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Addictive, Obsessive Behavior, & Willpower

March 5, 2012

I started smoking cigarettes when I was in grade six. I don’t mean to say, I was addicted and smoking everyday, but I remember stealing a couple of my mom’s smokes, hiding behind our shed and seeing what all the fuss was about. The addiction process was slow; a cigarette here and there. Mostly, on the weekend, hanging out at the arcade with a group of girls who were older than me. Most of them in high school already, and most of them smokers.

At first, I didn’t understand that you had to inhale. I didn’t know how to do it properly. I eventually figured out how to breathe in that long drag of smoke. The first cigarette I smoked to completion made me sick, but that didn’t deter me. By the time I made it to grade 7, I was smoking on weekends, buying my own packs with my allowance, and smoking at school.

I think I tried quitting when I was in grade 8. It lasted about a month and soon enough I was smoking again. I tried again when I was 19. Not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t afford it. I was broke as hell and smoking a pack a day. I quit for about 5 days.

Around the same period in my life, I remember reading The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda. There’s a particular passage about Don Juan quitting drinking that always stuck in my mind. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that it wasn’t difficult to quit. He just woke up one day, decided he was done, and that was it. Anyone who’s ever been addicted to anything will find that easier said than done, but it made sense to me. So often, when we decide to quit something, we do it for a lot of exterior reasons: our health, public perception, etc, etc. We try it without really wanting it, without feeling to the depth of out core than we are indeed done with it.

When I was twenty, I quit smoking for four years. I woke up one day and decided I was done. I threw out my pack and that was it. Sure, the withdrawal was difficult, but I didn’t focus on it, it didn’t bother me so much. I didn’t crave cigarettes, because I was done with them. For four years, I didn’t even think about it.

Now, don’t ask me why four years later I decided to start smoking again. Maybe, I missed it. Maybe, I wanted to recapture something about my youth. I don’t know. I just decided to buy a pack one day and start smoking again. The strange thing about an addiction such as cigarettes, is that you have to play tricks on your own mind. We all know how bad they are for us. There’s isn’t one smoker than isn’t aware of all the reasons why they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, but to be able to continue smoking you have to compartmentalize that knowledge, because if you really knew it. As in, felt it to the core of your being, you wouldn’t be able to keep smoking. It would be like willingly taking a swig of arsenic. No one in their right mind would do something like that, but that’s just it, smokers aren’t really in their right mind. They’re addicted for one, and for another smokers are masters at manipulating themselves; we’re masters at self-deception.

Leaving the subject of cigarettes behind, only one of the many things I’ve been addicted too, sometimes we use the art of self-deception to enable us to continue doing something that is bad for us and sometimes we use it for what we think are good reasons.I can think of many examples of this, whether it’s staying in a bad relationship or even choosing a career path that will be ultimately unfulfilling, but will pay well.

That’s a really common one, we use self-deception and what we call willpower to become, let’s say, a lawyer instead of a photographer. We think we can force ourselves into a choice that goes against the grain of who we are. I’m sure there are plenty of lawyers out there who choose the profession out of passion for the law, but there are just as many lawyers who convinced themselves that they would be better off in that profession, because of financial security and prestige.

I dropped out of college when I was 18, when I was 20, I wanted to go back. I applied for a visual arts program, but my father told me he would only help pay for school if I did a one year computer programming course. Ultimately, I agreed. Why? Because I convinced myself that I could do it. I had a list of reasons, all of them sound on the surface. I told myself one year wasn’t very long. That a computer programming course would allow me to get a job that paid and that I would then be able to support myself through school in a program that was suited to my interests, etc.

I tried too, I enrolled in the school, I went for about two weeks before I started getting anxiety attacks that were so debilitating that I wanted to kill myself. Of course, I dropped out, which caused a huge rift between my father and I, but that’s a story for another time.

My point is that sometimes we convince ourselves that we can do thing out of sheer willpower and self-deception. Were all the reasons I came up with to do that damn course logical? Yes. Were they realistic? No.

I started writing about all this, because I was thinking about willpower this morning, and trying to make sense out of the concept. What I’ve come up with so far is that it has its positives and its negatives. I don’t think it’s healthy to use it to force ourselves into things (or out of things) that go against the grain of who we are, but sometimes it can be really useful.

When I was suffering from OCD, and trying to get out of that whole mess, I really had to force myself to stop the irrational behavior. No matter how much I wanted to touch something, or count something, or repeat something, I had to resist. I had to loss the habit even when every fiber of my being was pushing me to, for example, blink my eyes three times when I looked at something distressing.

Addictive, or obsessive behavior can be hard to curtail. My father has a favorite expression when it comes to changing a behavior or adopting a healthy habit: “Il faut se faire violence.”  My Dad is French, loosely translated it means that we have to do violence against ourselves. It’s much prettier in French, and I’m not the best translator, but willpower comes with a certain amount of violence aimed at ourselves. I don’t like it, and I don’t agree that it’s as easy as that, or that that’s the best answer, but to some extent there’s some truth to it. Some would call it strength, and maybe in some circumstances it is, but when we go against our natural inclinations, whether they be good or bad, there’s a certain kind of violence than we have to exert on ourselves. It’s strange to think about.

When trying to break a habit, like obsessively checking to see if the guy you were dating a decade ago finally decided to get a Facebook account so you can cyber-stalk him (an example I totally pulled out of thin air), or even just taking a break from being online all the time and obsessively checking your email, it feels like the worse kind of resistance. You know, like that scene in that sci-fi movie where some guy is being programmed to kill the emperor and there’s that moment were you see the internal struggle he has to go through to overcome the programming and follow his conscience. Only we don’t have the benefit of some exterior mind controlling presence and we basically have to fight against ourselves. Sooo exhausting.

It’s good though, we have to break some of these “bad” habits, but why so violent? There has to be a better way. Maybe Don Juan was onto something when he said that you just decide to do it and then that’s it, it’s as simple as that. Maybe, instead of focusing on what we. must. resist. We can focus our attention on something more constructive. Like putting away our computers, getting out of bed, and reading some Far Side. You gotta start somewhere, right? Where do you guys start?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2012 2:15 pm

    I find cold turkey combined with substitution (putting things in your life where the addiction used to be) fairly effective. The only problem with this is you wind up thinking “it’s not that big a deal” and relapsing. For me, with cigarettes, this isn’t so bad….I wasn’t addicted for a long time, so I never formed the kind of destructive relationship that makes quitting so hard. I smoke half a cigarette a few times a week just for fun. I doubt I could “chip” cigarettes if I’d been smoking since the 7th grade.
    I certainly feel your pain on the programming front! It’s one of those things that people either have talent and enthusiasm for or should never, ever do….not much middle ground!

  2. March 5, 2012 2:22 pm

    I agree that dealing with an addiction is much, much simpler when you truly WANT to give it up. I’ve been smoking for almost ten years now, and my whole childhood I grew up with my Nana suffering from emphysema. I always knew I should quit – for her, for me so I didn’t end up like her. Before she passed away this past December I proudly told her I was almost 3 months without a cigarette, because I was “over it”. But, now that my boyfriend smokes I find myself picking up a pack or two a week. 😦

    Congrats to you for overcoming your struggles with OCD.

  3. March 5, 2012 3:14 pm

    Hanging out with friends who do whatever it is– especially smoking!– is the absolute worst. Pretty much guaranteed to make you relapse.

  4. March 5, 2012 4:19 pm

    Trying to quit a habit is definitely harder when you’re hanging around people who still indulge in it. I guess it all depends on your reasons for quitting. When I quit drinking I didn’t find it difficult to be around people who were, but smoking is different, because you get a whiff of that good old nicotine, which makes you want it more. It’s also difficult to avoid the pitfall of replacing one bad habit with another. Finding healthier (physical or mental) substitutes is definitely key for a lot of people.

    It’s hard, because our brains actually form patterns. When it comes to curbing, let’s say, negative thoughts about oneself, you actually have to re-wire your brain. Make other connections stronger, but repetition.

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