Finding a way to not start

jose-martinez-cookie-monster-cupcakes-5007403719_2e10472c75_b For a long time, I've been aware of the most obvious form of addiction in my family: alcoholism.

First of all, because Mom drank. A lot. And so did Mom's dad and some of Mom's brothers. A lot. Once it spirals out of the societally-determined safe zone, alcohol addiction gets obvious fast, what with all the clanging empties and lack of employment and whatnot.1

It took me much longer to spot the other, less obvious manifestations of the addictive temperament in my gene pool, Dad's workaholism, for instance, or my maternal grandmother's massive sugar jones, or everyone's need to have the television on as loud as possible as often as possible, especially when someone else was in the room. Hey, those aren't problems, they're part of being American!

I will pause for the briefest of moments to say I'm going nowhere near any discussions of the root causes of addiction, of whether addiction is a disease or symptom (although I suspect the answer to that is "yes"), or of where addiction and compulsion overlap. I am not a mental-healthcare professional nor have I done any scholarly boning up on addiction and its underlying/concomitant behavioral disorders.

What I can say, and with the rock-solid confidence that only years of experience and obsessive (haha) self-observation can bring, is that the triggers that set my own self-destructive behaviors in motion are manifold and insidious.

* * * * *

The purpose of drinking too much or working too much, like all self-destructive behaviors, is to create distance between you and something else: Distance between you and your feelings, usually the painful ones. Distance between you and another person, usually one whom getting close to would involve the stirring up of painful feelings. Distance between you and the truth, which, as time and the behavior goes on, becomes about how much distance between you and your feelings or you and your loved ones your addictive/compulsive behavior has created.

Most of these buffer reasons for addictions are pretty well-established. Freud was hip to them, for crying out loud. You do something bad because somewhere in your brain, you think it's keeping you from something worse.

Your first order of business in changing this stuff seems to be sussing out the "why": I work too much because no matter how well I did, I was told I could do better if only I worked harder. That I should do this was left unspoken, but hung thickly in the air at all times. So I work too much because it puts distance between me and the fear that I am not enough, and that I am unlovable as I am.2

Okay. I get why I work too much. What I didn't get, because I couldn't make it fit, is why I couldn't get to the work of working too much. I mean, seriously, if I love work so freakin' much, why am I screwing around in Facebook? Why am I checking my email for the 57th time, hoping against hope that it holds some horrific fire that must be put out NOW? (Or, barring that, a really, really important and necessary special offer that must be acted upon immediately?)

And then, like a bolt from the blue, I got smacked upside the head by Captain Obvious: my incessant fiddling, my noodling, my (say it with me, now) P-R-O-C-R-A-S-T-I-N-A-T-I-N-G is there to put distance between me and starting, so that I don't have to fail by finishing.

Given my fondness for the work of Seth and Uncle Steve, not to mention my up-close-and-personal experience with the Resistor and all those years of shrinkage, that this lightbulb moment comes so late in the game is more than a little humiliating.

On the other hand, I'm a shoo-in for Dumbass of the Year award. And I do like me some award-garnering.

Lest we end this section on a sour-ish note of self-flagellation (more distancing!), I will add that like all discoveries of a disastrous or humiliating nature, if I can really and truly turn them into lessons learned, I win.

And I really, really like winning. Obviously.

* * * * *

So. How does one turn a discovery into a lesson really and truly learned?

On a recent episode of my new-favorite podcast-slash-obsession, the host, Marc Maron, who quit drinking 15 years ago, describes the process of his getting sober.3 For a long while, it sounds like he had a waking-up to how drinking (and for him, drug use) was really taking away much more than it was giving. Once he really and truly got that, he said, he had to find a way of not starting, which sound like what the Program was for him. AA is all about not starting, not taking that first drink. If you don't have the first one, you can't have all the subsequent ones, which are what get you into trouble.

Not-starting looks like not-doing, but really, it's doing other things. Taking other actions. Probably small, simple actions (although we're not going to be foolish enough to bait the Resistor by calling them "easy"). And probably many actions, over a long period of time. There may be the occasional grand, cinematic gesture, like throwing a half-full pack of cigarettes into the trash just like that. But the real work begins with the not-starting later: not fishing the pack out again four hours later when you get back from dinner really wanting a cigarette. Not buying a fresh pack the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that.

And my own experience of becoming a person who didn't smoke after having been one who did, and like a chimney, and for 12 years, was that while the story of throwing away that half-pack was great, it was the actions I took that got the job done. The stupid mantra. The mass quantities of cherry Halls Mentho-Lyptus cough drops. Inventing errands. Making myself go places where smoking was not allowed (much harder to do back in 1980s-era Chicago). Keeping my hands and mouth and brain busy with something, anything else.

I do these things so I do not do that thing. I choose these actions so I do not lapse into that one.

* * * * *

Fortunately, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about this shit. On the blog alone, I've got over six years of obsessive self-analysis. Then there are the volumes of journaling and morning pages, the now-hundreds of hours in the Google Wave with Dave (I'm kind of glad I can't see those stats), the countless discussions with friends and fellow travelers, the aforementioned years of shrinkage. Plus, in case you hadn't noticed, I read. A lot. (Obsession: it has its upside, too!)

Between all of the talking and all of the thinking and all of the reading, I've learned a good deal about the nature of what I want to stop, i.e. both "work" that gets in the way of Work and too much work, period. At almost-50 years old, I think it's safe to say that I will be addressing their root causes, fear, mishegoss, until they scatter my ashes at sea. But I'll also say that at almost-50, it is beyond time to put on my Big-Girl Pants and do some of the tedious, outside-in work of taking actions, if for no other reason than the idea of not being able to do my Work or to work or even to "work", if it comes to that, is anathema and time and gravity are conspiring against me. Those cocksuckers.

The actions?

Well, I have a long list. I may get to itemization in future posts. Or I may just dive into action and leave you hanging. To spend any longer on this post would be a starting, not a not-starting, if you catch my drift.

For now, I will leave you with my vaguely-defined commitment to (a) establishing actions that support Work and (b) establishing additional actions to ensure not slipping into "work" and overwork. These include, but are not limited to, such incredibly mundane and tedious actions as brushing my teeth, logging time, and processing emails according to a specific protocol. In other words, a lot of things I either do or should be doing regularly.

I will also leave you with this excellent post by Ramit Sethi on barriers which I wish I'd read five years ago. Or that maybe I did read five years ago and was too dense to get. Whatever. It's excellent, and pertinent to this discussion.

And, finally, I will leave you with this exhortation: try to be nice to yourself. At least as nice to yourself as you'd treat someone you were indifferent about, preferably nicer. Not in an indulgent way. Just nice.

It's not going to fix everything. But it's a start.

xxx c

1It's also terrifying enough to serve as a deterrent: I drink, but I scrutinize my intake ruthlessly, one might even say with an obsession that borders on the ironic, for fear of ending up like the family drunks.

2I would assume I also work too much because it puts distance between me and the fear of dying, probably because I always say I'm not afraid of dying, and the lady doth protest too much/etc.

3More on this soon enough, much more, but if you like your introspection served up with a healthy dose of wit, heart and savoir faire (and don't mind swearing), do yourself a favor and subscribe to the WTF podcast. Insanely good, obsessively so, even.

Image by chilebeans via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

The Resistor, and what he has to teach you

darth vader

After almost 48 years on the planet, many of them splashed over with big, fatty dreams, I know this: the more you want something, and the more it is the Next Right Thing for you to be doing, the harder you will push away from it.

It's sort of a glorious indicator, really. I mean, if you want to take the Pollyanna/Rabbi Yehuda Berg angle on it: (1) Pinpoint what it is you're trying to avoid; (2) then go, baby, go!

I've been gearing up for the Creative Freelancer Conference this week in San Diego. And by "gearing," I mean, "alternately sweating every moment of it and avoiding the hell out of it." It's not like this is a brand, new thing for me, I've given many, many talks on Right Use of Social Media, i.e., using it for good (like a non-tool), not evil (like a latter-day gladhander), in the year since I spoke at the last one. I know and love the people who are putting it on, and, unless they're a bunch of lying pirates, the feeling is pretty much mutual.

And yet, I've found myself putting off putting on those finishing touches I know I want to. Somehow, there's always an email that needs answering or a request that needs tending to, or or or.

This weekend, a half-hour into plugging photos into my address book application, yes, really, I stopped myself. As in, "STOP. Now. Close this application. Finish what needs to be done, then go to bed, so you are fresh tomorrow, and the next day, and this next week, when you will need every bit of energy to vibrate at the ultra-high frequencies being in the presence of so much awesomeness demands of you."

Amazingly, I obeyed myself this once. (This is me, obeying, how does it look? Also, don't get too attached to it, I'm not so much with the obedience in general.) Here is the last part of it, for now:

  1. Think of the thing you really want, that you really, really want. More than a scoop of ice cream, or an hour vegging in front of the idiot box, or what have you.
  2. Now, think of the one, next thing you need to do, that you really, really need to do, to get there.
  3. Do it.

We will get there together, you and I.

And the Resistor? Well, a bad guy's gotta do what a bad guy's gotta do. Nothing personal...


Image © Erin Watson, via Flickr.

As if, and what it takes to act that way

Ask any self-help guru and they'll tell you straight up: getting there is equal parts thinking and doing: thinking, to figure things out and doing, to, well, to do the damned things.

Of course, if it was easy, we'd all be there, right? Happy, graceful and accomplished, speaking five or six languages as we waved to our two perfectly behaved children while playing a mean game of tennis in the same shorts we wore back in high school. Or rather, the same-sized shorts: we'd be so rich, we'd own a few shorts factories.

What usually happens is more like a variation on the spinning-plates scenario, children and waistline going to ruin while we apply proboscis to grindstone, or worse, a Rip Van Winkle approach to change: we fall asleep for 40 years while plate detritus builds up in scary towers around us. It's not that our intentions aren't honorable; it's just that it's such a pain in the ass, dealing with all those fucking plates. The idea of real change is enough to make anyone run screaming into the night, and isn't that what falling asleep really is? A really quiet way to run screaming into the night?

I've been piling up plates for what feels like forever. There's always some great plan to help me keep them spinning: an electronic whojamawhatsit, a new system, a new book. None of them work, or at least, they don't until you close the gap between thinking and doing. And lo, there is the rub that will keep the self-help industry thriving forever.

So how am I closing the gap? Uh...slowly? Painfully? One heinous, long-put-off task at a time.

And for me, there are two things that keep me going.

The first is a dream: me and a laptop and an ocean view. The clearer I get about what I really want to be doing and where I really want to be doing it, the more my precious stuff looks like what it is: a bunch of crap I'm holding onto in lieu of doing the hard work I must to get myself there.

The second is support. I'm a loner and an introvert and kind of a crabapple, besides. I like to do stuff by myself because that way, I get all the credit. There, I've said it.

Only the more I really looked at things, the more I realized that nothing I did, not one single thing, did I truly do all by myself. Someone's always got some kind of damned hand in there, even if it's not in an immediately obvious, collaborative kind of way.

If that's true, that I'm not really getting it done all by myself, why not outright ask for support to get there? For...everything? If one of the keys to getting to the next place is acting "as if" one is already there, why not solicit help from people on the other side of the divide, who don't have to act "as if" because they already are that, exactly? The fittest I have ever been is when I hired a personal trainer to help me get there. The best headshots I have ever taken were when I employed the specific help of my agent as well as many-minds (for a referral) and the photographer (for...well, duh.)

Support can also come from people with a like-minded goal, even if they're still in the "as if" stage. Alcoholics Anonymous? Built on that. Accountability, accountability, accountability.

This humble slice of the web has been a bit of that for me, and I thank you for it. Toastmasters, similarly, has been a huge help: when people expect you to show up, you show up. Or at least, there's a better chance you'll show up.

I'm ramping it up a bit now, with a few accountability partners for getting my shit together and putting it out there. I have a lot of shit, as it turns out, and shoveling shit is no one's idea of a good time. Neither, for that matter, is putting it out there. It's about as much fun as not eating ice cream or saying "no" to a trip to Disneyland.

It's "no" for now, though, so that it can be a resounding "YES!" to other things, that laptop, that ocean view, soon.

Not soon enough, of course. But soon...

xxx c

Image by robertvoors via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.