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The Great Epiphany

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“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” —Ernest Hemingway

Drinkers know The Great Epiphany all too well: a moment of clarity where reality makes perfect sense, where intent and actualization meet, where destiny seems to be redefined. However, if the combination of my hazy memory and the scarce few journals I’ve kept is any indication, those once earth-shattering revelations are typically embarrassingly useless ramblings when contemplated in the sobering light of day. Yet the more likely you are to have these thoughts while drinking — continually brewing up conclusions from the distillation from the day’s incoming ingredients – the more likely you are to continually have your wheels turning when you’re not drinking. While over-thinking isn’t necessarily a negative on its own, in terms of its relationship to happiness it’s not necessarily a benefit either.

Though the connection between over-thinking and intelligence is casual, their interconnectedness might play a big role when considering the realms of happiness, depression, and dependency. Happiness, as Hemmingway claimed, is a consolation prize given to those lacking the the capacity to know better; in the summer of 1961 the legendary author took his own life. History is littered with Hemmingways, countless thinkers who were unable to maintain a hold on life while straddling the thin line between mental illness, dependency, and sanity. David Foster Wallace, purveyor of realistic hope to the 2005 class of Kenyon College graduates, took his life in September of 2008. Philip Brickman, a forefather to the Positive Psychology movement, predominantly referenced for his study comparing the self-reported happiness levels of lottery winners and paralyzed accident victims, ended his life but four years after that work was published. This pattern hit a little closer to home during my treatment facility stay, when a young man of 18 took his life. (The feelings that followed were ironic, my having been there on account of my own suicide attempt.) Again, to paraphrase a conclusion made by Jennifer Senior: knowing happiness and knowing about happiness are two sets of understanding that sometimes fail to ever intersect.

What accompanies an ever-moving mind is a tendency to not only over-think but over-analyze, especially when it comes to matters so critically important as the great indicator of perceived personal welfare known as happiness. We wonder why others appear happy, why we aren’t as happy as them, what we could have done differently to be happier, and how we can change our path to gain the results we see elsewhere. In short, with the good comes the bad. Aristotle held true a belief reflective of Hemmingway’s suggesting that intelligence was accompanied by the ability to see tragedy in the world around us. Research by Canadian sociologist and philosopher Bill Allin lends a bit of modern context to this historical perspective, taking the theory a step further with his paper titled “Why Intelligent People Tend To Be Unhappy” in identifying that not only are intelligent people not necessarily happy because of their cognitive advantages, but that intelligent youth often develop a sort of social and emotional retardation due to the perception that they’re smart enough to realize happiness on their own. We treat intelligence as though it means self-sufficiency when the reality is that intelligent individuals are every bit as needy of emotional nurturing as anyone. To remain in a state of constant contemplation, it would seem, leaves individuals increasingly susceptible to the downward tug of depressive thinking.

A remedy for thought, unfortunately, isn’t turning the brain off. There’s no real way to reverse opening the eye of one’s mind (and as history suggests, the effectiveness of lobotomies can be sort of hit and miss). Instead, we’re left combating this thinking either by our own means (In his introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, journalist and author Matt Taibbi described the legend’s struggle as such, “People all over the world don’t identify with Hunter Thompson because he was some kind of all-world fraternity-party God… No, they connect with the deathly earnest, passionate, troubled person underneath, the one who was so bothered by the various unanswerable issues of life that he went overboard trying to medicate the questions away.”) or through utilizing the precept that certain ways of thinking – in particular positive thinking – will help ease the mind. The ability to channel one’s attention specifically through a particular train of suggested idealism is about as simple as not thinking at all though. Further, any level of believed happiness that is reached through positive thinking has regularly been identified through research as brittle, fleeting, and undependable.

There’s a fun exercise that’s cited by various sources which challenges its subjects to simply not think about a polar bear for one minute. Try it. It’s impossible. As author Oliver Burkeman explains, “the fact that you’re trying so hard to do something sabotages your attempt to do it.” Happiness works much in the same way: the more you’re thinking about it the harder it becomes to stop thinking about not merely happiness as a whole, but specifically your place as an individual on the happiness spectrum. So much of the self-helpedness within modern society has become far more a diversion from happiness than an guide to achieving peace of mind: It leaves us always thinking about ourselves; our next step; our recovery; our depression; our happiness; our peace of mind. Compiled with advertisers who promise happiness, dictating that we too would be happy if only for a faster car, a bigger house, an expensive vacation, or flawless skin, and compiled by television’s continual projection that these ever-achievable goals being achieved by Everyone But You, we can be left feeling disillusioned, dissatisfied, unreasonably insecure, empty, powerless, and guilted into blaming ourselves for the failure of not having achieved an ideal that doesn’t really exist, while further neglecting the things that do. As it turns out, over-thinking doesn’t really get us too far.

One of the consistent mainstays of happiness (which is just as easily determined by every day life as it has been through numerous studies) remains the idea that caring exclusively for personal happiness comes at the expense of realizing something believed to me a more actualized happiness. As it turns out it’s when we consciously and thoughtfully put the needs of someone else ahead of our own, no matter how small the act of selflessness may be, that has proven to grant those completing the action a sense of not merely satisfaction, but genuine happiness. There’s no cosmic karma or universal boomerang implied here; as my dad once told me, “Let me do this for you for me.”

Yet even among over-thinkers it’s remarkable how much under-thinking goes on. We think and think and think about everything in our lives that could go right or wrong, rambling off countless scenarios concerning what the future may hold given what we know from the past. Yet when trapped in this loop of insecurity the tendency is to overlook others for the sake of the self; an inclination which is not only multiplied when fueled by dependency or addiction, but magnified to exponential lengths. However, the ability to reverse this trend within the world of recovery (let alone the world outside of recovery) is so easily lost when the given path is as difficult to navigate as it is. The Great Epiphany here isn’t that we need to change Everything to reach our goals, which is often the message, but really just that we actually need to change. Learning that separate realities exist is one thing, but unless that information parlays itself into action that appropriately assists in accepting that your life isn’t the only one that matters, the concept is meaningless. Making amends with those we’ve hurt, as A.A.’s 12 Steps require, is one thing, but changing our actions to be not merely compassionate and sympathetic to others, but sincerely considerate of others moving forward is something altogether different. A change in focus is what can open up over-thinking to whole new vistas of understanding.

“I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” —Winston Churchill

In accordance with having to change Everything, the scope of how much needs to change is typically intensified by an understanding within the field of dependency that there is a general tendency to forgive or forget in terms of the harm done by addiction: When it comes time to decide whether or not there will be a Next Time, the rule of thumb is that the upside is inflated while the downside is, well, played down. Speaking to the human tendency of selective memory, Jennifer Senior said it best: “Our imagination has an odd way of Photoshopping things out and airbrushing things in.”

Seeing oneself through the eyes of objectivity is a hard thing to do, but the theory is that we’ll be better off for it if we can learn from what it is that we see; again, we don’t have to see Everything, but the act of looking is worthless unless we can grow from what it is we find. Coming at this from a personal angle, it has become increasingly discouraging to take that filter off and see things for what they are in my own life: When I drink heavily I can be absolutely unbearable, to both others and myself. My insecurities begin to bleed like sweat from my pours, forcing a hand of overcompensation to help mask my underlying emotions. This has typically resulted in an ugly mess of a person going overboard at every opportunity. To put it bluntly: When I allow it, I become the type of person who doesn’t care at all for what those around me might be experiencing, the type of person that the sober me hates.

But to change, the typical paradigm of recovery requires that you “work the program” (again, regardless of what that program might be). For some this works wonders. For others (many others as A.A.’s tawdry success rate might suggest) it doesn’t. Telling an individual to work a program, though, is really just a slightly different way of saying that their old way of doing things wasn’t working, so in order to get results a new method is in order. Obviously, the demand of changing one’s ways isn’t a bad thing – why else would one need to work a program unless such a change was necessary – but the way in which recovery is set up is often the reason why the process remains such a mammoth failure. Working the program, while encouraging change, often neglects real personal growth in the pursuit of results. The list of addictions is lengthy (and bizarre, ranging from those who can’t stop chewing ice, pagophagiacs, to those who literally drink themselves to death from Coca-Cola, as New Zealand’s Natasha Marie Harris did in 2010) but the constant remains that if you want to change you have to follow established guidelines; in order to stop binging on a vice, the solution becomes binging on rhetoric, diverting over-thinking into a pre-assembled batch of rules meant to help you refocus your life. Two negative side effects often result from this however: dependency displacement and unintended isolation.

In my history, as discussed, the issue of recovery is one that I didn’t exactly seek out on my own accord, but at least the methodology behind the program I was given lent itself to the idea of personal development. That said, with an established directive that life was now going to have to be based around sobriety upon completion of the 12 weeks of outpatient treatment which followed my inpatient stay, the program’s weaknesses became the same as any other similar treatment system’s: To stay “on track” required that my cup be exceedingly refilled with an ideology to counteract certain relapse. But sobriety, of any kind, doesn’t mean much when it’s replaced with artificial hope, confounding rituals, or a realigned sense of personal power that asterisks personal accountability under the guise of change. This plan of action is to lead to health, though but not by confronting the source of negative behavior, and not by the reconfiguration of emotions to define any potential causality, but through a continual recalling of the mistakes made by past selves, and the breaking down of personal power in favor of learning to cope through the support of a flawed model. Working the program endears individuals to a belief system because it creates something new to project all of the over-thinking toward, only now replacing the self with a label: I am an alcoholic.

The term is just a term, but the act of figuratively branding oneself with labels as caustic as “alcoholic” or “addict” or even “depressive” have a propensity of inviting with them a sense of being an eternal outsider. For those who can’t buy into a system of thought this can leave individuals in a very lonely place. Punctuating life with a continual reminder that recovery isn’t just the act of literally defining oneself, but defining one’s entire life based on connotation. Continually assigning recovery paramount importance in life, dictating how one is to move forward by ceaselessly defining them by past behaviors, further creates a separation between the individual and any the shroud of normalcy, often leading to a both detachment from other people, but humanity itself. Bringing this reality back around to happiness, moving forward as an “alcoholic” is a little bit like going the rest of your life having to double-check yourself at every turn because the threat of sadness is always lurking (chemical addiction notwithstanding). What we’re left with is that, again, it’s all about Me: my next step; my recovery; my depression; my happiness; my peace of mind. And because you’re not (insert label here), there’s no way for you to understand what I’m going through.

So as not to be wholly damning, the greatest benefit of “working the system” is actually surrounding yourself with other people who are dealing with problems similar to your own, but the tendency nonetheless exists to then project accountability onto others: sponsors become a life-support system rather than a safe harbor. What’s really missing (and I say this from the position of someone who deals with chemical imbalance on a daily basis, so any compassion for that tightrope act isn’t lacking here) is still personal accountability. Why do we have to change Everything? Not to merely reach some goal of sobriety that’s so far off in the distance that it seems impossible to reach, but because without doing so our ego will continue to dictate that we’re what matters most; that any of our dependency’s perceived “benefits” will forever be accompanied by a genuine numbing of the human experience; that societal exile will be the only future that comes of repeatedly allowing the same selfish behaviors to take place, leaving those around us to pick up the pieces while we remain wholly consumed by ourselves. The Great Epiphany isn’t that clean and sober living brings with it happiness, but that without real change in our lives, we are stifling any potential for happiness that might exist.

“Get your mind right, and get your grind right.” —Ice Cube

In relating the rhetoric used by recovery programs to those of the self-improvement industry there becomes an unpleasant bridge between the two that is primarily constructed of susceptible irrelevance, offering methodologies that are often easily shaken. The development of a set of tools used to survive and combat daily life is of critical importance, but the worlds of both recovery and self-improvement have a tendency of relating their systematic approaches to whatever they deem as success. The reality is that what it means to be “recovered” or “happy” is utterly indefinable, uniquely based on an individual’s definition of well being, but too often does happy for the sake of being happy or sober for the sake of being sober become the surviving ideal.

Reverting all the way back to Jim Holt’s historic recap of how the meaning of happiness has changed with time, it’s clear that the term is more based on the individual or the society than on any single cultural precept. Considering the contextual transformation within the time-line of what it means to be happy, it’s no wonder why those initial Google results of savoring the moment and finding happiness in ourselves have outlasted their convoluted contemporaries: Simply put, it’s because there is real value to be found in those once seemingly transparent platitudes. In our individual searches for happiness we can look to any number of thought-driven sources for guidance: we can strive for a life of virtue; seek out an Epicurian lifestyle of minimalism, voiding ourselves of unnecessary luxuries; or we can follow the conclusions of positive psychologists who encourage us to challenge our thoughts, play to our strengths, count our blessings, value engagement, and seek out meaning in an attempt to change our lives. Yet happiness remains every bit a warm cookie as it is dedicating oneself to any of these respectable perspectives: It’s up to the individual to define what they’re seeking.

When I was in the fifth grade my elementary school class was set to take a trip to the Rocky Mountains to go skiing (which despite living a few hours away for 18 years remains the lone occasion I ever hit the slopes). Excited as we all were, we were asked prior to the trip about our experience level so we could be divided accordingly: some kids had learned to ski at a young age while others had never gone before. There was one kid in the class who was particularly difficult when this conversation came up though as he demanded to not be grouped with the beginners, proclaiming to be an expert based on the books he’d read in preparation of the trip. The conclusions surrounding happiness, dependency, depression, and ultimately recovery boil down to something much the same as what I experienced that day in class: reading alone hardly makes anyone an expert. The Greek sage Epictetus believed the road to happiness to be paved in rigorous self-discipline, personal accountability, and a duty for others; none of which can be mastered by combing the pages of Happiness for Dummies.

Leaning again on the historical definition, the term itself – happiness – has and continues to be applied to far too many areas of our life for it to maintain a consistent sense of meaning. Instead, it might be more beneficial to look to well being for that feeling of “something more” (though, be sure that neither term can be substituted for the other!). Well being, while hardly any easier to define than happiness, often incorporating similar aesthetics such as virtue into its own definition, speaks to something with the perceived density of being more complete: it appears as the culmination of turning methodology and experience into a better life.

Resources can be game-changers, and this process has been utterly life-changing in expanding my own personal view of the world, but it is the ability to absorb information for use in developing goals surrounding personal empowerment that is really important. (Doing so will remain a personal struggle as I, myself, pursue the future.) Success is what we make it out to be, and to have a legitimate chance at rediscovering what’s important to us, or what we want to achieve, we have to be realistic about what it’s going to take to do so. Not unlike the kid who thought he could read his way through the terrain of a Black Diamond slope, we have to understand that actually taking action is the only way to achieve; happiness, well being, recovery: these will forever be abstract concepts or remain projections of what others make them to be unless we honestly carve out the reason for seeking and the method by which we hope to succeed. The Great Epiphany isn’t that we have to change Everything, but that we have to understand why we’re changing.

“Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” —Alexander Pope, the 9th Beautitude

An eventuality that comes of defining one’s goals based on any measure of success is that failure is likely to come when those goals don’t appear as being realized (or immediately achieved). What happens when an effort is made to increase wellness or happiness, or to balance out internal struggles, and nothing seems to change? Expectation can not merely get in the way of progress, but it can put an abrupt end to believing that our journeys bear any particular worth. Continually thinking about oneself is only going to thicken any feeling of perceived failure if expectations aren’t met, which is why it’s not only important to look beyond yourself to gauge your situation but to deny any tendency to make conclusions based on expectation rather than reality: however much we make our lives out to be a game of chess, thinking multiple moves ahead in formulating a strategy for success, it’s really only a game of snakes and ladders. No one is safe from experiencing both the ups and downs, and it’s this wild unpredictability that comes as a circumstance of playing the game.

In 2010 when his reign as host of The Tonight Show was stripped from him, Conan O’Brien closed his final show with a memorable and particularly inspirational speech which related to expectations not being met in his own life. “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.” Granted a $40 million severance package likely helped the man find a branch of positivity to latch onto at the time, but even so, some 17 months later he returned to the idea of expectation during his Dartmouth College commencement address. “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.”

O’Brien’s inability to live his dream as Tonight Show host led him to a place which left him with feelings of failure, before evolving into a period that he has since noted to be one of the most creatively redeeming of his entire career. In his address he stressed that putting too much emphasis on what he believed to be the perfect path ultimately led him to realizing that no single goal defines whether or not we have succeeded or failed. “Whatever you think your dream is now,” he continued, “it will change.” During the course of this project I moved 600 miles across the country for a job, only to quit after a few months. This left me feeling like I’d blown the last chance at some sort of financial success that I might ever have. But as time passed, so to did that feeling of failure (and the emptiness expressed in “The Healer”); in fact, the ability to move on has resulted in numerous benefits that I might not have otherwise experienced. This not only serves to reflect the concept of impact bias as related by the likes of Dan Gilbert, but it speaks to conclusions that there is a greater correlation between perfectionism and suicide than between feelings of hopelessness and suicide: We feel most lost not when we are simply “down” but when things don’t work out like they were supposed to. The Great Epiphany isn’t that we need to redefine our notions of what it means to fail or succeed, but that we have to understand that neither implies a concrete means to an end.

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.” —Kurt Vonnegut

My initial curiosity (and despair) led me to the process of examining research materials and absorbing information with a goal of figuring out why it was that I didn’t feel happy. Yet in the end, the same simple point that Sophocles made centuries ago still holds true today: The more we try to be happy, the less happy we’re likely to become. Our relentless efforts to attain happiness, or achieve certain goals bound within rigid parameters set by others, becomes precisely what makes us miserable in the end. And while we are responsible for defining achievement in our own lives, without the ability to soften the edges around our own definitions of success the ability to remain both dedicated to our goals and motivated to pursuing them becomes increasingly difficult.

When I was in college one of my first roommates was a football player from Texas who, upon being placed on academic probation, printed off 8”x11” pieces of paper with motivational statements on them: go work out, do your homework, etc. The über-successful Oprah Winfrey has alluded to a similar method for reaching her goals. When asked about how she manages to run five miles every day she once responded, “I recommit to it every day of my life.” In order to battle life’s eventual negative spiral, we need to pull an Oprah and recommit every damn day to what it is we’re striving for: whether that be a commitment to well being, personal fitness, sobriety, or our families and friends. Think of the process as a boxer training for an upcoming fight: The more days they take off from training, or even worse, the more days that are spent participating in activities inconducive of winning in the ring, the less likely that particular fighter is to achieve their goal.

The same philosophy holds true elsewhere: to approach the subject of why we’re miserable without considering our depression, dependency issues, diet, sleep, exercise regimen, or any number of other issues is to walk into a fight having not trained and expecting victory. We expect happiness without having done the work. Every time we accomplish something, finish a day of work, or collapse on the couch after hitting the gym — the moment we relax on our successes and let our guard down — can easily turn into the moment where we become our worst enemies. Life-long learning means learning how to bob and weave, learning how properly defend yourself, and learning how to go on the attack when necessary. It’s also learning how to build momentum and not lose sight of goals. But without action, all of the studying and training doesn’t mean much.

“Discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” —Marcel Proust

As many long-time depressives, struggling drinkers, or over-eaters can attest to, the battle to simply begin toward overcoming one’s past is sometimes the hardest obstacle to overcome. And along the way, no one is utterly immune to collapse (ex: my roommate in college eventually dropped out, and Oprah’s public battle with weight has been gossiped about for decades). Looking to those who are achievers however, that constant necessity for re-dedication is what remains vital. If you’re not happy: keep searching for why you might feel that way. If medication isn’t working: keep searching for new alternatives which might help you better control your fluctuations. If you have a hard time with moderation: keep trying to find what works best for you, even if that means complete abstinence. If boredom triggers an urge to act out through detrimental behavior: keep struggling to find something new and exciting within the perceived mediocrity so as to remain grounded.

Once the wheels of progress are put in motion, momentum will eventually begin to take over, helping soften past struggles and pull you closer to a sense of well being. Simply put, the fewer times you act on an urge that pulls you away from whatever fight it is that you’re training for, the less likely you are do act on it in the future. In turn, this increased mental health tends to grant us the ability to be more welcoming to our friends and family (remember, other people do exist!), better physical health, and a more vibrant stride as we continue to move forward. Accepting your reality for what it is only becomes an issue if you also accept a belief that your future will remain confined by the reality of today’s struggles. Health Realization refers to this as “levels of understanding”: the higher the level you’re at, the easier it becomes to see the world for what it is, while the lower the level, the narrower the perspective and the smaller the world becomes. The entire process is cyclical with each progressive move triggering the next. The Great Epiphany comes in not one single learned idea but in the culmination: The first step toward wellness or happiness or recovery or success or whatever you might be looking for is realizing that you’re capable of achieving. The second step might very well be learning how to turn off the constant mental chatter, and transform that capability into actuality.

All of the positive verbiage aside, it’s important to not forget the don’ts. Don’t set goals that are either predicated on everything going right, or would seem otherwise outrageous based on past experiences. If you’ve been fat, drunk, or unhappy for a decade, it’s ridiculous to demand a complete personal reconciliation to occur in a few weeks. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Don’t rely on doing less for yourself than you know to be possible. Not unlike walking a treadmill, you can always go slow, or make excuses about why you’re not upping the speed or incline, but you’re not helping your cause in doing so. Think back to the boxer: You don’t have to constantly be sprinting toward your goal, but killing your momentum will only do yourself a disservice in the end. Don’t hide under excuses and don’t become complacent with merely coping: If you have a goal, be proactive and do something about it.

A few years ago there was a regular named Bob at a bar I frequented who would rely on a single repeated line whenever I called him on his nonsense: “I’m just testing your resolve, kid.” Think of your own personal reality as being crafted by the nonsensical Bobs of the world, continually testing your resiliency: continue trying to find a way to consider others with a sense of care, continue to remain vigilant of your actions so as not to sabotage yourself, continue to remain dedicated to yourself and your personal goals, keeping them in the forefront of your life rather than allowing them to become a faint layer of paint that occasionally bleeds back through to the surface. Continue testing your own resolve.

Denis Leary might have been right, happiness does seem to come in small doses. But eventually those doses can add up to realizing a more valuable sense of personal wellness. If they don’t and you crash, burn your blueprint, and forget everything you’ve ever learned along the way that might remotely help you out of the miserably bleak hole you find yourself in: Start over. Start reading more. Start reminding yourself through the work of others that you’re not alone. Start putting yourself in a position to get out of whatever trouble it is that you find yourself in. Happiness might seem an impossible goal at times, but try to imagine yourself as the hero of your story rather than the victim: Would you rather see yourself hit the ring and win the battle or give up before the opportunity strikes? The success of tomorrow all boils down to your ability to start today. From there, the next step is not likely to be as impossible as you believe it to be, and will actually only be as insufferable as you allow it to become. The Great Epiphany is simple: If you do good today, there’s a damn fine chance that tomorrow will be better because of it. The key is, you have to work at it.