Beneath the Bad Habits

I was caught in the haze of addiction, in the red room at the old house, reading the New York Times. Reading the science section always makes for good procrastination, and for a pseudo-intellectual social scientist like me, articles with pre-digested neuroscience make fine concealed weapons.

I should have been studying. Or thinking through the impending changes in my life. My fiancé was going abroad, we had a new puppy and I was stumbling through life in a cloud of pot smoke and emotional avoidance. This is truly the best time to take an interest in brain development.

The article was about habits, good ones and bad ones. It said that you cannot get rid of bad habits. No sir, they are here to stay. The only thing to do is make new ones, make better ones. Trying to quit smoking? Don’t pain yourself over having 3 cigarettes in a day vs. 4, just go for a run! Trying to stop eating fatty foods? Don’t beat yourself up over that piece of fudge, just eat a carrot too. The stubbornness of bad habits makes perfect sense given what we know about the brain’s adaptability. I’m glad, after all, that the marks registered in my gray matter have stayed put. I still know how to tie my shoes, and I still know how to ride a bike although I don’t do it very often. Cherished memories stick around, parts at least. This etching makes for other troubles too. Most people don’t know that the hallmark of PTSD is the intrusion of unwelcome memories, the persistent re-experiencing of a traumatic past.

By a certain age, most of us are decidedly wed to our preferred sources of dopamine. I for one am prone to co-dependency and substance use. Like most humans, especially my peers in the “self-esteem generation,” I also thrive on compliments and positive reinforcement, pats on the habit head. This article’s advice was sincere and I heard it clearly, “All your bad habits are here to stay, accept them, love them. Surround them with good things.” Rats in a bleak cage will self administer cocaine until they die, rats in a stimulating, safe environment will find a comfortable rate of use. Be the good rat.

So, at the threshold of my most difficult semester yet, I bought produce. I developed a complicated exercise routine. I would first walk the new puppy, increasing speed and distance as he aged. Then, yoga for suppleness and limber limbs, followed by weight training and pull ups. I would eat a strict diet: whole grains, sweet potato, grapefruit, tea. Of course I didn’t plan to stop pulling into the Plaid Pantry, munchies raging, and finding the old candy gang I knew and loved. No problem here, folks, nothing to see! I’m developing good habits!

I wouldn’t quit smoking cigarettes, as I’d already read the eulogy on that idea (it was in the Times!). If I could just exert myself with enough force, the old habits would simply be crowded out by the new ones. I was going to completely reinvent myself, totally unconsciously. I would conquer my social awkwardness, not by patiently looking at what caused my sense of alienation, but by forcing myself to go to parties in a grand mal state of tension. I would do it full on. And what to do, if by some chance, I was two years deep into a relationship, engaged, and miserable? Get a dog together, of course.

They were strange and frenzied days, as the girl prepared to leave for a semester abroad. I worked frantically to produce the image of a coherent life, of a self resilient enough to stand on its own. Of all the myths and denials that uphold broken personalities and broken homes, this may be paramount: the notion that we are autonomous from one another. “I’m fine! Stop asking.” This is what the alcoholic father offers to his son as the explanation for his palpable misery. “We’re fine! Stop asking, this is a private matter.” This is the explanation the alcoholic family offers to the rest of world.

And who is it, what enabler, who whispers at night, “If I can just love him hard enough, love him for long enough, be his good habits for him, then he’ll change.”

It doesn’t work like that. My life was not coherent, and bad habits aren’t just bad habits. They don’t come without their reasons, although it’s easy to think of them  as an alien force which descends, with no fathomable motivation, to possess and ruin our too trusting minds. The nail biting, nose picking, junk shooting, and tardiness are easiest to deal with if they are random, accidents of the chaotic universe. They are not. At bottom, somewhere beneath our tangled conditioning, they are the product of repeated attempts to find comfort from suffering, and they stick around, not because they work well, but because they meet some minimum. A cigarette doesn’t soothe anxiety for more than five minutes, and it breeds more worries down the line, but that soothing is enough for that moment. Reason enough to light up. Bad habits are more than they seem, they are the current state of a system doing the best it can to survive. My one time partner was doing the best she could, shucking off to Nepal to get some perspective. I was too, and in the classical form: denial.

This the code by which I was raised. When my dad joined Alcoholics Anonymous, he started apologizing for things. A misplaced anger, a sharply sculpted tone of voice, and then he would say, “I’m sorry about earlier, it was habit energy.” A strip of paper appeared on our fridge and stayed there until we moved, “You become what you practice most.”

These habits we have are often a smokescreen between us and the lives we’re leading. We have daily routines of forgetting and we go about the weeks and months doing the diligent work of avoidance. Exercise and leaves of kale are good for you, they help build a healthy life, and I wasn’t wrong to turn to them. I was a fool, however, to forget that beneath the habits is something scarier. Down there are the true needs and desires.

What if you did stop? When the filter is between your lips and you bring the lighter under your cupped hand to start your first drag, what if you stopped your hand right there. With your grip tense and your thumb primed to spark the flint, what if you waited there? What do you really need?

You Will Not Have Me - Amelia Spinney