I’ve had a few different ways of repelling from the four discomforts. They’re differently damaging. Alcohol is the first one where I was putting my body in danger, and that finally got to me. As I’ve said elsewhere, the health risks were never enough to get me to actually quit abusing alcohol. But once I gained enough clarity and strength to do this, I’m grateful for the immediate invisible health benefits.
The first substance I used to numb my feelings was food. I was a binge-eater starting in college and continuing till I was 28-ish. It was 100% hidden. I began telling a few people starting five or ten years after it ended, but it’s still hard to type even now. Friends and mentors at the time knew that I was intensely unhappy at times, but they didn’t know why, or about this food issue, or how to help me.
I craved sugar at times and fat and heavy foods at other times. I imagine that those two habits relate possibly to my having different emotions to suppress, but I’m in no mood to analyze it now.
Given the food sensitivities I now know about (especially dairy and gluten), I have to wonder how much I was creating my own problems back then. Other than that, though, this food issue didn’t particularly endanger my physical health.
As life after college progressed and I got more satisfied and engaged in the things that fascinate me, the binge-eating disorder faded away. I inhabited my body more comfortably (though still very imperfectly). I started grad school when I was 28 and became pretty maniacally focused on being stressed over school, and this went on for six or seven years.
I no longer had the desire to weigh myself down with quantities of food, but I still wanted an escape. It became the innocuous-seeming Snickers bar or Reese’s peanut butter cups. (You can’t have just one! Oh wait, that’s salt.) It probably was actually innocuous. I just notice it in hindsight as a small example of my continued need to escape or distract with a physical stimulus – when my energy flagged at 4 p.m., I was off to the vending machine. I sometimes wonder why I didn’t pick up other more conspicuous escapes during that time, but I was pretty focused and I also had no money. When you’re living on $1000 a month, it’s hard to afford much in the way of expensive escapes. (My practical side.)
In grad school, our professors bought us bottomless pitchers of beer every Friday afternoon. First we sat through a colloquium, to widen our academic horizons, and then we went out and let off steam at a sort of horrible campus sports bar. First, actually, we ate cookies and drank coffee, then the colloquium, then the beer. We had the bases covered.
I loved those Friday afternoons and often was among the last to leave, stumbling to my bike and pedalling carefully home on side streets. I remember thinking how I so enjoyed the Friday buzz and yet I didn’t have any desire to self-medicate any other time. From my vantage point now, it’s a wonderful time point to remember – it illustrates how the addiction creeps up. I used to be a normal drinker. And now I’m not. Yay for quitting at the “high bottom.”
It was during my first job out of grad school that I started to drink more beer at home and began to be attracted to it in a self-medicating sort of way. I had a two-year gig far from home, and one day at the end of my first year I happened to buy a six pack of beer. After that or perhaps the second six pack I vaguely noticed something: if the beer was there, I drank it. The six pack didn’t last. Well, it lasted maybe six days (hard to imagine now). But the bottles went steadily from six to zero.
After the end of the second year I found myself alone in a house situated in a dark stretch of land 15 miles north of New York City. I was working alone all day doing research and came home alone at night. I like being alone. But I found myself buying beer more often. Now I had two bottles of beer in the evening while I watched two or three episodes of Seinfeld. The thing that caught my attention at the time was how I had several desires to juggle, and I watched how I juggled. I needed to eat, wanted to take a long walk along the running trail, wanted to space out in front to the TV, needed to do yoga, and wanted a beer. Various ones of those were mutually exclusive. Seinfeld and beer consistently won. Yoga usually lost. I fed myself okay, but food was definitely a lower priority than beer. Something was up.
I moved back to my chosen city, got a job, and had even more disposable income. Beer became a fixture in my evenings. I moved, got a new roommate who was fairly oblivious to me and what I did or drank, later moved into my own apartment, and alcohol infused more and more of my time. The rest of that story is scattered all over this blog, so I will move on to….
Really? Kind of anticlimactic. Nobody’s going to increase their risk of breast cancer by checking email 17 times an hour. It doesn’t wreck your sleep (when used properly). It’s cheap. But what an effective way to interrupt a thought process or emotional sensation, and it’s socially sanctioned. This now is the main way that I interrupt my presence in my body and in the moment.
I’m not terribly concerned about my email habit. I do need to be present to my clients. But email really doesn’t need to be checked every few minutes. (When I timed my “email reflex” it came to a bizarrely consistent six minute rhythm. Has anybody studied this?) Whenever I put myself on a two-hour schedule all day (or even one-hour schedule), I feel so good. The day goes by more smoothly and more peacefully, and of course I get more work done. There are no downsides. Email programs are fantastically reliable as a capturing device. Whenever the message comes in, there it sits. Again, I’m not terribly concerned, just noting it. I do eventually want to inch away from this reflex.
It’s amazing how active and creative this “escape” muscle is. Damn it all. But here it is, here we are.