Sunday, October 27, 2013

Confessions and Speculations of an Addict

There's nothing more inspiring and simultaneously aggravating than a loved one who sets a good example.

My sister had problems for years. Bad problems. It's not my place to specify them, but they have been neutralized by her participation in a twelve-step program. It would be glib to say the meetings turned her life around; that would be oversimplifying the matter and making it sound far too easy.

I speculate that the reason it has worked so well is not the program itself, but the way in which it is practiced within a community: an association of addicts come together help one another from crossing back over onto the old rails. It's not the sort of thing one can easily do without encouragement.

"Patterns" is a recurring word throughout the literature of addiction study and treatment, inasmuch as addiction is a set of profoundly-ingrained habits centered around an extremely powerful reinforcing agent, and the reintroduction of that agent reactivates the litany of associated behaviors. Your opiates, alkaloids, and related chemicals are all tremendously potent reinforcers; that's why people's actions come to revolve around them. Reinforcement is the shaper of our lives; our behavioral repertoires accrue along the lines of exigency laid by our most powerful reinforcers the way interstellar gases and dust collect and condense within the gravitational fields of massive objects.

When my sister announced she had even quit smoking, I knew this was it: all of my own excuses for persisting in the habit were no longer convincing. There's a expansive psychic tract between denial and resolve where retreat is inexcusable and the prospect of moving forward and crossing over the borderline is frankly terrifying, and I'd been meandering through it for months. Years. It wasn't that I wanted to quit. I loved smoking. (Correction: I love smoking.) I knew it was blackening my lungs and poisoning my heart; I knew it was the reason my chest felts tight in the morning, but I had absolutely no desire to give it up. I knew it was costing me a small fortune; I knew it was making me lethargic. But if I heard somebody suggest that I should stop, no matter how gently they said it, there was a moment where I instantly hated their guts. Sometimes I noticed it wasn't as satisfying as it once was, and sometimes I had cause to wonder if it was ever really satisfying. (Oh, who was I kidding. of course it was.) Now and then I'd assure myself that it was temporary: I was going to quit because I had to quit. Just -- not that day. The day after was never looking good, either. But someday.

Around the middle of September I crossed over. I'm not smoking -- for now. If I see someone else walking down the street with a cigarette in his or her mouth, I find myself salivating and licking my lips. (My sister tells me that this doesn't stop.) But my chest doesn't hurt in the morning anymore and I don't get a sore throat every other week.

Sure, sure. Right. Congrats on quitting, some might want to say. I think it's too early for congratulations. And the process of dealing with this got me thinking again about what addiction is and what it means, and I don't feel very good about myself. There are so many things to which I'm still addicted.

Let's take our definition of addiction right from the first clause of the first sentence of its Wikipedia entry: addiction is the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences.

I'm addicted to driving, for one thing. I like to get in a car and go places I don't necessarily need to go,  or to which I could feasibly walk or bike. I know this habit pumps a few tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, and I know that its increasing concentration of greenhouse gases will wreak havoc on the biosphere during my lifetime, but...well, you know. It's whatever. It's fine. (Well, not really, but you know, it''s whatever.)

I'm hooked on meat. I usually have at least one serving a day, even though I'm fully aware that meat production is an egregiously inefficient use of energy and land, another heavy producer of carbon emissions, and an altogether filthy and cruel business. But I'll order that BLT anyway. I'm aware of what I'm willfully contributing to, and I'll feel like an asshole for it. But...well, yeah. You know. I can always say I'll go vegetarian next week. If I don't follow through, I can just say it again.

From UCA News
We're coming to the time of year when I take the space heater out of the closet. Yes, yes, it sucks up a lot of electricity and I know that power generation is the leading cause of global carbon dioxide emissions. But it's either that or putting on a sweater, and I hate sweaters. This is the behavior of an addict.

I distrust Google. I dislike Amazon. I use both on a fairly regular basis. What can I say? It's a habit. The alternatives are inconvenient. I think Monsanto and Exxon-Mobil are appalling, but I buy their products because I like inexpensive, easily-acquired food and I've already said that I like driving to the supermarket to get it. Do I have an alternative? Probably, but it would be difficult and require me to change most of my habits, and I'm obviously unwilling to stop doing what I've been doing.

How many billion of me are on this planet?

This is what scares me about our world. By the above definition of addiction, we are all of us addicts. We're addicted to our technology, our conveniences, our opiates. Even though we know they're socially and ecologically carcinogenic, we can't give them up.

Of course we're addicted. We're crackbabies. We've been inundated in this shit since birth -- and it's common knowledge that the longer one indulges in addictive behavior, the more difficult its reduction or elimination becomes.

From The Indypendent
A note: the most deleterious of the "adverse consequences" of these addictions lack the immediacy to serve as effective "punishment" feedback. Even though we can appreciate their implications on an intellectual level, operant conditioning occurs when the punishment or reinforcer is a constituent of the present occasion. (The smoker cannot observe his lungs blackening or feel the tumors growing as he inhales; we don't receive any perceptible negative feedback when we contribute to the intensifying greenhouse effect or abet society's trajectory toward an outright oligarchy. To the contrary, the immediate feedback must be positive, since these behaviors are so persistent.) In light of this, any but the most optimistic behaviorist will have to conjecture that civilization is probably fucked, unless. . . . . . .

Well. Anyway.

For all the lip service we give to the necessity of reining in carbon emissions, for all our bemoaning of the buy-and-toss consumer culture, the perniciousness of the multinationals, and the fact that capitalism is deforming humanity and the modern "Western" lifestyle is destroying the planet, we're like the smoker or skinpopper telling himself that yeah, this sucks, this can't last, I have to stop. I'm going to stop; just not now -- because the chemicals are leeching into my brain. The Walking Dead is on and there's video games on sale at Wal Mart and the new iPhone is out and the McRib is coming back. And the lip service remains lip service. The smoker frets about cancer and says he's going to quit. Later. Before the cancer, surely. And we say we (or somebody else) will definitely get this overpopulation/resource depletion/greenhouse effect stuff sorted out sometime, surely, before we render the earth uninhabitable to ourselves.

That brings me back to the twelve step program. I wonder if there's a support group for people who don't want to do this shit anymore?

"Hi, my name is Patrick, and I'm an addict. I find my lifestyle and the problems to which it contributes abhorrent; I want to quit, but I can't break the cycle. I want your help. I want to do things differently."

I wonder. I wish. I hope.


  1. The support group is (or at least should be) everybody we meet.

  2. I feel ya, Pat. I feel ya. The whole Goddamned thing sucks, and all we're doing is sucking it back.But we gotta try to knock it right the hell off, 'cause if we ain't tryin', we dyin'.

    Heavy thoughts for heavy times.

    (Best of luck to you on giving up the habit. Holy shit cigarettes are too good, but you CAN do it. I quit almost two years ago and I regret it every day since, but man if I don't feel a million times better.)

    1. I feel a million times better, too. But I feel like I'd be a million SQUARED times better if I had a cigarette. Just one. ONE. ONE SQUARED.

  3. To my well betrothed friend on his wedding day:

    I have been 'trolling' your webpage for a while now; I have been leaving comments in your englished savrworthy while you have been "ignoring"

    I peer into your cyptonic publicities
    Which you throw around

    Ever so freely,
    quoths--they are. None your own.
    Roman legions call.

    Roman legions call.

    legions, legions call.

    legions upon legions call.

    "You have no power here
    You have no power here"

    Cry their mighty brazens
    The legions, they call.

    legions; legions. Call

    Call out and cry.

    Please, (me) and claim me Scottish.