For a long time, I’ve been aware of the most obvious form of addiction in my family: alcoholism.
First of all, because Mom drank. A lot. And so did Mom’s dad and some of Mom’s brothers. A lot. Once it spirals out of the societally-determined safe zone, alcohol addiction gets obvious fast, what with all the clanging empties and lack of employment and whatnot.1
It took me much longer to spot the other, less obvious manifestations of the addictive temperament in my gene pool, Dad’s workaholism, for instance, or my maternal grandmother’s massive sugar jones, or everyone’s need to have the television on as loud as possible as often as possible, especially when someone else was in the room. Hey, those aren’t problems, they’re part of being American!
I will pause for the briefest of moments to say I’m going nowhere near any discussions of the root causes of addiction, of whether addiction is a disease or symptom (although I suspect the answer to that is “yes”), or of where addiction and compulsion overlap. I am not a mental-healthcare professional nor have I done any scholarly boning up on addiction and its underlying/concomitant behavioral disorders.
What I can say, and with the rock-solid confidence that only years of experience and obsessive (haha) self-observation can bring, is that the triggers that set my own self-destructive behaviors in motion are manifold and insidious.
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The purpose of drinking too much or working too much, like all self-destructive behaviors, is to create distance between you and something else: Distance between you and your feelings, usually the painful ones. Distance between you and another person, usually one whom getting close to would involve the stirring up of painful feelings. Distance between you and the truth, which, as time and the behavior goes on, becomes about how much distance between you and your feelings or you and your loved ones your addictive/compulsive behavior has created.
Most of these buffer reasons for addictions are pretty well-established. Freud was hip to them, for crying out loud. You do something bad because somewhere in your brain, you think it’s keeping you from something worse.
Your first order of business in changing this stuff seems to be sussing out the “why”: I work too much because no matter how well I did, I was told I could do better if only I worked harder. That I should do this was left unspoken, but hung thickly in the air at all times. So I work too much because it puts distance between me and the fear that I am not enough, and that I am unlovable as I am.2
Okay. I get why I work too much. What I didn’t get, because I couldn’t make it fit, is why I couldn’t get to the work of working too much. I mean, seriously, if I love work so freakin’ much, why am I screwing around in Facebook? Why am I checking my email for the 57th time, hoping against hope that it holds some horrific fire that must be put out NOW? (Or, barring that, a really, really important and necessary special offer that must be acted upon immediately?)
And then, like a bolt from the blue, I got smacked upside the head by Captain Obvious: my incessant fiddling, my noodling, my (say it with me, now) P-R-O-C-R-A-S-T-I-N-A-T-I-N-G is there to put distance between me and starting, so that I don’t have to fail by finishing.
Given my fondness for the work of Seth and Uncle Steve, not to mention my up-close-and-personal experience with the Resistor and all those years of shrinkage, that this lightbulb moment comes so late in the game is more than a little humiliating.
On the other hand, I’m a shoo-in for Dumbass of the Year award. And I do like me some award-garnering.
Lest we end this section on a sour-ish note of self-flagellation (more distancing!), I will add that like all discoveries of a disastrous or humiliating nature, if I can really and truly turn them into lessons learned, I win.
And I really, really like winning. Obviously.
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So. How does one turn a discovery into a lesson really and truly learned?
On a recent episode of my new-favorite podcast-slash-obsession, the host, Marc Maron, who quit drinking 15 years ago, describes the process of his getting sober.3 For a long while, it sounds like he had a waking-up to how drinking (and for him, drug use) was really taking away much more than it was giving. Once he really and truly got that, he said, he had to find a way of not starting, which sound like what the Program was for him. AA is all about not starting, not taking that first drink. If you don’t have the first one, you can’t have all the subsequent ones, which are what get you into trouble.
Not-starting looks like not-doing, but really, it’s doing other things. Taking other actions. Probably small, simple actions (although we’re not going to be foolish enough to bait the Resistor by calling them “easy”). And probably many actions, over a long period of time. There may be the occasional grand, cinematic gesture, like throwing a half-full pack of cigarettes into the trash just like that. But the real work begins with the not-starting later: not fishing the pack out again four hours later when you get back from dinner really wanting a cigarette. Not buying a fresh pack the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that.
And my own experience of becoming a person who didn’t smoke after having been one who did, and like a chimney, and for 12 years, was that while the story of throwing away that half-pack was great, it was the actions I took that got the job done. The stupid mantra. The mass quantities of cherry Halls Mentho-Lyptus cough drops. Inventing errands. Making myself go places where smoking was not allowed (much harder to do back in 1980s-era Chicago). Keeping my hands and mouth and brain busy with something, anything else.
I do these things so I do not do that thing. I choose these actions so I do not lapse into that one.
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Fortunately, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about this shit. On the blog alone, I’ve got over six years of obsessive self-analysis. Then there are the volumes of journaling and morning pages, the now-hundreds of hours in the Google Wave with Dave (I’m kind of glad I can’t see those stats), the countless discussions with friends and fellow travelers, the aforementioned years of shrinkage. Plus, in case you hadn’t noticed, I read. A lot. (Obsession: it has its upside, too!)
Between all of the talking and all of the thinking and all of the reading, I’ve learned a good deal about the nature of what I want to stop, i.e. both “work” that gets in the way of Work and too much work, period. At almost-50 years old, I think it’s safe to say that I will be addressing their root causes, fear, mishegoss, until they scatter my ashes at sea. But I’ll also say that at almost-50, it is beyond time to put on my Big-Girl Pants and do some of the tedious, outside-in work of taking actions, if for no other reason than the idea of not being able to do my Work or to work or even to “work”, if it comes to that, is anathema and time and gravity are conspiring against me. Those cocksuckers.
Well, I have a long list. I may get to itemization in future posts. Or I may just dive into action and leave you hanging. To spend any longer on this post would be a starting, not a not-starting, if you catch my drift.
For now, I will leave you with my vaguely-defined commitment to (a) establishing actions that support Work and (b) establishing additional actions to ensure not slipping into “work” and overwork. These include, but are not limited to, such incredibly mundane and tedious actions as brushing my teeth, logging time, and processing emails according to a specific protocol. In other words, a lot of things I either do or should be doing regularly.
I will also leave you with this excellent post by Ramit Sethi on barriers which I wish I’d read five years ago. Or that maybe I did read five years ago and was too dense to get. Whatever. It’s excellent, and pertinent to this discussion.
And, finally, I will leave you with this exhortation: try to be nice to yourself. At least as nice to yourself as you’d treat someone you were indifferent about, preferably nicer. Not in an indulgent way. Just nice.
It’s not going to fix everything. But it’s a start.
1It’s also terrifying enough to serve as a deterrent: I drink, but I scrutinize my intake ruthlessly, one might even say with an obsession that borders on the ironic, for fear of ending up like the family drunks.
2I would assume I also work too much because it puts distance between me and the fear of dying, probably because I always say I’m not afraid of dying, and the lady doth protest too much/etc.
3More on this soon enough, much more, but if you like your introspection served up with a healthy dose of wit, heart and savoir faire (and don’t mind swearing), do yourself a favor and subscribe to the WTF podcast. Insanely good, obsessively so, even.