Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Addiction and Numbing

I had one of those fascinating conversations last week with my supervisor. You know the kind of dialogue that gets your brain humming, when both of you are trying to talk, because the ideas and thoughts being sparked are exciting and new. Yep, that kind of conversation.

We were talking about addiction. She's been in the field of psychotherapy for 20+ years, and has the perspective of one who has seen multiple generations wear out her couch cushions. Addiction used to be narrow, either booze or drugs to numb out. Sure, there were fetishes and such, but booze and drugs were easy.

Now, in a technologically saturated culture, there is an app to numb yourself. There is little need to check in with how we feel, because we can log everything into an app, or play a game on the iPhone, or surf Facebook,  pinterest, etc. The good apps give you feedback, usually positive. I have a running app that I used to tell me how far I've gone and at what speed. At the end of my run, it asks what the weather was like, and how I feel, using icons and emoticons. It's all very left-brained. I usually choose the emoticon in between the smiley-face and the grimace, and then I move on. I don't feel. Perhaps that is a weak example. Let's amp it up a bit.

I've started writing a book. I haven't been writing. It'll take a long time at this non-writing pace to produce a book-sized piece of work. I've felt more angsty than usual since I've stopped writing. I've been plagued by the feeling that I should be writing. I know I have something to say, but I question it's value, my value, my knowledge and intelligence, my worth. It's nearly unbearable. That is, until . . . I grab some carbs, the tv remote, and my ipad. This kind of numbing needs three addictions to work. Each addiction or coping mechanism works to change my brain chemistry, literally. Carbohydrate comas are lovely. Zoning out via tv or web surfing reduces the production of cortisol, which is what is being cranked out when we are feeling anxious or afraid. All I know is that when I eat carbs and watch tv, I feel better. I hate myself, but emotionally I feel better. And, I am alone and ashamed.

I'm not sure that my method of numbing is giving me much of a win. It's temporary relief, that leads to emotional self-harm. I will have to do it over and over again.

Psalm 131 speak of comforting the soul. The emphasis is mine, and the translation is ESV. To give credit where due, I have been re-spouting these thoughts after Dan Allender gave this Psalm new context for me, and Paul Miller talks about this Psalm in his book A Praying Life (I just read it this morning).

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

Addiction and numbing don't quiet or calm the soul, they redirect it. We don't know how to comfort ourselves, but we are quick to distract ourselves, and it feels better than anxiety. It seems like learning to address our anxiety more directly, which would increase our anxiety temporarily, would be a more honest and realistic approach to quieting our souls.

I get really anxious when there is a mess to be cleaned up in the kitchen. Part of my personal story contains a family history of being anxious about getting the dishes done ASAP, even if someone isn't done eating! I have  internally connected a clean kitchen with acceptance of who I am, and a dirty kitchen with rejection (shame, a gaping flaw in my character that will keep me from being loved). Yes, it goes that deep.

This past Sunday we had a lovely Easter gathering at our house. As the evening wore on, and I was enjoying some wine and friends around a fire pit, I began to get anxious. There were five tables, surrounded by chairs, covered in decorations, plates, cups, etc. that would need to be cleaned up. I didn't want them left overnight.  It might rain. It would be irresponsible of me to leave them. I leave for work by 8:30 the next morning. My anxiety was looming.

So, I went inside and disclosed my anxiety to a few of my roommates/friends. I was met with compassion, and some hard to bear insight into my anxiety. I numb by cleaning up, and my anxiety goes away. I will never have to test the rejection/acceptance hypothesis if I just clean up. I was even told by my friend that to not clean up would be healthier, but that my anxiety would increase. Yuck! She was right. In the end, my friends helped me put away all the tables, chairs, etc. before they left, and my roommates had already tackled the inside of the house. I think they did so, partially because they love me, and they accept me in the midst of my anxious struggle.

I think to quiet our souls in the midst of anxiety, we must begin by trusting someone, and not numbing. We must share our struggle, and believe we will not be turned away. This is the opposite of what our anxiety tells us. In sharing, we must share with someone who has proven themselves to be empathetic in the face of pain and struggle. We must trust in the goodness of God as well, but I'll not go further into that here. I feel like that's a whole other post, and an important one!

I wonder if those of you who have read this far would risk considering your own anxieties, how you numb them through addiction, technologically or otherwise? Might you think about unpacking your hypotheses that you will be rejected or accepted based on what you do and not who you are? Perhaps you'll think about the 1-2 people who you can count on to empathize and be with you in your anxiety, so that you can move towards quieting and comforting your soul.

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