“How small we are when our minds develop minds of their own.” —Jennifer Senior
Some of my earliest memories are daydreams of what it would be like to be the last person on the planet. At the time I only really considered the romantic and short-sided aspects of such a wild fantasy: I could do what I wanted and not have to deal with the burdens of modern life, or at least those consistent with a young child’s imagination, which added up to little more than speeding in cars and eating junk food without consequence. A few years ago I was on a walk and the reality struck me about this dream: high-speed freeway races aside, I was actually living the life I once imagined, only it was a far cloudier reality than my daydreams had once fabricated. It finally clicked how depression had distanced me from the city I was actually walking through and transported me to a sort of parallel world where I felt like I actually was the only person alive.
I can not count how many times my parents have told me about how they did not have enough money to buy Christmas gifts when I was a baby, and how it still bothers them. Personally, not being old enough at the time to remember one way or another, it has never made much difference to me because for as long as I can recall, we have never really been “poor.” There was once a kid I knew in elementary school who had to wear plastic bags over his socks inside his boots come winter so his feet would not get wet. Sure, we had a few rough years, but by no means were we ever double-bagging body parts to stay dry. Yet for as long as I can remember I feel like I have been the poor kid lacking the correct attire to battle the elements: not financially, but emotionally.
About 7% of adults in the country share my diagnosis of major depressive disorder, and all across the world someone tries to kill themselves every three seconds or so. I am obviously not alone as this is something that millions the world over also struggle with on a daily basis. But simply getting by has become a sore spot for me; not because it is tiring, but mostly because of a strange sense of guilt that accompanies it. Amid daily tragedy, pain, and suffering are those who face it all head on, seemingly immune to incoming perils. Let me assure you of this: when a depressive can not face a world in which they are fully employed, clothed, fed, sheltered, and loved, it becomes remarkably painful to see a homeless person flash a smile or an aging waitress happily work a double-shift at an all-night diner. What do they have that I am missing? Why can’t I get my act together and work through everyday issues like everyone else does?
A massive part of recovery is actually the process of returning to physical health, in addition to seeking emotional wellness. To some degree however, its importance remains undermined by a constant focus on the emotional – or in the case of A.A., spiritual – well-being. The Big Book takes a questionable stance against actively considering the physical damage prolonged periods of alcohol abuse might have done. “A body badly burned by alcohol does not often recover overnight nor do twisted thinking and depression vanish in a twinkling. We are convinced that a spiritual mode of living is a most powerful health restorative. We, who have recovered from serious drinking, are miracles of mental health. But we have seen remarkable transformations in our bodies. Hardly one of our crowd now shows any mark of dissipation.”
Jack Trimpey’s Rational Recovery: The New Cure for Substance Addiction does not offer much more help in that regard, stating that “Psychology, philosophy, spirituality, and religion are irrelevant to recovery,” sticking to the mind-over-matter basics by also clarifying that “nutrition is irrelevant to abstinence.” Nutrition is not likely to contribute directly to whether anyone picks up a bottle any more than a “malady” is likely to force people to drink, this is true, but these conclusions are gross generalizations that paint a slanted view of the harm that has to be corrected inside a human body by alcohol addiction to encourage future wellness. This is not “nutritional therapy,” as Trimpey might have been speaking to, some sort of niche movement preaching the innate healing qualities of going-green, but merely the recognition that serious problem drinkers are by nature dealing with severe vitamin deficiencies in addition to the various aforementioned “disease” symptoms related to physical health.
Part of what gave my psych-ward experience some charm was (surprisingly) my neighbors. One of the most interesting characters went by the name of Adam – or at least his government-issued alias was “Adam” – and he explained to me how he was the son of a very important government official, sent into such facilities to harvest information and act as a spy to make sure the system was following regulations. Never once did Adam show me a glimpse that his reality reflected the same world I lived in (which at the time was sort of crazy, too, I’ll admit), but what it did reinforce was the recognition that even when you, yourself, might not think it is necessary, there still might be need for some form of treatment. While I fought to go to the hospital, then the mental ward, then the treatment center, I find it difficult to dismiss their value. Making sure the body has nutrients, exercise, and sleep in an attempt to bring it back to a foundational balance is unlikely to help the Adams of the world return to reality, but for people who are dealing solely with a chemical dependency, a focus on health remains an underused aspect of recovery that can offer tremendous benefit.
Some individuals have pre-existing issues that outweigh any ability to achieve self-actualization and find some sort of healing through personal discovery. That can’t be overlooked. And a focus on physical health is in no way meant to negate exploring psychological treatment for those who might benefit from it. However, for many it would seem important to set the body on a course of healthy action before even attempting to approach psychotherapy and medicative realms – not to replace therapy or medication, but to enhance therapy’s effectiveness and ensure that medication is prescribed when it is needed. As previously mentioned, antidepressants are often prescribed without hesitance despite being an imperfect remedy, yet how often is foundational health communicated as a significant contributor to emotional health with the same sense of urgency? Without implementing measures such as exploring basic human health in recovery, the treatment system will only integrate itself further into our already-pervasive negative prescribing culture. The point of this aim is to explore options and create dialog about treatment and medication to help curb general ignorance, not to serve as some dismissive anti-authority ploy. That is how stigma is truly defeated.
If you eat right and reintroduce vitamins, proteins, and minerals into your diet, you will feel better. Plenty of sleep and a reduction in stress both lead to a tangible decrease in depression levels, which also lends sobriety an increased positive outlook. Those who exercise regularly experience enhanced levels of enthusiasm and are equally successful in curbing depression as those who take antidepressants alone (they are also less likely to experience recurrent depression). Attention to nutrition is important not because of some far-out return to Mother Earth in re-aligning oneself with the planet, but because poor absorption of nutrition due to alcohol-related gastritis often leads to various nutritional deficiencies that will handicap the very emotional productivity sought through conventional treatment processes.
Approach recovery here as something of a giant oil tanker cruising the ocean. Considering momentum, it can take a ship miles to simply begin to turn around, let alone redirect its trajectory after having gone astray. Recovery is not immediate. Health is not instant. It can take the body six months to bounce back after severe bouts of abusive drinking. The same goes for patterns, habits, and lifestyle changes, where it can take years to build confidence before feeling comfortably “safe” from relapse. But the fact remains: The capacity to change does exist. And once the physical factors of addiction begin to stabilize, the increased stability will lend support in the battle against self-destructive emotional forces.
While recognizing that “belief” is crucial to the transformation process, belief on its own will not immediately overcome the weight of future change. What is left is often a sense of immediate defeat due to the unfathomable size of the task at hand. If a vampire has been sucking you dry for a decade, paradoxically it can feel impossible to move forward without that parasite. But change begins with the understanding that the choice to change our habits is not as difficult as the negative voice of addiction tells us it is. Psychologist Dan Gilbert uses the term “impact bias” to help explain this, determining through his research that it is human nature to misunderstand the effect of personal decisions with regard to changing habit. Impact bias is the idea that we erroneously estimate both the intensity and duration of pleasure that will result from the outcome of our decisions. Keep in mind that this is a tendency that exists regardless of the prevalence of addiction.
Take for example a few high profile studies that have revealed that blind people would be willing to pay less to regain sight than people with sight would be willing to pay to avoid going blind, and how lottery winners do not necessarily turn out to be any happier than people who have recently become paraplegic. These are definitely extreme scenarios, but they do speak to our own individual capability to synthesize happiness. We might have high hopes, and think a certain decision will be far more beneficial relative to another in the long-run, but ultimately these decisions will leave us with outcomes that are less important and less satisfying (or dissatisfying) than we imagine.
This conflict of perception contributes to a misguided understanding of outcomes, leading us to feel like we will have far less power to initiate change in our lives than we really do. Philosopher and economist Adam Smith once spoke to this same theory, adding that “The great source of misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another.” No matter how much distance there is between perceived polar opposites, we are unlikely to hate alternative actions or scenarios as much as our dread leaves us feeling. Pouring that next drink is not going to make us feel as good as we think it will; the allure is anticipatory.
Aristotelian belief dictates that depression and anxiety, no matter how sinister their effects, might actually be fundamental to the human experience because of the personal insights that accompany such feelings. To some degree, the lows allow us to better appreciate the highs. When we strengthen routine by rewarding urges through means of self-medication, what we are left with is an overly-desensitized, increasingly dissatisfied self, perpetually looking for the next temporary solution to mask this happiness deficit. Brené Brown has suggested you cannot always numb the hard feelings that accompany life without also numbing other emotions such as joy, gratitude, and happiness. And without feeling such a sweeping range of emotions for so long, the anxiety from experiencing life sober has the potential to be overwhelming. Such a glass-half-full perspective notwithstanding, no matter how dark a reality depression might paint for us at times, it is vital to recognize that future burdens are often their most unbearable in our minds, and not in reality.
What then happens when we begin to break a negative spiral and see even small results? What happens when we stop diverting feelings and act with long-term emotional sensibility in mind? We stop feeling depressed and helpless. We begin to discover who it is that we really want to be. And through confronting anxiety there comes a sense of satisfaction related to individual actions reflecting personal ideals. Repetition delivers ease, and the future becomes increasingly less impossible to manage. I have been through this before, and even though it is tough, it is not impossible. Not only can possibility be redefined, but goals themselves do not have to be fixed measures of success.
If you create a goal, you risk not achieving that goal. But what happens when an effort is made to increase health or happiness, or balance internal struggles, and nothing seems to change? Expectation cannot merely get in the way of progress, but it can prompt an abrupt end to believing that our journeys bear any particular worth. Prolonged introspection only pronounces feelings of failure, which is why it is not only important to look beyond the self to gain perspective (the black sheep house) but to deny any conclusions based solely on expectation. However much we make our lives out to be a game of chess, thinking multiple moves ahead in formulating a strategy for success, it is largely as unpredictable as a game of Chutes and Ladders. No one is safe from experiencing both the ups and downs, and it is this wild unpredictability that comes as a circumstance of merely playing the game.
When I was in high school a teacher asked our class to look at our futures and think of what goals we would like to achieve. Being seventeen years old I felt life would be complete if I could see some of my favorite bands perform live and own a big-screen TV. While I vividly remember daydreaming about how great it would be to see a few concerts and bask in the luxury of a massive glowing screen, my goals have evolved slightly as my understanding of what is possible has. I do not have any particular goals I feel would complete my life now, but I am slowly accepting that the process of continually redefining where the marker of personal achievement stands is crucial to inspiring whatever needs to come next. In his 2011 Dartmouth College commencement address, Conan O’Brien spoke to this process, explaining, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.”
In his speech, O’Brien stressed that putting too much emphasis on a single ideal path ultimately prevented him from realizing that no moment wholly defines whether or not he succeeded or failed. In terms of treatment, this relates to what it means to be “recovered.” We cannot always plan for predictability, especially when considering human tendency to often act against self-interest. But what it means to fail does not merely boil down to an action of “relapsing.” “Whatever you think your dream is now,” O’Brien continued, “it will change.” I did not want to be sober. I wanted to learn to drink. Yet I perceived my inability to exercise moderation as failure, which numerous times over led me to giving up wholesale on the rest of my life. My definition of success was so concrete that it warped my understanding of what the positive and negatives in my life really were.
To repurpose an A.A.-ism, sometimes change happens quickly and sometimes it happens slowly. Everyone gets stuck, but just because we become momentarily trapped does not mean we have to accept reality as being confined to the constructs of our immediate imagination. What if there are hundreds of progressively satisfying goals beyond the challenge of attaining a big-screen TV or quitting drinking, but we fail to bother even attempting to explore them because we allow our perception of what life is remain confined to whatever our sheltered imaginations tell us it is?
Not accepting life as a depressed miserable existence where we are forever prisoners to our habits and addictions might not actually reveal it as a continually challenging process of exploration. But it might, too. Accepting reality for what it is only becomes overwhelming if you also accept a belief that your future will forever remain imprisoned by today’s struggles. What I eventually started to recognize was not so much that I wanted to be a normal-drinker out of some sense of civility, but that I really just wanted to experience the feelings that come with binge-drinking without having to deal with the reality of being drunk. I wanted to share in the camaraderie of throwing back a couple shots with friends when occasion struck, but hated the back-end of sobering up from multi-day benders that the shots led to. I got the lines crossed between what was possible and what was not, and because of that I felt like there was no use in trying to move out of where I was at in the first place. I felt like I was the only person on the planet, and because I could not immediately see what might motivate me to explore beyond that emotion I just assumed there was nothing else worth discovering. Figuring goals into the recovery equation eventually had less to do with setting firm boundaries around sobriety as simply opening the door for something more that I had not expected. And eventually those unpredictable motivations became more powerful than addictive allure, and the future opened up beyond the shallow immediacy of drinking or not drinking. Another world does exist.