Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Purify pt. 2: Look at the flowers

This is part 2 in a series of posts about addiction. Read part 1 - Read part 3

I promised you all last time that I was going to disclose my method for overcoming addiction. I'll tell you now, and all you have to do is sign up for my 100% free, incredibly non-spammy newsletter and download my e-book.

Ha. If you're still reading: I'm kidding. I crack myself up.

There's two parts to tackling any addiction, and the first part is to stop doing the thing.
If you feel like slapping me now, you can go right ahead, but I'd like to remind you that I already told you it sucked. And it is going to suck for a while, depending on where you are and what you are dealing with. There is just no way around that.

The second part is to look at the flowers. I'll tell you a story about that one.

There is an in-joke I share with one of my all time favorite people that has been around for almost ten years, so there's no saying how excited I was when it got referenced on last season's The Walking Dead - by super-badass, "None of these are problems" Carol, no less!
It originated during a very dark time, when I was struggling very hard to get my happiness awareness threshold back into the general vicinity of the fishbowl. (If this makes absolutely no sense to you, you can go and read this post, and I promise you it will be a lot less confusing. I can make no promises beyond the extend of this one sentence, though. Anything else you are still confused about is an entirely separate problem we'll have to work through at a different time.)
It was so far out of the sight of the fishbowl, in fact, that at some point during a conversation, I ended up asking her, and not even in a self-pitying way but very matter-of-factly, what the fuck I was supposed to enjoy now. Her answer? She said she enjoyed looking at the flowers in her garden. This was the exact point I figured I may as well just fucking kill myself, because that was the most depressing thing I'd ever heard.

If this isn't funny to you, by the way, I am afraid I'm unable to explain why this is still hysterical to us nearly ten years later, and keeps inspiring exchanges like: "How've you been?" - "Well, I'm enjoying the flowers." - "That bad huh?". All I can say is that if it weren't for the ability to laugh at misery, an awful lot of us probably wouldn't be here.

Of course the reason why we can laugh at this a little harder each year is that one way in which people and their brains are so absolutely amazing is their ability to adapt and heal themselves. If you wait long enough, no matter how far outside the fishbowl you are, there will come a time when you are able to enjoy the flowers again.

So much for the good news. The bad news is that, until you get there, things will suck. They will suck massively, because no matter where you are, you have a gap to bridge and there is a whole lot of nothing between looking at flowers and sprinkling MDMA on your ice cream sundae (not that anyone ever conceived of such a thing).

The other thing that is absolutely true is that they won't suck forever.

It's just very, very hard to keep telling ourselves this, because we are all exceptionally bad at predicting how something will make us feel in the long run. This is why it's so hard to convince ourselves time and time again that the instantly gratifying thing isn't the thing we really want. We can rationalize all we want, but it still feels like a lie. Hell, I can't remember there ever having been a time when I've come back from a run and thought "Man, that was a dumb idea, I feel all icky and gross now". The only times I've ever had this experience was after sitting on my ass and binging on sugar all night. And yet whenever I feel like I need a pick-me-up, what do you think my brain is going to believe is the absolute best idea ever?

In this way I am exactly the same as my cat who whines to be let outside, whines to be let inside 5 seconds later, and then promptly forgets that the outside sucks and wants to be let outside again. I can mock her all I want, but there are areas of my life where I am not one iota better, and her brain is the size of a satsuma. What's my excuse?

There are tricks you can apply to get you through the bad times, and this is one of the territories where mindfulness proves useful. What I call 'looking at the flowers', is in fact something called 'urge surfing', which in turn isn't something that is exclusive to mindfulness. Because mindfulness is, aside from a buzzword, nothing more than an amalgam of meditation-related practices that seem to work, urge surfing is just one of these things they added to their arsenal.

What it comes down to is that whenever you feel the urge to engage in a behavior you would like to stop, you make a mental note of this urge and then postpone your reaction, even if it's just for a couple of minutes. What you'll find, is that the urge is something that ebbs away naturally. When your urge is at its highest, this may be hard to conceive, but it has been established for example that the urge to smoke usually only take about 20 minutes to ebb to a more bearable level.

What mindfulness teaches, is to meditate through this. You go to a place where you can be alone for a little while, feel the urge, and breathe. Explore how it feels to not engage. Note that you are at this moment living with the feeling you have. Can you prolong this for 5 more minutes? Maybe 10?
In mindfulness therapy they call this 'sitting with the feeling', which is just a weird ass way of telling you to sit somewhere and feel that way. What you are in fact doing is very actively accepting what is true for you in this moment. If after a while, the feeling gets better, you have just surfed your way past an urge. If it doesn't, you have at least taught yourself that it was possible to feel whatever you felt and not react to it.

I've read others' suggestions of distracting yourself by doing something like taking a shower or going for a walk, and then returning to assess the urge. While these are valid methods, I've found they don't work as well for me, because this way I am still teaching myself that an urge, or an intense emotion, is something I need to respond to right away by doing something. What seems to work for me is to keep myself very still, and to look at the flowers.

We are all stronger than we think we are. There is a massive amount of suck we can take and still be ok in the long run. Looking at the flowers is a way to accept that, and remind yourself that if you just keep looking, things won't suck forever. As long as you keep looking at those stupid flowers and hang on, there will come a time when they won't seem so stupid after all. There will come a time when you will see flowers, and smile.

"Look at the flowers, Lizzie." Yeah, you're fucked.

PS: There is a free mp3 online that you can use for urge surfing, and tons of other resources about the general principle. But I'm sure you can find those yourself. I mean, you seem to be a pretty resourceful person.


  1. I like the urge surfing idea. I knew it was a good idea in some specific cases, but never really thought of generalizing it. I'll try urge surfing next time I feel the urge to do something stupid, like opening a bag of chips and regretting it after I ate all of them. (Agreed, this kind of use is trivial in comparison with 'getting through the bad times', but it'll make the world a better place nonetheless. :) )

  2. ...because there'll be more chips in it? ;)

  3. In high school a friend of mine forgot to tell the band directors he would miss practice one day because his grandmother died. The next day when he came in they talked to him pretty harshly about responsibility and being considerate of others. He and I laughed about it. We couldn't believe anyone could have such screwed up priorities. In the middle of his grief he could laugh. I like to think it helped him.

    I know grief and addiction are very different things, but the idea of turning to a distraction in the middle of sitting with the feeling made me think of that. I understand turning to a distraction doesn't work for everyone. Hey nothing's going to work for everyone. Or maybe that was their--albeit unintentional--way of giving him some flowers to look at.

  4. It is indeed a very different thing, but emotions are indeed another thing you can 'surf' in different ways. I think the most important thing about mindfulness is to learn to consciously choose whether, and if so, how you react to these impulses. It's a thing you can train, apparently. :)

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this. Extra kudos for the walking dead picture.

  6. Thank you ^_^ And I tried to keep it spoiler-free :)