Everyone’s addicted to something, says my friend D. And I have to agree with her.
Why am I thinking about addiction today? Because I read about someone who decided to get her phone out of the bedroom overnight because she was addicted to it, with all the beeps and burps and deedle-wheedle-dees coming out of the damn thing all day and night, making her feel like she had to respond to absolutely everything NOW NOW NOW even if it was three in the morning and she’d just gotten up for a pee. I totally 100% relate to that, which is what brought me to “everyone’s addicted to something.”
It’s just a matter of whether we call it “addiction” or something else. If you’re addicted to control, you may be called a control freak, but not an addict. If it’s cookies or ice cream, we kind of joke about that, “oh, I’m addicted to chocolate,” but nobody takes that seriously — unless you also happen to be overweight, in which case you might actually consider yourself addicted, but mostly you just get judged as lacking control.
The lines aren’t clear, those lines between “well” and “not-well.” It’s a matter of degree, and whether it’s considered “serious” depends, I think, on how much your particular obsession impinges on the rest of your life. On other people’s lives. How much trouble you get into because of it. Whether you end up in jail. Or send messy text messages to your ex at three in the morning.
Whatever the addiction or compulsive behaviour, the mechanism is the same. It’s about soothing uncomfortable feelings and then it’s about more-more-more. It’s about the proverbial “one [drink] is one too many and a thousand’s not enough.”
I haven’t touched alcohol for a little over two years, but the impulse for more is still there. It’s just shifted to other things. I’ve managed to deflect the cravings to things that are less physically/emotionally/mentally/socially harmful than alcohol, mostly through a strategy of just not keeping alcohol in the house. But whatever I crave, the process and the voices in my head are the same. The thought comes up, persistently, that I need … something I don’t have. I’m feeling anxious or sad or fearful or bored or disconnected, and I don’t want to have those feelings. I want … I don’t know what I want, but I want — I crave — something.
And then I have one of whatever it is, and then another thought comes up, persistently: I want more. More cookies, more chocolate, more potato chips, more tea, more coffee. More time on the computer screaming down one endless rabbit hole after another in the vain hope that I’ll find what I’m looking for. More story, be it one more chapter, one more episode (aka binge watching), one more news feed on social media.
Sometimes, I indulge the need for more, especially when it comes to more story. “One more chapter” too often finds me still reading at 2:00 a.m.
But for the most part, I manage. I manage when I stay in a house full of alcohol or when someone I’m with is having a glass of wine with dinner. How? Mostly, I don’t think about it much anymore. But sometimes I do. And then what?
Then I remind myself that a craving is just a thought. And I know what to do with thoughts.
When I sit in meditation, I have many thoughts. We all do. In fact, one of my first meditation teachers told us there’s a technical term for a human being without thoughts: a corpse.
Meditation has taught me how to work with thoughts. The purpose of the kind of meditation I do is not to get rid of thoughts. The purpose is to learn to let thoughts come and go, and return always to a chosen point of focus, usually the breath.
When I can bring my attention to my breathing and keep it there for a few breaths in a row, that’s pretty blissful, and I want to stay there. But as soon as I have that thought, the bubble bursts, and then I have another thought, and another, and then my mind is off and running again. And that’s okay. As soon as I notice that I’ve gotten absorbed in thought again, I bring my attention back to my breath, like this: “Thinking. I’m thinking. Oh wait, I’m also breathing. Right. Paying attention to breathing, I breathe in, I breathe out. Just sitting here breathing.” A thought comes in, I notice it, let it go, return to breathing. Again and again and again.
Every time I notice that I’m thinking, I build the mental muscle I need to manage cravings — for alcohol, for books, for another episode of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, for cookies, or the Cookie Monster. Every time I’m notice that I’m having a thought and then bring my attention back to my breath, I learn one more thing about managing craving.
For so many years, my brain instantly interpreted any craving as a need for a Skinny Bitch or a glass of wine. Every time something went wrong (or right, for that matter), every time I got anxious or sad or bored or even happy, I felt like I had to soothe the feeling immediately or I would crawl right out of my skin.
The practice of mindfulness meditation has taught me how to abide. When I feel anxious or sad or mad or fearful or bored, I know it will pass, like all feelings and thoughts pass, just like they do on the meditation cushion. I can allow myself to just simply feel the feeling, directly and without a filter and without having to damp it down. I don’t have to interpret the feeling as a signal to reach for a drink (or a cookie) (or the TV remote). I don’t have to interpret the feeling at all, and I don’t have to do anything about it. It’s just a thought.