When I was a very small child, I walked around everywhere with a blanket that I used as some kind barrier or a source of comfort. As I recall, it was yellow with some pattern designs on it, much like the oversized button down shirts that many pipe organ enthusiasts wear to recitals. One day we went to visit my aunt and uncle, and while I wasn’t looking, someone—I have my suspicions but still am not entirely sure who—hid the blanket, and everyone told me it was gone, as if it disintegrated into thin air like a fart in the wind. That’s when I experienced my very first withdrawal.
“Addiction” conjures up images of drunks slumped over a bar or junkies shooting up heroin, but really we can become addicted to anything. Dependence seems to be the criteria. Maybe anxiety, too, in the absence of the desired thing. These crutches exist thanks to little lies that we tell ourselves: I need this. A mindset like this can encompass many different degrees of attachment. I forget where I read the story about a woman who insisted she was an alcoholic because she had one glass of wine every night at 5 o’clock. A glass of wine is harmless, but it was the insatiable need for it that bothered this lady. That’s an example of someone with an unusually high level of self-knowledge, even if it’s a bit obsessive.
I have my own addictions. They are all minor, thankfully, but they exist, and I often wonder if my life wouldn’t be better without them and without the little devils that serve them by whispering their b.s. into my ears.
This one isn’t uncommon. For most of my life my primary vehicle of choice for this substance has been soda. Back in 2001, I perceived the need to knock it off and was doing pretty well when I took a vacation to Vienna, the capital of my heart’s joy. Like only a Boobus Americanus could do, I decided to stop at a McDonald’s not far off the Kaertnerstrasse to see if European soda was better than the stuff in America. It’s funny, but I don’t remember the outcome of that ill-begotten experiment, except that I felt that for the rest of the vacation I could drink soda. And then on the plane back, I drank soda, because vacation wasn’t technically over yet. Then the jet lag hit; take a good guess as to how I tried to combat that. I have been drinking soda ever since.
Only more recently have I put coffee into the mix. Thanks to the specialty coffee shops here in Philly, I have become a coffee snob, even though I can’t sort out vanilla or fruit flavors like one of those wine tasters with the pince-nez. At one point I was up to three cups a day, but that much got me so wound up that I was counterproductive. So I’ve cut back a bit from that. Nevertheless, my caffeine addiction is alive and well. I’m not a scientist, but I’m willing to bet that this phenomenon is at least partially a physical dependence. All the same, there are rubbish stories I tell myself to justify the habit: I don’t have energy until I have caffeine. This could be solved by getting good sleep, which can’t happen when caffeine is constantly in my system. Or here’s another: Caffeine, especially coffee, helps me to think and write better. Maybe, to a point. James Altucher talks about this. I understand it completely, but is this really the only way to get the creative juices flowing? Is it the best way? I’ve written some really awful stuff on two cups of coffee. It’s similar to the guy who’s on this third drink and thinks he’s unlocked the mysteries of the universe when he’s actually just drunk. Honestly, my best ideas get started during long runs.
Somehow, I can’t quite bring myself even to try to get off the caffeine. I’m afraid of the headaches, and besides, the people at the cafe I most often go to are really cool, and it’s a nice place to get work done. I also wonder if I don’t use caffeine as a low-grade anti-depressant. It’s just a thought; maybe there’s something to it. The hilarious irony here is that I’m a highly anxious person, and caffeine almost certainly contributes to that. I know all this, yet I continue to drink the stuff. I guess I’m just a dunghill covered with snow, to borrow a line from Martin Luther.
Industriousness is a good thing. I try to get work done efficiently so that I have more time for leisure and reading. It aids a more balanced life. It doesn’t take much for me to get some good momentum going, but once I get going, I can’t stop. Part of the reason I’m a night owl is that I don’t have an ‘off’ switch. Since there’s always one more thing to do, I’m always doing the next thing until my eyes are so heavy I can’t keep them open any more. That takes awhile, thanks to the caffeine.
The biographies of the great people in history are filled with accounts of relentless work ethic. It’s like there was some kind of spirit pushing these people along, or even possessing them. I am not great, and sometimes I’m lazy, but I can relate to that drive that simply will not stop. Some kinds of activities require very long periods of intense concentration. I find it’s the only way to get certain things done. This is where obsessive work habits bring an advantage. Losing track of time while getting lost in some problem about which you have a passion can be a heavenly experience.
Where I have trouble is in walking away from my work. I can’t compartmentalize it. It follows me around, and I even think about it while I’m out to dinner or getting a drink with a friend. Why do I do this? Maybe it’s that yellow blanket coming back in a new guise: Who I am isn’t good enough, so what I do must dominate my life. I don’t know if this applies to me but I think I ought to be on the lookout for it. I certainly am not the only one, if in fact it’s true. We are less human beings these days and more human doings, with one hand on the coffee mug and the other on the smart phone, being led about by the nose by Facebook updates and endless text messages. I’m thinking about instituting a Luddite Day in my weekly routine. No phone, no email, no Facebook, no planning, no work; just me and a book under a tree.
In order not to fiddle with or be distracted by my phone constantly, I have to leave it at home. Even turning it off doesn’t help, because I forget that I’ve shut it down and am constantly going back to it. As I hit the wake button, the phone starts up again; then I have to wait for it to boot up so that I can shut it off. Five minutes later, the whole cycle is repeated when I absentmindedly hit the button yet again.
Texting seems to be the most pernicious thing. I’ll turn the ringer off and put the phone face down on the table, yet I’m still checking it every two minutes, as if I’m an ambulance driver rather than a musician. This is a strange kind of nervous tick, I think. It reminds me of smokers who have quit who wear holes into their shirt pockets by reaching for cigarette boxes that are no longer there.
For years I refused to engage in text messaging. Then I discovered that it can save time in a lot of situations. Now I perceive, however, that it can also waste a lot of time. No, you don’t have to pick up the phone and speak to someone, but your time gets nickled-and-dimed to death by the Chinese water torture of getting a 160 character-long message every two minutes or so. Then someone tries to use shorthand and isn’t understood, and the whole conversation has to start over again.
More than once I have nearly thrown my phone into the toilet and flushed twice to make certain that it is gone for good. Alas, having no phone seems to be an even worse situation. Moderation is the only solution. I have seriously considered, however, not texting any more. I’m not sure how that would go. I have a feeling that if I were successful, I could probably save up to an hour a day. That’s enough time to read a book in a week.
The late Dr. Gerald May, in his book, Addiction and Grace, goes through the science and psychology of addiction. It’s fascinating stuff; I highly recommend it. (I am also addicted to semi-colons, by the way.) After a long, compassionate, thoughtful excursion, however, he says it all comes down to this: just stop. Whatever addictions or bad habits you have, you just have to stop them. That pretty much takes away the excuses and forces you to get serious. I suppose a game plan is in order. Maybe a good motivator is to try to imagine ways in which your life will be better when the bad habits are gone. I did this when I lost weight, and it helped me to keep my eye on the goal line rather than the queue at the donut shop. If I were to give up caffeine I’d probably have more energy and less anxiety. If I didn’t obsess about work in down time, I’d probably have fresher ideas when it’s time to get to business. And if I didn’t text I’d probably spend less of my time being agitated at a nagging electronic device.
I suppose the question for anyone with a bad habit is whether they’re ready or not to believe that their version of the story is flawed. Those little liars in our ears don’t go away easily. Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith, to ignore the demons that delude us. This calls for some soul-searching and fearless honesty, however seemingly inconsequential some of the behaviors in question may seem to be. Rooting out the weeds in our lives is not easy, but in my experience it’s always worth the effort. I should come up with a longer list for myself and starting hacking away with my proverbial scythe. Maybe I can brainstorm tomorrow over a cup of coffee.