Why People Don’t Beat Addictions Or Keep Resolutions
A local gentleman of ours who is marvellously subject to gout would answer his doctors quite amusingly when asked to give up salted meats entirely. He would say that he liked to have something to blame when tortured by the onslaughts of that illness: the more he yelled out curses against the saveloy or the tongue or the ham, the more relief he felt.
-Michel de Montaigne, “How the soul discharges its emotions against false objects when lacking real ones”
I’ve always hated New Year’s Resolutions. Basically, I dislike them because they don’t work. Nobody keeps them, so they amount to little more than a heartbreaking display of insecurities and venal ambitions. But the question of why they don’t work still hangs in the air. Is it because, as countless newspaper columns have suggested, we don’t manage them properly? Every year I read, and hear on public radio, that people don’t make manageable resolutions. They reach for the stars — and that won’t work, now will it? Or they break their resolution once, and immediately give up, instead of recognizing that changing behavior takes time, and the best thing is to re-commit to your resolution and keep at it. Or else people don’t set clear, incremental goals and keep a calendar to track their progress. Why, here at The Kugelmass Episodes, it often seems like people think New Year’s Resolutions are something you can just say, out loud, on New Year’s, and be done with it! They don’t understand that keeping resolutions should be their second (or third) job!
I don’t think these maddening productivity tips have anything to do, really, with the 100% failure rate for New Year’s Resolutions. Nor do I think that “if resolutions make even a little difference,” for a short time, that somehow that’s “better than nothing.” Instead, I think New Year’s Resolutions are engineered to fail. After all, it’s interesting that they are public declarations, is it not? Yes, we all know that telling another person is a good way to keep you on track. Except that…it doesn’t. Telling another person is really a way of advertising your imminent backsliding and failure. Psychologically, everyone is prepared to break their resolutions on or after January 2nd. This is the secret pleasure of the resolution. To fail, and by failing, to mock everyone who makes you feel that you have to do better.
Here’s a thought experiment: take any one of your attempts at self-improvement. Let’s say you’re trying to quit smoking. Now imagine going around, to everyone you know, and subtly dropping into your conversation the following sentence: “Last year I smoked an absolutely perfect number of cigarettes. I couldn’t have made it through the year without those cigarettes. Also, they tasted great!” Or, if you’re determined to finally start exercising more, imagine saying this: “I think I’m a better person because I don’t exercise. It’s amazing how consistent I was, all year, about doing other things instead! It would have been a really dull, exhausting year if I’d exercised more.”
Two things will happen. First of all, it will immediately seem easier to keep your resolution, because acting like you deliberately chose to be naughty for an entire year reveals, all of a sudden, that you did do just that: you made choices. It was up to you, and it still is. Second, you will cringe at the apparition of somebody — somebody specific — who would find such self-congratulation particularly offensive. Maybe it’s the friend who always makes a big deal when you take a smoke break. Maybe it’s the cousin who has started running marathons and can’t stop raving about how energized and alert they feel. Regardless, that’s the person responsible for your New Year’s Resolution. That’s the person you are (superficially) trying to impress with your newfound moral rectitude, and that’s the person you are (actually) trying to discredit. After all, your failure isn’t earth-shattering. Life goes on — and that’s the point you secretly intend to make. Until you separate your personal goals, whatever they may be, from your anger at being shamed, you will never realize them.
So…I smoke occasionally. I’ve bought packs of cigarettes, and smoked cigars and even a pipe. I can stop on a dime. I’ll drink like a fish and then basically forget, sometimes for a month, to keep the whiskey flowing. I’ve had problems re-filling my Adderall prescription at least a couple times each year, and suffered withdrawal, and been fine. I’ve had to go without the antidepressants I usually take, on occasion, too. I’ve done pretty much everything that is supposed to hook you, including a bunch of things I won’t name here, and gotten off the hook.
That holds true with just one exception: caffeine. It drives me crazy when some person in a recovery program gives a winsome interview and says, “Now my only vice is drinking too much coffee.” Coffee totally fucks with me. It makes me anxious and scattered. It wrecks my judgment and my confidence. Caffeine seems to have a sense of humor about sleep: when I need to stay awake, it doesn’t work, and when I need to sleep, it works amazingly. Coffee also makes me dizzy, gives me a headache, causes me to overeat, and gives me heartburn. I’ve known all this for years and I still drink two or three cups, minimum, every single day.
I started drinking coffee seriously shortly after college. At that point, after saving up money in Sacramento, I flew to Ireland to live with my girlfriend, who happened to be there. Then I traveled to Thailand and Laos for six months. Then I came home to California, divided my time between Sacramento (where my parents live) and Mendocino (where I grew up), and did a lot of couch surfing. Six months later I moved again, to Irvine, to begin graduate school.
Caffeine has always been bad for me. I used to tell people that I could only drink coffee if I knew I was going to be alone, since it makes me anxious and socially awkward. Amidst all the disruptions and displacements I experienced after college, coffee was just that: my alone time. I mean, as you might already know, couch surfing sucks. Living in hostels is exhausting. Moving is a prolonged taste of misery, especially if you change houses again within three months of arriving in a new place, which I did. When I was lonely, coffee was proof that I wanted the solitude and intended to write like a fiend. When I was surrounded by people, and obliged to be constantly sociable, caffeine was supposed to see me through and help me get along with everyone. It was my solution to complete rootlessness.
In fact, I was angry about being rootless. I was angry at my parents for leaving my hometown. I was angry at my girlfriend for abandoning her life in Ireland only a few months after I’d invested in traveling there. I was vexed at UC Irvine for having inadequate student housing. I absolutely hated the spoiled, neurotic brats who rented a room to me in Huntington Beach. I thought I deserved to feel settled somewhere, and I didn’t feel that way at all. I only realized all of this, and its connection with coffee, this morning.
People indulge in addictions because they believe they deserve the pleasure. But no addiction is consistently pleasurable. Drugs are plastic: how they work depends on the context in which they’re used and the associations we have with them. Everyone who drinks can remember different nights where they were exactly the same amount drunk, yet the feeling of being drunk, and the outcome of each night, were perfectly opposite. Gambling is far from always being fun…and the same is true of sex, unless you are very lucky in love. Even video games can turn into a grind.
Pleasure is a coy mistress. Seize it, and it’s gone. The pleasure of addiction is a myth, but what is quite real is the imaginary act of telling someone else, “This is mine. I’m going to enjoy this.” In other words, the object of every addiction is this personal symbol of pleasure, and the point that symbol allows us to make. Studies of dopaminergic activity in the brain really accomplish very little when it comes to understanding addiction. You have to see the symbol for what it is. Once you discover its foundations, and pay attention to the man behind the curtain, the big show comes rapidly to an end.
This is the fourth essay in the Montaigne series.