The positive side of addiction – or how to turn ‘bad habits’ into your best self
This morning I was having breakfast with a friend and the conversation turned to the topic of obesity. A rather large lady had sat behind my friend and he had no choice but to move his chair closer to our table and found himself wedged in somewhat and unable to enjoy the rest of his meal in comfort. (As is the case with most cafe’s in Sydney’s inner west, adequate space between tables to allow for people of all shapes and sizes is considered an unnecessary waste of valuable real estate.) The question was asked, Unavoidable health conditions aside, what makes some people go from merely overweight, which let’s face it most of us are, to being dangerously, uncomfortably and in some extreme cases, morbidly obese?
I posited this response, Perhaps for some people who struggle with weight, there gets a point where they feel that no matter what they do or how hard they try, they are never going to be as thin, or as perfect or as whatever as they think they ought to be and at some point they lose the battle or give up fighting and think, What’s the point in trying? I may as well just eat whatever and not give a f&^%k. And before they know it they have gone from merely overweight to obese.
Or for some people, perhaps it starts with their relationship to food and eating. They turn to food as a source of comfort, as way to self-soothe and regulate emotions. When you feel sad, depressed or hopeless, that 4 litre tub of ice-cream can seem like a true friend. Nothing like a bit of self-indulgence to make yourself feel better, at times. However, when it becomes a regular thing rather than an occasional indulgence it can become a problem.
And the problem with too much self-indulgence, whether it be food, drugs, alcohol, sex or any habit forming, mood regulating behaviour is the little hook of dependency, (When you start to depend on your self-soothing behaviour too much, or as a way of avoiding dealing with unpleasant, or uncomfortable realities). And the fact that too much of a good thing can easily turn bad. The human body/mind is a delicately balanced conscious/unconscious machine and it doesn’t take too much to throw it off kilter. So while eating food is something we all need to do and is essential to our health and well being …too much food, or too much of the wrong types of food will make us overweight, feel sick or just plain unwell and in some cases, obese.
Another kick in the shins is when we realize that we are using our ‘little indulgences’ to feel better a little too much and find that it’s not so easy to stop the behaviour just because we decide that we want to. It’s not that easy, because a habit has been formed. By the point you consciously realize that, Hey I can’t fit into any of my clothes, is that really me in that photo?! I really ought to eat better/less exercise more…. I’ll start tomorrow. Your brain, your unconscious brain more specifically, has formed some deep, well worn, neurological ridges and short cuts to feeling ‘better’ and it doesn’t see any good reason to stop or change just because you say so.
Using food as an example, however, this can apply to any addictive or habit forming behaviour, let’s say you have decided that you want to lose weight and have decided to cut out all junk food, from today! You do fine for a couple of days, and then on day three you have a particularly bad day. You forget to set your alarm, so you sleep in and run late for work. Then, you have to give a presentation and you find that because you were so rushed that morning, you have left your notes at home and so the presentation doesn’t go all that well. Your boss calls you into her office and has a serious yet well meaning chat with you about it. The rest of the day you are feeling down and just pissed off with yourself and by 3pm you are really starting to think about venturing over to the vending machine for a chocolate bar to go with your afternoon coffee. You somehow resist the urge and make it through to the end of the day without caving in. You are feeling pretty proud of yourself and positive until you get a text from a friend cancelling your dinner plans. This wouldn’t be such a big deal except this is the third time in a row they have cancelled and you suddenly get the feeling that they don’t want to see you anymore. You feel hurt and rejected and what you really want to do is call them up and ask them what the hell is going on? But, instead you slump home and make yourself dinner, it’s healthy because the day before yesterday when you decided that you were going to change your eating habits you threw out all your junk food and bought healthy, fresh food to make real dinners with, rather than the ready to eat meals in a box and snack food that would normally fill your pantry. After dinner, you feel unsatisfied. You are craving chocolate. You are craving chocolate so bad you can’t sit still. You try and take your mind off it but even your favourite TV show is just not making you laugh as much as it normally does. Your mind keeps thinking of chocolate…an ad for Cadbury’s comes on and that’s it. A sign! You can’t take it anymore. You get in your car and drive to the convenience store…
It’s not until you are sitting, staring at an empty packet of Cadbury family size chocolate, the purple wrapper sitting there on your coffee table looking crumpled and defeated, that the reality of what has just occurred sinks in. Oh no… you think. Why couldn’t I stop at just a couple of rows like I said I would. Why did I have to eat the whole thing! So the comfort once experienced has now turned into self-loathing, shame and defeat. You go to bed feeling worse than before. The sweet, indulgent treat that was once your source of comfort and escape has now turned on you and you feel enslaved to its destructive charm. Laying in bed you start beating yourself up (figuratively of course!) and reminding yourself of what a failure you are and how, No-one will ever love me and what’s the point in trying anymore, people are all f&*^k anyway and will only let you down in the end. It’s all too hard and too much to think about now and anyway, it’s time for bed. You feel so tired. May as well call this a bad day and think about it tomorrow.
And so the cycle continues…
So how to break this cycle? Well there are ways…. And the good news is the same way you got yourself into a sticky situation is largely the same way to get yourself out of it. The difference is taking control. Instead of allowing your unconscious brain to just do what it thinks it needs to do to keep you safe, (and that’s emotionally and physically safe) you need to consciously take control of your own life… The bad news is, it’s not the easy, familiar route to just ‘feeling better’ that you have become used to. It involves making some conscious, and at first un-comfortable and un-familiar choices that will eventually create new habits, new ways of being and relating to yourself and others. It involves facing those realities, or those painful memories and/or unresolved traumas that you have avoided for so long. It also involves forgiveness. Forgiving yourself, and anyone else for those hurts, slights, misguided actions, un-thoughtful words and sometimes even unspeakable acts that may have been committed against you in order to free yourself from the burden of unexpressed anger and resentment.
It’s not as easy as eating a block of chocolate, or taking a hit of heroin, or drinking yourself into numbness or losing yourself for days and days watching internet porn or staying at home, ‘working’ instead of going to that party, or spending hours in front of a poker machine or maxing out your credit card on online psychics, pornography or prostitutes or whatever it is you do to make yourself ‘feel better’.
It’s not easy to face the void, not easy at all….but, remember, no-one said you have to do it alone.
If you have trouble kicking any addictive or unhelpful behaviour remember help is available, all you have to do is ask…
Thanks to Mr R Buesnel for his valuable contribution to this post, for his insight, encouragement and generosity of spirit.