Taming Our Habit Creatures

Riding habits like a king

Riding habits like a king, imagination reigns.

Every grown-up man consists wholly of habits, although he is often unaware of it and even denies having any habits at all.  ~Georges Gurdjieff

I’ve been thinking a lot about habits the past three days and I think I’ve come up with a great way to look at them…

We are not merely creatures of habit, we are also riding our creatures of habit bareback, fingers wrapped in their hairy manes, holding on for dear life. We are both jungle and wild thing, kings and beasts.

Culture, genes, instinct, and chance wire our brains to trigger behaviors that we repeat. We need habits to survive and function in society. Take food. We are born with the habit of suckling, we learn the habit of eating, then get used to making food for ourselves, then buying food for ourselves…If we are conscious about our health, we learn to make shopping lists and buy healthy food. If we aren’t, we get into the habit of buying Big Macs.

The difference between a good and bad habit can sometimes be slim, but when you tame the wild ones by “staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once” like Max in Where the Wild Things Are you climb onto the back of the habit creature and regain control. Of course, staring into those yellow eyes is scary. And while your trying to tame one habit, another one is gnashing its terrible teeth and rolling its terrible eyes, holding back its terrible roars so it can jump you and kick your ass.

Here is one great way to not blink when trying to tame a habit:

  • Don’t do it. Don’t try to get rid of an old habit. Create a new one. We aren’t going to dismantle any neural pathways, they are built to last. What we can do is create new pathways. For example, this month, I am getting into the habit of not drinking. And the cool thing about creating new habits is that it creates new pathways in the brain. The ability of the brain to grow new pathways is called neuroplasticity and it is yet another example of science catching up to “mystical” or spiritual traditions that have been around for ages. Here is a NY Times article about it.

…brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.

If you are into neuroplasticity, check out this great episode of The Infinite Mind radio program.

Here are 18 other tips on creating good habits. In the past three weeks I think I’ve used at least 10.

Even better, go to Zen Habits, a blog all about creating good habits as a path to happiness. If you only click one link in this blog, I recommend Zen Habits.

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite habits:

  • GTD – Getting Things Done is a productivity system that was created by David Allen. It has reached cult status on the internet, so google it. It actually requires a few habits such as: collecting every piece of “stuff” or thing that needs doing/putting/fixing in one place (I use a stack of index cards) and regularly processing and reviewing the list of stuff.
  • Pacing while on the phone – What is up with this? Does the radiation in the phone affect the pacing center of my brain.
  • Identifying feelings and their causes – When I was using a lot, I could identify when I was happy (high) and when I wasn’t. During the 7 years I wasn’t using, I learned that there are a few feelings, and that when you identify them, you could usually do something about them, even if it was just acknowledging that they were ok to feel. This habit is probably the greatest of all my habits, because it has spurred a lot of self-improvement. If I’m feeling angry at myself, or anxious about something, there is usually an improvement I can make.
  • Cigarettes – Sweet, sweet cancer.
  • Sweets – Sweet, sweet, sweets.
  • Televison – I am mostly into tv series (seria?seri?) that have some sort of mystery to be uncovered. I just watched the first few episodes of Fringe which satisfied the great hole that the X-files left in my life. Another great show that I thought had died with the writer’s strike is Life.
  • NPR – Or any informative radio. I love John Lydon’s Open Source Radio. This American Life, of course.
    Music – I tend to put on music all the time, sometimes in the middle of a conversation. I also collect music like a fiend. Right now I have about 230 Gigs of music.
  • StumbleUpon – This is a button that you install on your browser that produces magic. If you don’t know about StumbleUpon, please do yourself and your freetime a favor, and forget that I mentioned it.

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.  ~Mark Twain

Why Drink? A non-partisan approach.

I started this blog with a question. It is about time I take a shot at answering it. Excuse the facetiousness.

So.

Why do I drink?

I drink to…

  1. Have a fire to gather around. – Booze is a social drink, a pool that all fellow drinkers swim in, a fire to gather around. Of course, a fire is also a fire to gather around.
  2. Be someone else. – My high school English teacher described getting drunk this way, and it has stuck with me. I often drink to be different.
  3. Be dumb/surprised. – Things are funnier, things are more fun, when ur dumb, when ur dumb.
  4. Be numb. – Be still brain, be quiet pain.
  5. Be brave. – see #2 and #3
  6. Hang out with people I don’t like! – They ain’t so bad, especially when their buyin’.
  7. Be Like Bukowski! – Or Kerouac, Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker…
  8. Waste money! – Tip a bartender for a drink that already costs 10 times more than homemade version or buy a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon, you’re still wasting some green.
  9. Lose at poker! Lose some teeth! – Two things drinking has allowed me to do. You may want to add, lose your license, self-respect, or if you hop behind the wheel, your life.
  10. Lose my lunch! – I haven’t done this for 11 or so years, but I have felt the room spin a couple times.
  11. Go to rehab! – Amy Winehouse did it. So did I.

Bonus reason to drink: Beer goggles!

I’m not sure why all the worst reasons deserve exclamation points, but they do!

Update:

Day 17 – I’ve been doing work on my business plan and the blog for about 7 hours. I’m going to push it for another half an hour, and then do some biking before the sun sets.

Day 16 – I hung out with my girlfriend today. She is on day 9 or so. How cool is it that she decided to quit for 30 days too? Very cool. We walked up and down the Black Hills, near Olympia, WA, until our legs were sore. Even the constant hum of motor bikes and ATVs couldn’t bring us down. Thank you, girlfriend.

Update: Embarrassment of Riches

Once again, I am just leaving you all with an update. I can say this about the quest: I have had cravings but they have been weak and easy to let pass.

My fear is that my success at cutting out the booze means little, because I have been fantasizing about day 31.  Still, I may put off picking up an extra week, month,…who knows?

What do you think?

Day 15

Life is good. I’ve been busy learning how to create a small business, do market research, and write a business plan. Microenterprise non-profits rock. Although some economists think the micro-enterprise thing is a whole bunch of hype.

Day 14

My first day in the business training program. Whoo-hoo!

The presidential debate and then 4 hours of political commentary. I think Obama performed well, but I don’t know if many minds were changed.

He should just use his superstrength.

He should just use his superstrength.

Day 13

I called in sick today. Or I would have if I had a job. Holy cow, can I watch TV!

Day 12

Rode on my bike to the local college and played on their computers and then rode back. I think I biked 15-20 miles. This is unlike me, but it rocked!

Day 11

I spent the whole day writing the last post. It turned out completely different than I originally envisioned it.

Do Definitions Drive Out Disbelief and Develop Denial

Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you can get yelled at for having. Goddamn it Otto, you are an alcoholic! Goddamn it Otto, you have Lupus! One of those two doesn’t sound right.

more Hedburg quotes
Dead before 40, funny forever.

Dead before 40, funny forever.

Mitch Hedburg, who died early because of his drug use, illustrates an idea central to the 12-step philosophy: Addiction is a “continuing and progressive illness…a disease from which there is no known cure.

Am I an addict?

I spent five years introducing myself several times a week like so, “Hello, my name is TinyNow and I am an addict.”

Was I being truthful? I was certainly being honest. I abstained from all drugs because I thought, “One is too many, and a thousand is never enough.”  From the NA literature that is read at the beginning of every meeting:

Very simply, an addict is a man or woman whose life is controlled by drugs. We are people in the grip of a continuing and progressive illness whose ends are always the same: jails, institutions, and death.

Grim, isn’t it? But, like I wrote in an earlier post, I have begun to think that I am not powerless, that I am not an addict in the absolute sense.

This topic is particularly difficult to write about because:

  1. I want to be truthful as well as honest. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
  2. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. What, you were an addict then and now suddenly you are not?
  3. The truth is hidden in my genes. I believe the growing body of evidence that addiction is an inherited trait, and I am not sure that I’ve inherited it.
  4. I don’t want to help you rationalize. If any of you are asking yourselves whether you are addicts, or groping around for excuses to keep using, I don’t want to be the one to supply them.

So…I’m not going answer the question. I might be an addict. I might not.

I can say this.

  • I have been more productive these past ten days.
  • The cravings I have do seem to come unbidden (as if I was in the grip of some kind of…shall we say…illness.)
  • When I am drinking, I drink enough to increase my tolerance.
  • I fucked up my life in the past by using too many drugs*.
*When I say drugs, I refer to alcohol as well.

Maybe I’ll commit to defining myself tomorrow. In the meantime…

Day 8

I indulged in a bad habit. Television. What the hell, it was a Saturday. My girlfriend told me that her and her housemate had both decided to abstain from booze for one month! Am I going viral?

Day 9

I rode my bike up a very steep hill and helped build a little porch off my girlfriend’s back door. We ate dinner with friends and I only eyeballed the wine glasses a few times. My girlfriend is on day 7, but her housemate is starting tomorrow

Day 10

That’s today!

So far, so good.

One Week Down, Upcoming Posts

I am working on a post about my (lack of a) definition of addiction compared with other definitions and the difference between being truthful and being honest.

For now, here is an update:

Day 7

I took a walk in the park and just kept walking. Oh the joy of unemployment! I left my house at about noon and returned at four, having done nothing but wander and explore.

I’m going to a concert in Seattle tonight.  I love going to shows and although I keep imagining myself there with a drink in my hand, I have actually been to more shows sober than not. I lived in Seattle for over a year, going to at least one show or dj night a week. I look forward to not blowing $40 bucks on drinks.

Day 6 was a lazy day, too much It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on hulu and a ton of regular TV while stumbling.

My cravings for booze were satisfied by candy, hot wings, and pizza.

Day 5 was great. I wrote a great post and went to a great movie. The Cohen brothers do it again!

Pep Boys in League with God

Pep Boys are part of the Matrix

Pep Boys are part of the Matrix

I am a fairly scientific guy – agnostic. Nevertheless, I tend to believe in synchronicity, that coincidences aren’t always mere coincidences. Or maybe I just believe that, in the right frame of mind, happenings fall together, meaningfully.  Writer Amy Tan explains this phenomena in a great lecture at my favorite website, ted.com.

I’ll give you two of my own examples of synchronicity:

I was preparing to take my 1989 Chevy S-10 pickup cross-country from Long Island to the great Northwest. I needed tires and a few other fixes before I left. It was the last day of my job, which was in a strip mall, next to Pep Boys (an auto repair chain). I was over one year clean and doing all the right things.

When I came out of work, my car was in a different parking spot, with four brand new tires. I immediately called my mother.

“Did you get me tires!?”
“What?”
“Did you buy me new tires?”
“No….What?”
“I came out of work and there were four new tires on the truck! Who do you think got them for me?”
“I have no idea, but that is great!”

I called my dad, my grandparents, and several friends, they all had no clue. I started to feel weird about it when I still had no idea who the secret philanthropist was. I felt like Pip in Great Expectations. I called Pep Boys.

“We’re glad you called…a gentleman with a 1994 Chevy Blazer came in for tires.  The mechanic saw ‘black Chevy’ on the ticket and thought it was your truck.”
“But it was locked”
“The key fit.”

I was prepared to negotiate with them to see if they could take care of a few other things wrong with the truck and maybe get the tires at cost, but, for some reason, I opened like a lawyer.

“I’m getting ready to drive to the west coast. I’m not under an obligation to pay for these tires. After all, you guys basically broke into my car…”
“Okay. It’s our mistake. Enjoy your trip.”

Recognizing a good deal when I heard one, I thanked him and hung up.

It could have been a coincidence. Many old Chevy keys fit other Chevys. Pep Boys changed tires every day. It could have been a coincidence that my ignition key was so worn that I had taken to leaving it in the column and locking up with the door key. So what if it was the last day I would ever park in front of that particular Pep Boys?  And so what of the coincidence that I needed tires?…And that my Chevy was black and of a similar model to the one that should have gotten the tires? Coincidences all.

The problem is, if you add all those things together, the probability is about one in a trillion. I choose to believe that there was a reason all these factors came together – I was doing the things that the universe knows are right. This is still a leap of faith but it seems more logical than saying, “One in a trillion events happen all the time.” They don’t. They happen almost never. One in a trillion is as close to impossible as you get. And what is a miracle but an act of the impossible. It just makes more sense to explain these coincidences as a benevolent alignment of events that become apparent to people who benevolently align themselves with the universe.
The concept of a “higher power” appears in six of the 12-steps. My working definition of a higher power is “the thing that makes doing good things good for you” – grace, synchronicity, or just that warm feeling that you get for acting with compassion (even when there is no one there to witness it).

My next example of a higher power acting in my life is…

Day 4

Yesterday was so incredibly full of good things that I cannot help but think of it as a reward from the universe.  The only thing that marred the day was a slight headache and about three brief but strong cravings for beer.
Here is a partial list of the great things that happened:

  • I went on an informational interview and it turned into a regular interview. It seems likely that I will have a job as an SAT coach in the near future.
  • I spoke to my Dad about his girlfriend’s mean emails to me. He agreed she was being irrational and unjust and the small knot in my gut untied. (I feel it in my stomach when people are mad at me, even if they are totally whacked.)
  • I spoke to my Mom about my job hunt and my sobriety and got the encouragement that only a mom can give.
  • I sent an email apology to a girl that I had cut it off with rather abruptly and rudely a few months back. (This isn’t really something that happened to me, but the further untying of my gut was certainly palpable.)
  • I spoke to a friend who I hadn’t spoke to in a while.
  • I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a fantastic book of essays by Stephen Jay Gould on the library shelf. (An evolutionary biologist, master craftsman, and bringer together of amazing details to illustrate fundamental truths, Gould just plain rocks.)
  • I received a call from an amazing woman who is a life coach by profession, but also works for an organization called Enterprise for Equity. We talked some my small business ideas and she said that she would fast-track me in the organization’s business training program. The non-profit will supply me with all the skills and guidance needed to create a viable business plan…(I just need to pick one. Easier said…)
  • I completed about a dozen things on my to-do list. (P.S. I am one of those GTD junkies)
  • At our regular Tuesday poker night, I walked away the big winner. (20 big ones)
  • All this and beautiful weather.

So far so good!

The Marijuana Maintenance Plan

When I was a regular member of Narcotics Anonymous, I had a friend who would make fun of those who were in AA who celebrated their sober time, but still smoked pot.  They were on the “marijuana maintenance” plan.

If I were still in touch with him, he would be making fun of me right now.

I have decided to continue smoking pot.

The Good
I am a person who usually isn’t happy unless doing something, being “productive”. This is great until I notice I haven’t eaten for six hours and I really gotta pee. Or I haven’t taken a day off in three weeks. When I try to stop, I can’t. My mind keeps racing about all the things I want to get done. This might be considered an addiction in itself, an urgency addiction. Although I consider myself a bit of a slacker, many of my friends called me a workaholic while I was at my last job. During that time, I took a test at a training I went to.  The test measures your “urgency index”.  I scored 55, four points into the realm of urgency addiction.

Getting high stills the nagging part of my brain that is never in the present. Urgency vanishes when you are in the present. Smoking pot is one way to get me out of the future and back where I really exist, right now.

The Bad
Doing stuff that requires concentration while high is a really bad idea. You can do it, but you’re bound to do it poorly. Doing dishes, mowing the lawn, drawing, or noodling on the piano are great activities to do whilst floating in the gentle haze of the herb. Writing, calculating, planning, or meeting people – not so much

In the end, the good far outweighs the bad. The science is on my side.

In fact, this study shows that marijuana use by pregnant mothers may actually help their infants:

…the neonates [infants less than one month old] of mothers who used marijuana showed better physiological stability at 1 month and required less examiner facilitation to reach an organized state and become available for social stimulation. The results of the comparison of neonates of the heavy-marijuana-using mothers and those of the nonusing mothers were even more striking. The heavily exposed neonates were more socially responsive and were more autonomically stable at 30 days than their matched counterparts. The quality of their alertness was higher; their motor and autonomic systems were more robust; they were less irritable; they were less likely to demonstrate any imbalance of tone; they needed less examiner facilitation to become organized; they had better self-regulation; and were judged to be more rewarding for caregivers than the neonates of nonusing mothers at 1 month of age.

Whoa.

But this blog isn’t about marijuana it’s about me and booze.  So, how am I doing…

Day 3:

Got up at 8:15 without an alarm clock, did my morning yoga routine, and went out for coffee and a quiche with my girlfriend. The five o’clock whistle blew a few minutes ago, and I am still working. I am looking forward to sitting outside, watching the sunset, and eating with some friends that live nearby.

With one exception, I have been really busy all day today, working on projects of my design:

  • bought card stock, stamp-pads, and a stamp that says, “thank you”
  • created and mailed cards to thank the people I had informational interviews with last week
  • wrote this post
  • researched blogging platforms
  • researched and experimented with customization of wordpress
  • browsed some career/self-help books at a local bookstore

The exception was writing an email that I never sent. I’ll tell you about it soon.

As far as cravings go, I haven’t had one.

So far, so good.

No Booze for Thirty Days: The Back Story

Nephalism

Neph”a*lism\, n. [Gr. ? soberness, fr. ? sober, ? to drink no wine: cf. F. n[‘e]phalisme.] Total abstinence from spirituous liquor.

The 30-day Nephalist

n. A 32-year old aspiring writer and slacker, living in the Northwest area of the United States of America, quenching his thirst for self-knowledge but not for microbrews.

I was completely clean for nearly 7 years, beginning when I was 24.  During that time, I embraced the idea espoused by most successful recovering addicts and all 12-step programs: I am powerless.

When you can truly admit that you are powerless over drugs or alcohol, it is impossible to justify using them. You want power over your life, and as soon as you pick up a drink, or take a hit, you give up that power. By admitting you are powerless to control consumption, you realize that you cannot have just one.

I was all about powerlessness when I first got clean.  I got into countless conversations with people who would say, “You have such great will-power!” No, I would tell them, not at all.  In fact, the awareness that my will-power fails in the face of drugs and alcohol is what keeps me from picking them up in the first place.

But then something changed.

Life got better and better after I got clean. I moved to the Northwest from my home on Long Island. I went back to school. I kept jobs and paid my tuition and bills (although I got a lot of support from my family and a little from the government). I became a writing tutor at college and was considered to be a great student by professors and friends. I had a sailboat and hobbies, friends and free time. And, I thought, some power. I started smoking pot on occasion and then drinking. That was last summer.

What a dream – drinking in the Northwest, home of microbrews galore! And who doesn’t like a good party?

But a few times in the beginning, when I drank too much the night before, and a few times more recently, a great fear descended on me – Was I powerless after all? Why drink? Why?

Since then, I have shaken off that giant fear a few times and partied in relative peace, conscience unruffled, until this week.

When you spend forty bucks on booze for a two-day camping trip, and you are unemployed, you probably should ask yourself a few questions. And, I tell myself, you should probably be sober while you ponder them.

I have been drinking almost every day, usually not more than two or three, but sometimes.  I don’t get drunk easily anymore.  More and more I wonder, “Why drink?”

Why blog?

  • to document my experience staying sober for thirty days
  • to share with people who are struggling to find balance in their drug use
  • to help me maintain my resolve
  • to develop my blogging, writing, and ability to attract readers (read: web marketing, social networking)
  • to answer the questions, “Why drink?” and “Why not drink?”

I plan to post to the blog regularly, four or five times a week, and to continue after the 30-days are up, whatever decision I make about my drinking. I plan to remain anonymous, although I will share my blog with friends and family members as long as I can feel safe about being completely honest.

Day 2:

I have a fridge full of beer from our camping trip, and a housemate who is happy to drink it.  I have told him and a few other friends about my 30-day plan, so it will be a lot easier to avoid temptation.

The impulse to drink has cropped up a couple of times. No big deal.

My mind is racing with all the angles I can approach this experience. So much to write about – the nature of addiction, the philosophy of 12-step programs, the varieties of microbrews, the creation of habits (good and bad), and of course the Big Questions: Why drink? Why am I here? What is my purpose?

So far so good!

About

Nephalism – Neph”a*lism\, n. [Gr. ? soberness, fr. ? sober, ? to drink no wine: cf. F. n[‘e]phalisme.] Total abstinence from spirituous liquor.

The 30-day Nephalist – n. A 32-year old aspiring writer and slacker, living in the Northwest area of the United States of America, quenching his thirst for self-knowledge but not for microbrews.