There are plenty of habits than can turn into addictions. For example, food is meant to be a form of sustenance, but in many ways it is also a source of comfort. That’s why it is possible to fall into the habit of “eating our feelings.” That’s particularly true in times of stress or anxiety.
The goal is always to balance these potentially bad habits with good ones. In part, that’s why we exercise. It’s a habit that helps us maintain a healthy weight, cope with stress and build a positive lifestyle. But in excess, even too much exercise can become an addiction. I’ve been there. I know. Along with other excesses, such as…
Too much desire for sex can produce the same problem. What is normally a joy can turn into an obsession. Then there are acquisitive habits like shopping, or owning guns, that aren’t typically characterized as addictions. But I would argue that they’re no different than any other form of habit turned into a dependency that can lead to addictive mental attitudes.Whatever we crave too much or think we cannot live without is a potential source of addiction.
Recently it is addiction to social media that has grabbed cultural attention. I’ll confess to having a difficult time with this issue. I’m a rabid attention-grabber with a strong need for approval and it’s difficult to avoid over-posting to social media. The repartee itself is addicting. But so is the intense emotion that comes from arguing on the Internet. As a competitive person by nature, it is all I can do sometimes to pass by a comment that seems to beg a response.
I also like the feeling of doing something new every minute of the day. Of course, Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and even Linkedin all know that this is how users get engaged and addicted to their platforms. Then they have you. Your brain soon becomes “wired” to the chemicals released when strong emotions enter your brain.
But when it comes to brain chemistry, the most obvious form of addiction is to drugs and alcohol. Those substances have uniquely addictive qualities because they flood your brain. That’s why they qualify as pure, unadulterated addiction.
My parents were never frequent drinkers, so my upbringing was relatively alcohol-free. I didn’t even have my first beer until junior year in high school. After that I learned to party and eventually, even as an athlete, had a few episodes in which drinking got out of hand. It was the risk-taking freedom of being drunk that often appealed to me. But there was also coping with anxiety.
In particular, I recall a cross country party after my freshman season in college. There was a big vat of what was called Wapatuli that had grain alcohol or some other high-proof contents mixed in. Thirty minutes into the party I was wiped, but kept on drinking. I wound up being carried back to the dorm room and left to sleep it off.
Except I nearly didn’t. The next morning my kidneys and liver hurt like hell. It was a stupid choice to drink that much and I could have died quite easily from alcohol poisoning. That would have been the end of me. Done. Finito. Bye-bye.
Over the years I’ve learned how to moderate my drinking and enjoy having drinks of one kind or another with meals and such. Wine. Beer. Long Island Ice Teas while out on a Friday night.
And whisky. I’ve learned to like whisky. Most of all, the taste of Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire (cinnamon) and Honey Jack. They are fun to drink when poured over a glass of big, thick ice cubes. That’s habit-forming. I used to mix Coke with Maker’s Mark and always drank Jack and Cokes at weddings. But the straight-line consumption of Jack Daniels was not on my menu until about four months ago.
Anyway, I got into the habit of having a glass of Jack probably 4-5 nights a week. If I were to answer those questions at the doctor’s office about how much I drink on a weekly basis, they might ask, “Can you go a night without drinking?”
Reeling it in
That’s the question I asked myself last Saturday afternoon when, about halfway through the day, I began to look forward to that evening drink. And I thought, “Okay, that’s not normal.”
To be honest with myself, I have been self-medicating a bit. The stress of the Covid crisis and the politics that go with it have been affecting my mood. Then there are concerns for my kids’ well-being, and other family issues. Money. Making it. Managing it. All the things that everyone else in this world has to deal with. I’m nothing special.
But I’ve dealt with habit-forming addictions before. While going through eight years of cancer treatment as a caregiver for my late wife, there were times when the stress got to me. Doctors prescribed Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, to help me deal with the pressure and also to get some sleep. It worked. But then I forgot to stop taking it. Finally a physician took a look at my charts and asked, “Are you taking this drug for a reason?”
I explained the history and he said, “Well, you’re really not supposed to use that long-term.” So we began a withdrawal period. Slowly I cut down the size of the pills, which were not that large to start, and within four weeks I’d eased out of usage.
But even in that waning period, I could feel that drug in my brain. I could feel it. could sense it going to work, easing off the anxiety. Letting me have my noggin’ back. So I appreciated its benefits. But it was time to let it go.
These days I take a stable dose of Citalopram, an anti-anxiety medication that also has anti-depression aspects. It is managed through visits every two years to a psychiatrist, the physician who recommended it. Years ago in place of the Lorazepam I tried a drug called Zoloft on the recommendation of my doctor. That drug made me agitated to the point of panic. As the doctor prescribing it later acknowledged, “Not every drug works for everyone.”
“YOU THINK?” I blurted to myself after hanging up the phone that day. He hadn’t warned me in advance that things like that could happen. And so we learn about our body and brain chemistry.
So I took stock of my alcohol use this past Saturday and decided that I’d leaned into a habit of self-medication. It’s easy to do. Relaxing with a drink every night is a comfortable deal. It struck me while watching the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance that he hardly appeared in an interview scene without a drink by his side. All that emotion and confession isn’t easily done for a man of his stature without a bit of booze to ease you through.
And that’s the lesson here. None of us is bullet-proof when it comes to self-medication. So while we all try to get through the stress of quarantine and Stay-At-Home orders, it is fine to enjoy the arts of fine drink responsibly. But be smart, and do an inventory of your brain chemistry now and then. Self-medicating is not the way to go.