Addiction Sources

Running update: Ran the 5K yesterday…did not reach my speed goal (yes, those hills on Saturday apparently did kick my butt significantly), but I did learn some valuable pieces, not the least of which is the hills in my neighborhood aren’t so much hills as sweet little rises out of the earth and therefore unacceptable for “hill training.” Also, wear sunscreen. I have brilliantly red arms right now, courtesy of that minor omission. But, I did finish and TG cheered me on in the end (he, of course, finished about 7 minutes before me), which was very dear of him. TG ran very well–finished 11th overall. Way to go, TG! We’ll follow-up with a 5K at the end of the month which my cousin and partner-in-musical-crime, we’ll call her Rikki (and she’ll know why) has selected for our running adventuring.

Rikki also found out that Mötley Crüe is heading this way in the summer, so many kudos to her for finding race dates and for plotting summer music madness for us to attend to.

Now, on to the rest of the story*.

I read Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times as part of my Lenten spiritual discipline**. I chose Chödrön’s book because 1) I’ve been meaning to read it for some time now and haven’t set aside the time to do so and 2) because the notions about which she writes, seeking to engage self and the world compassionately–even in times of strife–appeal to me.

In the margin of one of the early chapters, I found myself scrawling that I didn’t quite buy her assessment of addiction and noting that I should blog on the comment, to see if I could work out my hesitations and concerns. So, here we are. I should note that by the time I finished the book last week, I had come around to what she was getting at, and I can see where the source of my hesitation was, too.

Interesting trick for me–finish the book BEFORE shooting my mouth (fingers?) off about it. I wonder if I could finish Gravity’s Rainbow that way….Perhaps I’m finally listening to those Romantics I teach all the time–“spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” recollected in tranquility (Wordsworth). Yes, I know I’m not writing poetry here, but isn’t blogging fundamentally similar? I mean, when I dash off whatever is vexing me, without careful consideration (or, often, editing), I often find that the post is less than satisfying…and difficult to read.

In fact, that was true of the original version of this post. Fortunately, I had the sense to stop and reflect and…yes…finish the book.

Unfortunately, I don’t have Fall Apart in front of me at the moment, so I’ll paraphrase now and update with the specific quote later. She remarks that in her mind the source of addiction is an unwillingness to remain in places that are at the edge and undefined and to deal with the world as it is. Now, part of my initial reaction was, I think, resistance to her overall premise about the world and its impermanence (which was a bit odd, as I do agree with it–at least intellectually). I’ve written before about what drove my addiction, sort of, and I’ve written about the relationship between fear and recovery. The other part of the response was precisely the topic about which she writes–the human tendency to avoid painful feelings and put up walls.

In reading further (and in reading another book of hers–mentioned in the notes below), I came closer to being able to face her intent. She considers addiction in a pretty wide range, including an addiction to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure (another way of stating her source, I think); for all addictions though, she cites the source as an unwillingness to experience the pain (or, in the end, pleasure) of real life. Initially, as I mentioned, I resisted this suggestion, thinking that this was not at all why I drank. Surely it wasn’t avoidance. Upon reflection, and reading the posts from last year as I first publicly discussed my addiction, I realized that the terminology I used–“flattening” and “deadening” were not altogether different from what Chödrön was writing about.

I also recalled a remark made in Carolyn Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, wherein Knapp realized that she was considering her problem backwards: rather than assuming that we drink because we are unhappy, what if we are unhappy because we drink (186)? I cannot articulate precisely the effect this remark had on me two years ago–it was like the cabinet slid open for the first time, allowing me to see that I was looking into a mirror and not into a dark void. Bang! I think I even said something profound like–“Holy shit.” It seemed so obvious.

But, in all of this pondering, I never really examined the first part of the remark–why I drank. Nothing in the twelve steps, at least in my mind, really forced me to account for this. I suppose that Step 4 might have led me there, if handled differently, but it did not at the time. I tended to stick with the blame game in my lists–all of what I had done wrong, rather than including what had triggered the alcoholism in the first place.

So, Chödrön got me on task with such an inventory, so that I could examine my experiences against her assessments regarding the roots of addiction. While it is true that I have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, I was absolutely aware of that when I began drinking, so I tend to discount that as a “why,” even if it perhaps made the situation more threatening. As I have mentioned before, I drank in high school–though not terribly often, as I was often the designated driver, so I didn’t abuse that trust. I did tend to get wasted if I did drink–both in my teens and in my twenties. I can’t really say why that was–I know I enjoyed the feeling of losing control because that remained a constant throughout (ah, the plight of the control freak). Certainly, as I have observed before, I was trying to slow my racing thoughts. I know that alcohol tended to become an obsession–when I wasn’t drinking I was often thinking about alcohol, though I tended to imagine I was being intellectual about the whole thing, rather than craving (this, not incidentally, is a pattern for me. My pseudo-intellectual pursuits are often outlets for my various obsessions–imagine that, eh?).

What I came up with, in searching for what I was avoiding (now, that was a weird sentence) was the following. The words in bold are the main ideas of each:

I tend to crave control, but I also crave being freed from responsibility, and alcohol provided the license to do so;

I tend to be emotionally walled-in, often by choice and habit as much as anything else, and alcohol provided the means to pretend I was escaping those walls. In reality, of course, I was simply making the walls higher and stronger through deception. While I might appear to be more in touch with my emotional side when drinking, I was not. I was more likely whining or pretending to intellectualize some particular obsession; I was certainly not capable of making better emotional connections with other people. Indeed, alcohol exacerbated the problems I have to that end normally;

When I was bored, I drank. Boredom is serious problem for me because I can’t easily redirect the mental monologue when I am bored. This doesn’t mean I can’t relax, by the way, I just have to have fairly directed relaxation–which is one of the reasons I read so much. Thus, the fact that my reading, writing, and musical pursuits taper off when drinking should be no surprise. Getting wasted is so much easier than learning and thinking–far less energy required (though, in the end, drinking takes up far more emotional, physical, and spiritual energy than anything else I engage in);

When I was manic, I drank. I’ll use that term because I do think it fits best when describing the crescendo of my excitement levels, though the term is actually quite terrifying to me, as my mother is bi-polar, as was at least one of her siblings. Uncontrollable moods are my greatest fear, so I tend to make them worse by worrying.

When I was scared, I drank. Scared of the dissertation, scared of graduation, scared of gainful employment, scared of…well, you name it. So, in short, I was doing precisely what Chödrön discusses–I was avoiding the source of the fear by drowning it in false pleasure.

I often made conscious decisions, especially when angry (and, as we know, the root of anger is fear), to drink to excess. I would specifically purchase more wine than necessary for a single night in order to ensure access and become annoyed if the access was limited in some way. Outwardly, I lied about why I bought so much–oh, it’s for the whole week/weekend/trip/party–whatever, but I always knew exactly what the plan was. Self-destruction 101.

The roots of the fears (and, anger) appear to be responsibility/control (even the mania…maybe boredom) and emotion (probably a fear of, what, exposure?–perhaps this is also a responsibility/control thing). It seems to me that having processed this list, the next stage is to figure out how to avoid repeating those steps–even when sober (because, as we have seen, I am imminently able to substitute addiction and obsession***), in order to live outside the fear…no, that’s the wrong phrase. Live with the fear? Of course, knowing what the fear is/fears are would me helpful, so that will constitute the next phase. Fortunately, Chödrön has a number of meditative methods in her books to help that process.

Since I have more free time this week, I’ll try to catch up on the Learning to Write posts a bit (need to clean up my tags too). I’ve got at least two more rolling about the brain right now–one on storytelling and one on some of Chödrön’s other notions–including one post that I will likely title “Hard-Hearted Bitch,” because it really was exactly what popped into my head when I considered my own responses to her suggestions.


*Homage to the late Paul Harvey and to Rev. Dean, whose sermon yesterday set me to thinking about storytelling. Perhaps later this week. It’s Spring Break, so I have far more time than is healthy.

**As many of you know, I read very quickly, so I have five books in this list (I’m hoping those will take up the whole of Lent–if not, I’ll need to find a pinch hitter for the last week). The others are Chödrön’s The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, Brad Warner’s Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, and Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Places is for the same reason as the other Chödrön book, Armstrong is for intellectual expansion, and Warner is for two reasons: a) I really get a kick out of his books (not terribly in keeping with discipline, I realize), and b) reality check–I spend at least half the time arguing with him in the margins of the pages and I really like that experience, especially when I disagree with a particular premise but can accept that and keep moving, rather than rejecting his notions outright. He’s linked at right–Hardcore Zen. The last book, Taylor’s, is a follow up to her Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, which I read two years ago in the first sobriety gig and at Rev. Dean’s suggestion. He was correct that the book (by an Episcopalian priest/professor) would speak to me–it did. I look forward to seeing how she maps her faith journey in this account, and I am especially intrigued by the sub-title to this one.

BTW, the sixth book would be the beast, GR, because, while it lacks the ideals of spiritual development, I do place a great deal of emphasis on intellectual development in the spiritual process and, dammit, I need to finish that book…it keeps popping up in the most nefarious of places in my mind. Must exorcise the Pynchon.

***And, as I have mentioned, I don’t think that such substitutions are necessarily a bad thing. If I can accept–without judgment– that I tend towards obsessive and compulsive behaviors, then this acceptance of myself is compassionate, and such compassion (I totally agree with Chödrön here) will help me to be more compassionate toward others. I don’t see a need to change that trait, so long as it can be directed toward healthy endeavors–running, reading, writing, learning, etc., but I do have to be disciplined in staying directed, lest I get bored or anxious or overconfident in sobriety and do something foolish. Compassion and discipline must come hand in hand for me, and, I would have to say–for all of us.

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