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On Addiction (and Star Wars)
Two nights ago I went and saw Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens with my wife and son and, let me tell you, that was a big deal! Or actually, it wasn’t a big deal but it would have been a couple years ago…hmmmm. I better back up so you know what the hell I’m talking about.
I used to have ritual around attending movies that could NOT be broken. Before I get to what this ritual meant and how it changed let me just break it down for you. This is what going to a movie used to involve, and ONLY this….
I ONLY went to movies alone.
I had to go to a matinee about 3 or 4 weeks after the movie came out, that way I would be assured that the theater would be reasonably empty, which was necessary because of the high level of social anxiety I had (being in a crowded theater could put me into a state of panic).
I would purchase candy ahead of time so that I could avoid the concession stand once I went in, because I was going to be stoned at the time and couldn’t stand the pressure of interacting with actual humans in that state.
I would get my ticket about 15 minutes before the movie started and return to my car.
I would get stoned. I would time my little smoke session so that I was toking up at exactly the time movie was set to start, because I knew that actually that start time was when the commercials and previews were starting and I intended to miss those so that I could, ideally, arrive in my seat, freshly rocked, right as the actual feature began.
The rules of this movie-going ritual were unbreakable and if circumstances somehow dictated that I was going to end up going to a movie that I wanted to see with someone else I would either try to see it first under these conditions, or I would be really pissed the whole time I was watching it with someone else.
That’s a very constricted way to live, but it was necessary for me cause that ritual enabled a kind of sublime dissociation that enabled me to really LIVE in the movie and not in myself, which was something I really needed at the time, because of the amount of pain and suffering that was within me.
So how did I do it?
How did I transition from this iron-clad ritual to being able to genuinely enjoy the new Star Wars, completely sober, with my wife and son?
Slowly, that’s how.
You see, this old addiction of mine that I used to manage my trauma was necessary. I couldn’t simply force myself to let go of it all at once, it had to happen gradually, over time, as part of a larger process of healing.
As I was going through my Somatic Experiencing training and doing the sessions for myself that were a mandatory part of that training, my nervous system started to heal. As my nervous system started to heal there began to be less of a pressing need to ONLY do it the old way, because there was genuinely less pain and constriction within myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I still did it; but I also started to go to movies with my wife and son more. I would still sometimes get secretly stoned beforehand, but I had to let go of the timing aspect of the ritual and the alone-time part of the ritual. The parameters for what could be ok were slowly shifting.
Then, I started to go with others and NOT get stoned. This was a big step and a significant turning point because what I started to notice is that I genuinely preferred the feeling of shared experience that this kind of movie going engendered. I liked sharing the thrills with others. I like holding my wife’s hand or sharing significant glances at key moments with my son. I realized that I actually enjoyed the social engagement of the shared experience.
Little by little my old ritual, my coping mechanism, withered away.
Now, I almost never do that old thing anymore, in fact, I can’t remember the last time I did, because I much prefer the new version.
The key here is that it happened organically and slowly over time as part of a bigger process.
The really important thing that I would like you to take away from this is that our addictions aren’t character flaws.
There is no addict out there who is not in some kind of pain. The addictions are part of a coping strategy that is necessary for us to feel ok. We can’t just take away that coping mechanism and expect the soul and the psyche to follow; when we do that, like in the case of going cold turkey, or embarking on an extreme diet, rebellion is the inevitable outcome.
As the brilliant Dr. Gabor Mate says… “All substances of abuse, whether they’re opiates or cocaine or anything else, they’re actually pain-killers. Some of them specifically are pain killers, but physical pain and emotional pain, the suffering is experienced in the same part of the brain…. so that all addictions are attempts to soothe the pain. When I work with addictions, the first question is always not, ‘why the addiction?’, but, ‘why the pain?’”.
Check out this YouTube link for the full brilliant excerpt from his TED talk (only 3.5 min) youtu.be/T5sOh4gKPIg
Before our old ways of coping can die away our nervous system needs to first discover other options, or else it will feel lost and will inevitably go back to what it knows and is comfortable with, because that known option has been there for a reason. We have to address that underlying reason.
When we do that, The Force – the ability to feel, to be in tune and empathetic, to know and accept ourselves and others – can awaken in all of us.