you with excitement? Are you eager to explore it further? It’s also a good idea to engage in VACIs moderately, so you aren’t replacing one addiction with another. Weigh any comorbidities you may have, such as bipolar disorder. Mood states like mania and hypomania may cause you to react differently to the development of new hobbies – especially if you’re experiencing the pink cloud.
When I was in the pink cloud, I got a little overeager trying to juggle too many new balloons. I felt like I had to do every new VACI every evening – from practicing guitar to creative writing to exercising. These things shouldn’t have been stressing me out… they should have been exciting. To overcome this, I started thinking of VACIs as a menu of activities I could decide between on any given evening, letting myself pick and choose.
Eventually, I found myself gravitating towards some activities more than others. I joined local creative writing workshop groups and co-writing spaces, diving back into writing poetry. In addition to feeling smarter, and more creative and capable than I had in years, this helped me to overcome social anxiety toward meeting new people and sharing things I’m passionate about. I’ve developed new and enriching friendships, honed my craft, and feel more connected to a community that holds endless possibilities for engagement and growth.
You might finally delve into a passion or hobby that excited you years or even decades ago. Or, you could fall in love with an activity you didn’t think you would – opening a door you never knew was closed. That can be tremendously empowering, helping to pull you through the difficult and sometimes isolating experience of early recovery. Eventually, the VACIs you explore can lead to bigger goals, and a more focused sense of purpose.
Not sure where to start? Here’s a long list of ideas to help. If it’s a bit overwhelming, try selecting and exploring just a handful of activities. Create a table to rate how fun and fulfilling each of them seem, both before and after you try them.
Activities that can be done during physical distancing:
Entertainment and Education
- Read a long book series, or a number of books from a favorite author or genre
- Take an online class in something you’ve always wanted to learn more about through a service like edX or Coursera
- Learn a new language, or at least the basics, through an app like Duolingo
- Virtually visit museums all over the world
- Become an armchair expert by reading up on something like history, psychology, astronomy, dream theory, or the history of your favorite genre of American cinema
- Take an acting or art class
- Learn a new technical skill such as writing code, programming, graphic design, or web development
- Write a novel, play, screenplay, memoir, short story, poetry, or stand-up comedy routine
- Look online for writing prompts to generate ideas
- Engage in introspection and keep a journal on a theme such as gratitude or surviving the 2020 quarantine
- Write reviews of streaming movies or shows
- Start a blog or podcast on something you’re passionate about – perhaps one of your other VACIs
New Artistic Skills
- Learn a new musical instrument or pick up an old one
- Practice singing or songwriting
- Try a new craft such as knitting or other textiles, woodcraft, model-building, pottery, jewelry-making, book-binding, or calligraphy
- Start a project in an art medium such as painting, drawing, sculpting, collaging, mixed media, or writing comics
- Explore your creative “eye” with photography or videography – though for now, your subject may have to be yourself, those you live with, or your living space
- Perfect a new skill like knitting or woodworking, and starting a side business selling your wares
Exercise and Movement
- Explore new forms of exercise such as walking, jogging, running, cycling, high intensity training, bodybuilding, or yoga
- Take a virtual martial arts class
- Dance – learn new dancing styles, or just dance to your favorite music for fun
- Serve your community as a volunteer, mentor, or tutor
- Try new recipes or refine a cooking skill set
- Arrange a virtual party where you and your friends present 3-minute PowerPoint presentations on topics you’re passionate about, or have everyone present another person’s PowerPoint
- Color or work on puzzles while binge-listening to podcasts or audiobooks
- Garden or landscape, if you have access to a yard or outdoor space
- Delve into strategic gaming, such as chess, video games, word games, or board games (many of which can be played virtually)
Activities for the future:
Here are several more activities that aren’t actionable right now, but that you can look forward to trying out after this period of physical distancing:
Entertainment, Education, and New Skills
- Take yourself to the movie theater and treat yourself to soda, popcorn, and/or candy
- Write reviews of the movies you see
- Go to local museums or see what classes you can take locally
- Try your hand at live storytelling or stand-up comedy
- Explore film photography, if you live near a public darkroom where you can rent developing and print-making equipment
Sports and Outdoors
- Go hiking, camping, swimming, or cycling in nature
- Go on an adventure with activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, or skydiving
- Follow or play a favorite sport
- Go on long walks or bike rides to get more familiar with the area where you live
Clubs and Community
- Join clubs or community organizations
- Join interest-based community groups, locally or online (I’ve linked to this before and I’m sure there are similar services, but meetup.com is a great place to find these. Many group meetups are being conducted virtually right now.)
Shopping and Collecting
- Visit and support local businesses such as restaurants, shops, music venues, and theaters
- Browse flea markets for art, jewelry, furniture, collectibles, and unique gifts
- Collect something that brings you joy – anything from stamps to antique decor to photo books
- Make it a goal to visit all 50 states, or all the national parks
- Take trips with friends, family, or by yourself – and not necessarily to faraway places (perhaps you can spend your free time getting more familiar with your home state)
You can peruse hundreds more hobbies here, from Parkour to cheese-making to robot combat. You must choose your own adventure. Whatever you try and gravitate towards, VACIs can be both fun and enriching. I hope you enjoy, and maybe even discover a lifelong passion in the process!