If “laughter is medicine,” what might that mean for people in recovery? For example, research has revealed numerous mental health benefits of humor, such as reduced stress, pain relief, and less inflammation; and these are good for anyone’s health, whether or not you’re in recovery. There are still other more specific ways, though, that use of the funny bone can support drug and alcohol rehab and recovery.
For help exploring the unique role of laughter in recovery, we turned to someone who utilizes humor “in a lot of ways” in his job at FHE Health. Clinical Associate Michael Peerbolte oversees care coordination in our first responder program. He also spends much of his time facilitating group therapy for our detox residential and first responder patients. In a recent interview, Peerbolte shared some insights from that experience, starting with some of the benefits of humor in early recovery.
Benefits of Humor in Recovery
Humor can be beneficial in rehab and recovery in at least three ways, according to Peerbolte. He says humor….
- Breaks the ice and helps people feel more comfortable. Peerbolte often uses humor in group settings “as an icebreaker” and “a way to get people talking.” One example might be “starting out with absurd, asinine questions like ‘Is a hot dog a sandwich?’” Another example might be “things in pop culture that are easy topics to get people comfortable and willing to open up, even if it’s something arbitrary.”
Peerbolte has found that in group settings like therapy groups or 12-step meetings, “humor for whatever reason makes people at ease talking with one another and gets rid of some of that awkwardness when interacting with people we don’t necessarily know.”
- Eases the stress of sharing hard or dark experiences. Humor can provide a kind of protective layer when you’re talking about a personal experience that might otherwise be really painful or “emotionally draining” to share.
“From my perspective, it seems like people will use humor when talking about their past and consequences they’ve experienced,” Peerbolte observed. “The insanity, the unmanageability—they’ll often tell it from a comedic perspective, because it allows them to talk about it in a way that lessens the sting … It facilitates being honest but in a way that doesn’t devastate you.”
- Builds relationships and connections in groups. People in recovery often experience a level of shared camaraderie in “the crazy, absurd stories of doing things that don’t make sense and behaviors that are rooted in addiction and terribly unhealthy,” Peerbolte said. He added that “the insanity of it” is such that it “either makes you laugh or cry.” Often, though, “people in recovery find it humorous and can relate to the lack of sound decision-making or chaos of it,” and “there seems to be safety in that sharing, even though it’s deeply personal.” In this sense, humor can cultivate “pathways for connection” and a sense of intimacy within a group.
Humor can thus serve as a healthy distraction and defense mechanism by which to share often painful or traumatic experiences and manage the social awkwardness and anxiety of being in a new group.
The Limits of Recovery Humor as Distraction and Defense Mechanism
Using humor in addiction recovery as a distraction and a defense mechanism can have its pitfalls, however, as Peerbolte was quick to point out: “Humor is a great tool in recovery but not a great crutch,” he said. “Humor and talking about these things in a lighthearted fashion is fine in the initial stages, but there comes a time when you need to really look at the issue and talk about it.” As illustration, Peerbolte gave the example of the “class clown” who “is perpetually avoiding talking about the issue” by using humor as a distraction and defense mechanism.
“If the only way you can express yourself is through humor, then there’s a problem,” Peerbolte said. “If humor is one of many other approaches, moods, or attitudes, then I think it’s appropriate.”
In other words, when jokes are the only way that a person can address their root issues, then humor may no longer be serving a constructive purpose in recovery.
Examples of Addiction Recovery Jokes
There are many silly puns and jokes out there about addiction and recovery. Just two of the many examples:
- “I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid, but he says he can stop at any time.”
- “Another friend used to be addicted to drinking detergent, but he’s clean now.”
Other addiction recovery jokes are steeped in 12-step humor. Take, for example, the cartoon titled “12-Step Program.” It shows a group of babies in diapers sitting in a circle. One of them says, “Hi, my name is Jimmy and I’m powerless against the bottle. Oh, and I’ve only taken three steps.”
Gallows Humor in Recovery
We asked Peerbolte about his experience with “gallows” humor. We wanted to know whether it is common for people in recovery to exhibit a dark sense of humor that pokes fun at serious topics like death. Here is how he answered that:
Some people have very dark, dry senses of humor, and a lot of people in recovery have witnessed some dark things. Sometimes there’s this morbid humor that can come along with that … I do think that in recovery circles people will joke about things that they’d never joke about with their families, coworkers, etc., and these things are morbid, but it’s people’s attempts to make peace with near-death experiences or the loss of friends or loved ones. Humor is a way to peel back these events.
Sober Jokes and Types of Humor That Are Inappropriate?
Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed with respect to sober jokes? Yes. Peerbolte said that whenever he’s leading a group, he does not allow jokes that are offensive about a particular group or another. Why? “Because I don’t want people to feel their differences or situations are not welcomed.”
By that Peerbolte meant that racist or sexist jokes are inappropriate, as are jokes about sexual orientation or religion.
“It’s fine to make jokes about personal things but not about things that can be discriminatory,” he said. “If everyone comes to a treatment center or an AA meeting, even if the fact that you’re there reflects your subtle consent about a drug problem, you didn’t necessarily sign up for some deeply personal things, like gay jokes or jokes about Muslims that drive people away.”
For Peerbolte, after all, the key is to harness the power of humor to bring people together and discover their shared humanity. Being able to laugh together at our worst moments is a reminder that we are not alone, aren’t that different, and can find freedom from our past with a little help from one another.