I am half-naked, staring at myself in the bathroom mirror. The hands of my reflected self reach out of the mirror to strain their fingers around my neck. Blood vessels squeal and expand around my irises as the rest of my reflection’s body steps through the mirror and into the room. He plummets his foot into my balls. I wheeze and clutch my now throbbing testicles on the tiled floor. He digs his muddy, uncut fingernails into my chest, withdraws my heart, and spits in my ventricles. He reminds me of all the reasons to hate myself, life, and those around me. He reminds me of my failures and diminishes my accomplishments.
Did this really happen? Did my doppelganger enter my world through my bathroom mirror to leave me clenching my balls and weeping in delusional self-pity?
But I have certainly managed to inflict comparably needless pain upon myself in subtler, unconscious ways. In my past, I unwittingly assembled a small toolkit of methods by which to torture myself without my knowing. It was like having an unseen arm attached to my back that sabotages everything behind me. Small patterns of invisible repeated behavior by which I incrementally hurt myself, despite my wishes to do the very opposite.
I started this writing to reflect on the motives and effects of my current one-year hiatus from alcohol. As I wrote, it morphed into a contemplation on the nature of self-destructive habits. Why have I done things that hurt myself? Why didn’t I stop? Why, when I tried to stop, did I incessantly revert to the old ways? I tried to discern the unconscious driving force behind self-inflicted pain and its double-edged benefits. I also dissected the methods I found to transmute my detrimental habits into healthy habits that made me feel more appreciation and acceptance of myself and life.
We each have our own weapons of choice for self-inflicted pain. I’ve had a good few of them but the most effective one for the job has been alcohol. Alcohol has always been problematic for me since it first courted my interest at age 18. Our relationship has been long-term, but never harmonious.
At first, it seemed like a miracle potion. Alcohol swiftly taught me how to follow its easy-to-learn instructions:
Step 1. Pour the booze down your throat.
Step 2. Repeat step 1. A lot.
Step 3. Remember those problems that greet you every morning when you wake up? Remember the dread, anger, anxiety, and grief that pesters you throughout the day? No! You don’t remember them now. You’re drunk. And if you do remember them, they’re not so bothersome, are they? You can even laugh at them while you’re drunk. Isn’t that great?
Yeah! I feel so light! Unencumbered. Free. But what’s the catch?
What catch? Don’t worry about it. Simply repeat step 1. Repeat it… repeatedly.
What magic! I was instantly enchanted and began to incorporate booze into my life.
You know the feeling you get when you meet a new lover and you want to spend every day with them and have your respective flesh-bodies relinquish their walls of separation so that you can merge into one unified being that shares its organs and spoons itself into a peaceful slumber each night on a bed of all-embracing comfort while cherubs flutter above your bed and whisper opioid ballads into your quietly snoring nostrils?
It is with that fervor that I took to alcohol.
The honeymoon period of our relationship was short-lived. The commencing period of depression, rage, and self-hatred was longer. About twelve years.
For twelve years, I familiarized myself with the cycle of alcohol consumption and its effects. The cycle went something like this:
Feel momentarily lighter, temporarily relieved. Then watch that fleeting sense of joy evaporate. Feel more depression.
Drink more. Drink because this happened. Drink because that happened. Drink for no reason at all.
Say hello to more depression. Heaping helpings of all-you-can-eat self-loathing. Would you like a side of constantly gnawing Dread of Everything with that?
No, not really.
Here you go! On the house.
Drink some more. Realize the medicine isn’t as effective as it used to be. Increase dosage. Notice that increased dosage increases adverse side effects. Ignore this. Drink more.
It doesn’t take an astute observer to discern these effects. I imagine most folks who have enjoyed drinking have also relished its less pleasurable traits. Maybe not. Maybe some feel like they have it under control. I never did.
There was always a part of me that knew how much pain I was inflicting upon myself by drinking. A little voice that gently suggested, Hey, what about not consuming something that gives you a moment of insubstantial joy in exchange for a constant accumulation of unnecessary pain and existential quivers? The tool you are using to relieve your suffering is actually giving you more suffering.
It was a few years before I started to acknowledge that voice. It was even more years before I finally decided to act on it.
When I realized how much drinking was hurting me, I regularly asked myself, Why the hell am I doing this? Why do I continue to do something that hurts me immensely more than it helps me?
I found a few answers to that question.
THREE REASONS TO DESTROY YOURSELF
WHY WE PERPETUATE PATTERNS THAT HURT US MORE THAN THEY HELP US
1 THE EASE OF SHORT-TERM RELIEF
I was drinking in order to gain some relief from the suffering of everyday life that seemed to be a human birthright. The suffering that some Buddhists say follows us from womb to tomb. On many accounts, my life was swell and I should have been grateful. But that’s not how I was seeing it. Life wasn’t going how I wanted it to, so I fought it. Every day. This is a highly effective method to increase your suffering.
Want more pain in your life? Simply choose to resist everything that happens. Wish granted.
Rather than embark on a path of long-lasting change that would require persistence, I decided to adopt the solution of short-term relief. Problem-solving through avoidance. Drinking helped me to temporarily escape the aspects of life that weighed me down, only to have them grow even larger behind my drunkenly averted eyes. I used booze, but this avenue of avoidance can be serviced by any practice that distracts my attention from pain.
2 AVOID THE ROOT OF THE PAIN
If something is causing significant mental and emotional distress, confronting it is likely to increase that pain. Healing the pain first requires acknowledging it, examining it. Acknowledging the pain requires feeling the pain. And who wants to feel pain? Not me, not for a long time. It was much easier to temporarily mask my pain than to face it and find out what was at its root.
Let’s say the mind is a house. Inside of the house-mind, there’s a malnourished, rash-ridden, wailing infant that embodies and expresses all of the pain I’ve accumulated in life but which I have yet to address. Loneliness, rejection, frustration. Its screaming and stinking are the symptoms of past wounds trying to grab my attention. It needs my help but it smells like piss and vinegar, it’s loud, and I don’t understand its incoherent moaning. Rather than deal with it, how about I shove it in a drawer, forget about it, and distract myself? Would that be so terrible? Not at all. It’s a perfect solution. So I shove it in an empty coffee grounds can and lock it up in a cabinet in the cellar. I go upstairs and get on with my life. Out of sight, out of mind. Problem solved!
Despite my efforts to escape it, that pain-child, that bleeding part of my psyche and my past, is still here in the recesses of my subconscious. I don’t see it, but its presence seeps into my life. Its odor of neglect creeps under the cellar door and enters the kitchen. Its muffled howling wakes me up at night. Its presence overtakes my life, even though I’ve tried to shove it away. The more I push it out, the harder it pushes back. The longer it is repressed and avoided, the more of a mess will it make in my life.
Avoidance of a present pain makes the pain grow. It’s like a weed that grows the less attention I give to it.
Maybe that sounds too drastic. The inner pain and discomfort we avoid isn’t often so extreme, but I had drowned mine under enough alcohol and enough time that it was becoming obscene. In an attempt to stop the shitstorm that alcohol was making of my life, I threw more shit in the fan. I drank. The flawless logic of self-destructive behavior.
I could have looked at the pain. I could have asked myself where it was coming from, why it was there, and what I could do heal it. Instead, I smothered it under the mud and muck of habitual inebriation.
3 AVOID THE EFFORT OF CHANGE
There’s a Kids in the Hall sketch where two guys are talking at a bar. One of them says, “We cannot change who we are!” His friend replies, “No. To change would mean,” and pauses, “to make an effort.”
Their topic of conversation was different from the one I’m chewing on here, but the same principle applies. The bigger a desired change is, the more effort it is going to take to carry it out. If it’s arduous, that difficulty is a symptom of my deep attachment to the pattern that I have been perpetuating. Even though a significant change may entail significant challenge, this also means that I will find an equal or greater sense of liberation as I work to transmute the old, unwanted pattern.
A desired change might be simple in theory. I knew the change I wanted to make: Stop drinking. That’s it. But my attachment to the habit was so strong that I thought it was, not impossible, but too much work to bother with. I wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountain, but I didn’t want to do any climbing. Couldn’t someone toss me in a wagon, give me some sleeping pills, tug me up the mountain of sobriety, and wake me up when we get there?
And even when I did want to change, I didn’t know how to. I had gotten so used to using alcohol to calm my nerves that I didn’t know any other way to process all of the emotions that flooded me when I took booze out of the picture. If a crutch is removed, there’s bound to be some floundering while the legs learn to walk and dance on their own.
If my car is having problems and I choose to ignore them, the problems are going to get worse the longer I let it slide. Down the line, the car will reach a day where it’s no longer functioning, stuck on the side of the road, sputtering burps of smoke from the muffler.
That’s where alcohol took me.
I was drinking because it was one of the few ways I knew to help myself feel lighter. I wasn’t intentionally drinking to avoid pain. Evading pain was a mostly unconscious, yet essential, side effect. I wasn’t thinking, I’ll drink this to run away from what’s weighing me down, but that is exactly what I was doing. By avoiding my problems, I became less able to face them when they arose.
The alternative would have been to look at my problems, to see what I was doing to perpetuate them, and to try to make some change. It took me awhile make that step.
The more I drank, the more I wanted to drink. I wanted to drink more drinks per sitting and I wanted to drink more regularly. I wanted to drink almost all of the time. When I wasn’t drinking, I felt frustrated and conflicted because I wanted to drink. When I was drinking, I felt guilty because I knew it wasn’t really helping.
I played ping-pong with drinking and sobriety. I tried to restrain myself, only to end up giving in and drinking even more than I had before, falling into an attitude of “fuck it”. I’ll change some day, but not today.
Over time, alcohol’s pleasurable effects withered away, while its detrimental traits snowballed. The bouts of depression it sent me into became darker, longer, and harder to dig myself out of. It sapped my motivation to do the things I love to do, the things that help me feel purposeful and joyful (mostly art, yoga, and seeing friends). It ensnared me in spirals of self-hatred and irritation. It made me feel ashamed for not being able to pull myself together, which made me less inclined to go out and see others, which made me want to drink more. I wouldn’t even want to go to the store or show my face to roommates and friends because I felt that they could all see the worthlessness I was perceiving in myself. I would drink alone and watch shows and movies I didn’t like, just to distract myself from the thoughts and emotions that were gnawing at me. Whenever I tried to take care of a plant, it always died. I became convinced that the plants were involuntarily absorbing the toxicity gestating in my mind.
Alcohol proliferated within me the emotions of hopelessness, sadness, and anger, then left me trapped beneath their weight.
If a pain is miniscule, it’s easy to ignore. A small cut won’t interfere with daily life. But what if the cut isn’t addressed? It gets infected. The infection gradually spreads throughout the body. Blood darkens. Thoughts spoil and turn sour. The flow of emotions fluctuates from stifled constipation to uncontrollable overwhelmingness. Daily life won’t be manageable anymore. I’ll either have to give up and let it kill me or I’ll have to choose to do something about it.
Eventually, alcohol was giving me so much pain that I couldn’t ignore it. I didn’t stop overnight--I tried, and it didn’t last--but I started moving in that direction. There were plenty of stumbles and falls. Several instances of giving up, then getting back up and proceeding to take small steps in the right direction.
I wouldn’t say that alcohol, or any habit, is intrinsically bad. The contents of a habit itself aren’t as relevant as its effects. Is a pattern of behavior helping me? Great. Is the habit hurting more than it’s helping? Then I could benefit from examining it and making some adjustments.
For me, alcohol was the primary method I used to prevent myself from living the way I wanted to live, but there are countless other methods. I can use anything to distract myself from my inner knots. And maybe, in a given moment, I need to. Maybe I’m not yet ready or willing to address them. That’s fine. But if I’ve become so tired of my self-sabotage, if one of those knots has become debilitating and I want to heal it, then I can begin to try.
When I began trying to detach from alcohol, there were a few practices that helped me along the way. I’ve since found that these methods can be helpful for making other constructive changes, too. They don’t provide an instant fix (does that exist?), but they have helped me to chip away at my inner blockages.
FIVE METHODS OF CHANGE
At first, I knew that alcohol was hurting me and I knew I wanted to stop, but those wishes were vague and nebulous. I didn’t know the full extent of my habit’s effects and motives. At some points, it felt like insanity. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of moments over the years where I’d be feeling all of the pain booze had so graciously given me and I’d wonder, Why do I keep doing this? I’m gonna take a break from drinking. Starting today! Then, later that day, I’d be drinking again. It would seem like a harmless, trivial decision, but when repeated for years, it got messy.
For a couple years, I was studying yoga with a teacher who often said, with some humor, that yoga helps you become a “Dr. Feel-Good”. You become increasingly aware of what disturbs your life and what harmonizes your life. You study what works for you and what doesn’t.
So I studied myself and my habits. Since alcohol occupied a considerable portion of my life and energy, I examined my attachment to alcohol extensively.
For self-study of any unwanted habit, I continuously ask myself these questions:
Why do I do this?
What are the effects of this habit?
What would be the benefits of shrinking or releasing this habit?
What can I DO to begin to detach from this habit?
For me, the emotions that I used alcohol to suppress were the very symptoms that worsened the more I drank. Feelings of being unloved, unwanted. Loneliness. Frustration with where I was in my life. Anger at not having life be exactly the way I wanted it to be. Feelings which I think anyone who is alive feels to varying degrees at different times.
At one point, I wrote down all of the effects of alcohol I knew and had found in research. I wrote each effect on one sheet of paper. I posted the adverse effects on one side of my studio apartment wall: depression, mood swings, physiological havoc, pissing the bed (only twice), hopping over a fence at 3am and banging up my wrist and ankle because I was afraid of a person I saw sleeping on the pavement. Dozens more. The pleasurable effects were posted on the other side of the wall: fleeting stress-relief, temporary feelings of lightness and openness, some laughter. There were much fewer papers on the side of benign effects. I constructed this wall and reviewed it daily so that, when I was drinking, I would be more aware of what I was choosing to do. Every time I took a sip of beer, wine, or gin, I would remember the notes on my wall.
At this point, I wasn’t yet making much change in action. I was simply increasing my awareness about what I was doing with the hope that it would eventually deter me from drinking, naturally, without force. I was studying my habits so that I would change because I wanted to, not because I felt I had to.
A visiting friend saw the wall and, before I explained it, expressed some concern. It did not look like the wall of a well-adjusted person.
I studied alcohol and my relation to it so much that I grew exhausted of it. I read books about it (I'd recommend The Naked Mind by Annie Grace), I watched YouTube videos, I journaled about it. I went to Taiwan for an Ayahuasca ceremony. I compiled a pocket-size list of alcohol’s detriments and the benefits I could receive from abstaining. I read the list every day with breakfast. The habit of self-hurt via alcohol was so strong, that I had to apply equally strong effort in order to replace it with an alternate mode of thinking, feeling, and acting--that of drinking less or not at all.
Before I began studying my habit, I could easily ignore the multitude of ways in which I was damaging myself. After years of studying it, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I had made such an imprint in my mind that I could no longer shove it aside. It wasn’t a comfortable adjustment, but it was certainly a helpful one.
The more cognizant I was of what I was doing to myself, the more I found that I had a desire to stop doing it. The desire to drink was still there--it’s still here today--and it overtook me on a regular basis, but it was slowly beginning to lose some of its tyrannical rule over my will. Self-study helped me to slowly direct my choices toward another direction. Which leads to the next helpful principle of change...
2 GRADUAL STEPS AND STUMBLES IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION (THE PERSISTENT TURTLE)
There’s a story about a village nestled within a valley. The mountains on either side of the village obscure it from sunlight. Most of the small population’s time is spent in shadows and darkness. The townsfolk would like more light in their lives, but they see no solution. Mountains are mountains. They can’t be moved and they’re too unfamiliar, too dangerous to traverse and move beyond.
A boy sees an old man walking down the village’s only road, heading toward one of the mountains. The man is carrying a small spoon.
The boy asks, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to move the mountain.”
“But you only have a spoon! And it’s a mountain. You’ll never move it.”
“You’re right. I won’t move the whole mountain, but I will start.”
When I first started trying to quit drinking, I tried to eradicate the entire mountain at once. I quit cold turkey. I did this many times. It never stuck. After one or more days, I would cave in and go back to drinking with abandon.
I have found that when I’m trying to initiate a personal change, it is more effective and less overwhelming to take smaller, manageable steps. I make occasional adjustments that approach the larger change I wish to make. Like the old man digging away at the mountain, one spoonful at a time. There might be bursts of momentum, occasional moments of pivotal insight, but mostly it’s a boring process of putting one foot in front of the other. Tripping up and throwing in the towel now and again, then getting back up and moving on.
If it feels as though I’m making no progress, I remind myself of the tortoise. I check in to see if I am doing what I can in this moment to move toward my intention, however small my effort might seem. I remind myself that if I continue in the right direction, it will add up. Even if I stumble and fall away from my intention, which I have and will probably do many times again, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I pick myself up and keep on marching.
If I look at a tortoise trudging along, it may seem that he will never get anywhere. But if he continues, his persistent efforts will accumulate. He will get to wherever it is that turtles like to go. To get their nails done? To co-found a startup business that tailors luxury wristwatches for the untapped market of non-mammalian species? To watch Netflix and chill with another well-shelled companion? I don’t know. But they’ll get there.
3 BEFRIENDING FAILURE
“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” Mark Twain
Before I was finally able to cut out drinking for any length of time (three days, a week, a month, or a year as I’m doing now), I tried and failed more times than I can remember. Failing has been an integral part of the process. Fun, right?
I tried to limit my drinking to only three days a week. I failed. To make it easier, I limited my drinking to four days a week. I failed again. I kept trying. Sometimes it worked out and I held true to my intention. Other times I felt too desperate, too weak, too apathetic. I rationalized the situation. I postponed change. I gave in and drank when I had told myself I wouldn't. I went to the corner store, bought more beer or wine, guzzled it down, and felt the sweet relief of no longer feeling the pressure to change anything. Swiftly followed by the pain and regret that alcohol can bring.
The next week I would try again. Or I'd just say fuck it and drink every day until I’d amassed enough misery that I would cut back again. It was exhausting. I was getting fed up with myself. If I went out drinking for a night, I might enjoy myself for the first couple hours, but the night would usually end with me being choked by my own anger, sadness, and self-pity. Usually walking home, feeling delirious and upset. The tiny joy that alcohol gave me continued to diminish, while the misery continued to escalate. Side effects that used to be subtle had become impossible to ignore, though I definitely still tried to ignore them.
I failed and gave up on a regular basis but the desire to stop still lingered. Alcohol left me feeling imprisoned, stuck, and I wanted to to be free. I would look at each failure and discern: What worked? What didn’t work? How can I do things differently this time? Then I’d try again.
Fail. Evaluate. Re-try.
Repeatedly for years.
It made me want to tear my hair out. Every time I failed, I felt like I was getting nowhere, but I’d look back and see that, over the years, I had made some progress. In the moment, it would feel like my efforts were useless, but if I thought about it, I was in a much better place than I used to be. This helped me to keep going. It also helped me learn to be kinder to myself, to have some patience for myself and the process.
To shift my focus and lighten my mood, I’d call to mind whatever I could find to appreciate in my life. I’d remind myself of the qualities I’m proud of in myself. I’d remind myself of the caring friends and family who bring so much love, laughter, and beauty into my life.
If I was feeling sour or flustered, I’d take a moment to slow down to notice, feel, and appreciate whatever was near me in that moment. A comfortable chair. A tree. A breeze. A sandwich. A smile. The comfort of sitting in my bedroom in my underwear. The carefree silliness of the kids I was teaching back then who would shout “BOOGER!” without any pretext. [Side note: As I am now editing this paragraph, I shouted “BOOGER!” out loud alone in my room. It’s an effective, albeit absurd, agent of levity. Those kids were wise.]
When I felt difficulty and frustration, I’d shift my attention toward anything that would remove it from the tunnel vision of self-loathing. Cultivating these quiet moments of contentment helped me to transmute the internal conflict that self-destructive habits had been brewing inside of me. It gave me some respite from booze-induced suffering, and helped me to remember what I wanted from life: to feel free, to feel closer to love and joy. This would give me the resolve to keep going, to keep digging away at the mountain of my detrimental habits. To take the failures with more stride, be easier on myself, pick myself up, and persist.
Things not working out is part of the process of working things out. Failing and falling--and getting back up--is part of resolution.
4 STAKES, SUPPORT, AND ACCOUNTABILITY
I started telling myself I would cut back on my drinking about a year or two after I started drinking. I didn’t follow through until several years later.
What finally helped me stick to my goal? Two simple but extremely effective practices: Stakes and accountability.
Before I implemented these practices, I would tell myself, Today is the day! Today is the day I stop drinking!
Sometimes I lasted a few hours. Sometimes I lasted a few days. Very rarely I would follow through and stick to my intention. Throughout the process, I would be constantly battling myself in my mind. Two voices bickering at each other every hour.
Voice One would say, Drink!
Voice Two would say, No, don’t drink. We said we wouldn’t. Remember?
Yes, we said that, but… what if we drank anyway? Wouldn’t that be nice?
No! We have goals! Dreams! Potential! The horizon of our future is vast and filled with wonder, waiting for us to canalize our energies and create our own paradise filled with tongue-tickling daisies of optimism, gaggles of orgasmic giggles, and enough love to fill the Atlantic Ocean.
Alright… But what if we had just one drink?
You’re right. That’s a great idea. Let’s do it. The horizon will still be there tomorrow, right?
Each of these resignations would start with intentions of moderation. Only one drink. Or only one night of drinks. They would end in abandon. One drink would become many drinks. One night of drinks would become several nights. Then the inevitable spinwheel of misery and self-hatred, coming back harder and faster each time.
It seldom worked, but I kept trying. Then I read The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. In it, he suggests that if you want to make a change, you can add stakes and hold yourself accountable. The stakes are consequences for not following through on your intention. Accountability means telling someone else about your intention, checking in with them throughout your progress, and letting them know if you follow through or not.
Since then, I’ve used these two methods to curb my boozing and have also applied them to make other changes (going vegan, meditating daily, making art regularly). My process for putting them into play goes something like this:
- I articulate my intention.
What do I want to do (or not do)? For how long? Three days? One week? One month? Start with something manageable.
- I find an accountability buddy. I tell a friend what my intention is and ask them if I can check in with them on a specific basis or day for the duration of my goal. When I first did a month of no drinking, I asked my friend if I could message him every Sunday to tell him whether or not I had stuck to my goal. Sometimes, simply knowing that I’d have to tell my friend if I caved would be enough to prevent me from regressing. When I didn’t hold myself accountable to someone else, it was much easier for me to go back on my word and go against my conviction. I was shy, even scared, to admit my problem to a friend and ask for help, but I was lucky to find that my friends were happy to support me.
- I set my stakes.
At first, I chose small stakes. For example, if I drank when I said I wouldn’t, I had to give my friend $10. However, losing $10 wasn’t a very big deal. After wavering on this a few times, I set higher stakes, stakes that were severe enough that I wouldn’t consider breaking my intention.
A few months ago, I told my accountability buddy that I wouldn’t drink alcohol for a year and would check in with him on the first day of each month. If I tell him that I have caved and drank, I have to send him a video of me burning $500. Ridiculous, right? But that’s exactly why it works. I don’t have an extra $500 to toss away. I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. Though a part of me wants to drink, there’s no way it would be worth $500 so I don’t even question it. Previously, I would have had a painstaking internal dialogue teetering between abstaining and drinking. I would rationalize it and convince myself that the negative consequences of returning to booze would be negligible. I would forget the conviction with which I had initially set out upon my goal.
Now, since I know I’d have to pay $500 to the flames of failure if I drink, that inner dialogue of self-conflict is swept aside. The desire to drink still arises, but I no longer entertain the notion because I know don’t want to reap the consequences. Choosing absurd, severe stakes may sound drastic, but they can be extremely effective.
The more I want to achieve a goal, the higher I set my stakes. When I was wishy-washy about wanting to quit drinking, I set small stakes. When I reached a point where I was so exasperated by booze that I was all but desperate to make a change, then I chose stakes I knew I wouldn’t violate. Like burning $500.
I have tried the alternative of rewarding myself with positive rewards for following through on an intention. Promising myself a gift for my progress sounds kinder, less harsh. I’d love to say that worked, but I’ve found that avoiding unwanted consequences, rather than striving for a reward, has been more effective for me. Ideally, I won’t be experiencing the negative stakes anyway and the accomplishment of following through on my intention will be its own gift.
There are many personal changes I’ve made on my own, without stakes or accountability. It’s only for the exceptionally challenging changes that I use stakes and accountability. They are usually preceded by several fruitless attempts to leave behind an unwanted habit, where I’ve tried and tried at something but have repeatedly misstepped. If there’s a lifestyle adjustment that I can’t seem to make on my own, and if my desire to make that change is strong enough, then I set some stakes and ask a friend if I can check in with them. Most of the time, this has made it immensely easier to follow through on a goal that I had been failing at for months or years prior.
When I drank, and when I perform other habits that impair me, I am doing so in order to erase discontent and invoke relief. I didn’t consciously think this when grabbing for a drink, but looking back, this has been the motive steering my actions from behind the scenes. If the motives of a habit are unconscious, I’ll experience them as a visceral craving, not a thought-out decision. In a way, it’s as if my subconscious mind is attempting to protect me from the disturbances beneath the surface.
These instinctual impulses to erase the pain only mask it for a brief moment. Then the pain returns, and because I have been avoiding it, I feel even less capable of dealing with it than before. Small nuisances become monstrous hindrances. Extend this process for the course of several years and what started as a meager puddle of pent-up tension will become a massive torrent that breaks the dam and floods daily life. Work. Family and friends. Sleep. Health. Creativity. If unheeded, that inner pain will seep into every facet of life.
In order to make an effective change--not just a momentary escape--I must make some intentional effort to address the root of the pain. If you cut off the head, stem, and leaves of a weed, it will disappear for a few days, but so long as the root remains, it will always return, thorns and all.
I have found meditation to be the best tool for removing my inner weeds. Years ago, I began meditating out of desperation. I was miserable, mean, embittered, and depressed. It reached a point where I couldn’t go on living as I had been, so I looked for ways to implement some shifting. I didn’t really think change was possible, but I knew that if my life continued to go on as it had been, I didn’t much want to live anymore. So I looked for ways to dig myself out of the hole I had made. Since then, meditation has been the most effective tool I’ve known to lift me out of those periods of darkness.
Each time I sit down to meditate, I am practicing the ability to simply be alive in this moment, however I am, however I feel, whatever thoughts may be running through my mind. Each meditation gives me the chance to foster a small ball of harmony within myself. The more I do it, the more that harmony grows.
Like watering a flower. I start with a seed. I try to tend to it every day. I water it. It won’t grow overnight, but if I take care of it, it will blossom and bring some beauty into my life. One seed becomes one flower. One flower becomes several. Several flowers become a garden. What started as a patch of parched, empty soil has yielded something that brings joy into my life. But only if I have been consistently taking care of it.
Meditation is like that. Each time I sit down, a little more tension unravels, making more space for harmony. Over time, that harmony expands and trickles into daily life. Not by force or effort. It happens as a natural consequence of regular practice. Suffering doesn’t evaporate altogether, but now there’s something else here to balance it out. Because there’s some peace growing internally, events, thoughts, and feelings that were once the meat and screams of my nightmares have become more manageable. The pain shrinks.
Sometimes the pain will still feel overwhelming, but instead of sticking around and getting worse, it will pass. This is because that sense of calm that meditation has nurtured allows me to be open to the pain, rather than fight it or avoid it. If I fight or avoid the suffering, it will get worse. If I can be open to it, if I can try to develop some serenity despite its presence, it won’t linger as long as it otherwise could.
I’m admittedly biased to the technique of meditation I learned in a traditional yoga course--just because of the great benefit I’ve received from it--but really, any method can be used. I’ve tried a few different meditation techniques and have found that the frequency of practice is almost more important than the chosen technique.
If I meditate only once or twice, maybe it will feel nice--or maybe not, since it can be initially challenging or boring. But if it is not a regular practice, its benefits won’t stick. I won’t feel its effects throughout my days.
When a friend asks me how to start meditating, I suggest choosing a duration of sitting time, whatever feels manageable. Is 30 minutes too much? Start with ten minutes. Is ten minute too much? Start with one. Just get the ball rolling. Any amount, however small, will still be a step in the right direction. Next, pick a frequency of practice. Five days a week. One day a week. Again, start with whatever feels manageable. I’ve also found that practicing at the same time of day can be helpful (before breakfast, for example), but that’s not always practical or possible, depending on my schedule.
Being perfect isn’t important. I’ve had bouts where I stop practicing. Life gets busy, or I feel lazy, so I stop. That’s fine. Or I lose the desire to meditate. Also fine! But I’ve noticed that if I haven’t meditated in awhile, if I haven’t tended to those flowers, the inner tension begins to re-accumulate. So I return to my cushion and restart my practice.
Meditation isn’t a quick fix. Once we’re familiar with the process, it can indeed feel nice in the very moment we’re doing it, but it’s also a long-term investment. For me, it has gradually cooled the embers that were once roaring and raging inside of me, and installed a sense of contentment. The less restlessness and tension there is boiling in my guts, my heart, and my skull, the less likely I am to be possessed by quick-fix compulsions that end up hurting me, alcohol or otherwise.
Meditation incrementally replaces discontent with appreciation and acceptance so that I can stop resisting life and more easily enjoy it as it is.
This morning, an older woman rang my bell. She lives down the street and came to tell me that she had received a package meant for someone who rents a room in the backyard of the house I live in. “I’m always getting other people’s packages. Boxes and boxes. I should start selling them.”
Her name was Hope.
“My name’s Ben.”
“Oh! My brother’s name was Ben. We called him Benny. He died last week.”
Not what I expected to hear this morning.
She told me Ben had been an alcoholic who drank every day from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep. He would just drink and stare at the wall.
Last Tuesday, the two of them were talking in the kitchen. He had a heart attack mid-conversation. He fell down, broke his jaw. Dead on the spot.
Holy shit, was all I could think of as she was telling me this. I was listening, stunned and at a loss for words.
When she first came to the door, I was irritated. There was some aggression and frustration in her voice that grated with me. Then she told me about her brother and I realized why there was pain in her voice. I wanted to give her a hug, but she didn’t seem as though she’d like that. She said goodbye and rolled down the gravel driveway on her motorized chair. It chokes me up to think about her now.
Besides the surprise of her visit and the sadness of what’s happened to her, I can’t help but relate the event to myself. If I had kept drinking as I was, I imagine I would eventually end up like Hope’s brother, with whom I share a name. Drinking all morning, day, and night, staring at the wall, spending $500 a week on booze.
The more I drank, the longer I avoided my pain and my problems, the more I saw where I was going. And the more fed up I became with what I was doing to myself, which is why I’m currently taking a year off of alcohol. Four months in now.
Some days I realize how much more energy I have without drinking. I realize how much more comfortable I am in my own skin. I notice how much easier it is to live the way I want to live. I remember all the pain I was drowning in while I was drinking. For years! I think, Why would I ever go back? I’ll never drink again.
Other days, the craving comes back. I want to be utterly shitfaced and floating freely on an inebriated cloud of nonsensical laughter, pleasantly blind to all of my problems and stress, which I will find waiting patiently for me the morning after. I don't know what brings the cravings back. Maybe it’s the residue of the old habit bubbling up and frothing out before it goes.
I remind myself of where that craving would take me if I follow it. Pain. Unnecessary and unwanted hardship.
I remind myself of all of the joy, love, and energy that has come back into my life since letting go of that habit.
I try to be content with myself and my surroundings in this moment.
And eventually the craving passes.
If you enjoyed this post, please stay tuned for regular updates to my blog. Writings about art, dreams, tarot, and the joys and frustrations of psychological constipation and liberation. If you have questions or thoughts, leave a comment below or message me here.
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