I have heard of a thing called pleasure. It sweeps across the desert, stinging my eyes and getting in under my clothes. Red faced and raw I let the force of it take me to the ground, obliterating my footsteps, erasing the past and all paths to the future. Continue reading
I discovered the dark glamour of drugs, death, and sex in an Ontario grade 5 classroom. The heroin addicted, HIV positive prostitute was only 7 years older than the little blonde girl white knuckling Reader’s Digest during afternoon reading time. Every sentence was a step deeper into a darkness I knew only through other people’s nightmares. Continue reading
The void is being in love with two men, two stories, two promises. One glows with the promised flush of that first hot thrust. Immediate gratification. The other tantalizes with the promise of a full to bursting future, but it’s a happily ever after that pulls further away with every desperate reach from within the void. Because while your brain chemistry adjusts to reward a new set of attentions, and you progress towards real change, there is no way to ignore that first lover’s little whisper in your ear… “I swear,” it teases, titillates, “this will be the last time.” Continue reading
I can barely form this sentence – I want! – my mind has no patience for language – I need! All words have been conscripted in service of a craving and my executive functions are shutting down. Just as frostbitten fingers are first to have their blood siphoned away, this cold Calgary morning has redirected all my neurotransmitters to the same goal – survival. Continue reading
The coroner’s verdict is in: Peaches Geldof died of a heroin overdose. This tragedy has left two young sons without a mother and an entire extended family without the woman described by her father as “the wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest, and the most bonkers of all of us.”
And yet, at this very moment, there are morbidly obese workaholic smokers smirking at this latest bit of internet ‘gossip’, smug in their own judgement of a woman they never met, never even heard of until her death. “How could she chose heroin over her own children?” they troll, oblivious to the irony.
The only difference between smoking a cigarette and shooting up is how long it takes to devastate your system as a whole. All for what? A temporary neurotransmitter buzz? Ah, but that’s the trick of addiction. It feels like so much more.
Disease or choice? When there are reasonable rhetorical arguments on both sides of any debate, logic dictates that there is space for an alternative conceptual model. Let’s go back to Aristotle and identify an addict by what they repeatedly do. Time and time again, an addict will chose their insatiable over everything and everyone they have previously professed to love. And that’s OK, actually perfectly reasonable. From their cognitive paradigm, it’s inevitable. Admitting this plain, if painful, fact begins to relax the cognitive dissidence that so often traps an addict within their fantasy. Addiction, a complex sequence of neurobiological interactions through time, is actually refreshingly simple to explain.
While certain brains – impulsive, sensitive, creative, intelligent – are structurally more susceptible to addiction because of their innate flexibility (Bob Geldof’s quote about his daughter is quite telling), anyone can get hooked on a substance or behaviour, especially after physical/sexual/psychological trauma. Introduce a chemical or act that causes neurotransmitter bliss (or release from discomfort) and, provided the negative consequences don’t immediately trump the reward, your thinking begins to accommodate and adapt to this new working solution.
If you ever try (or do) something that triggers this specific thought: “This is the best feeling ever – I need to do whatever possible to keep this going for as long as possible.” Be VERY careful. This is why, for so many of us, foreplay is never enough. This is why one drink is too many for an alcoholic. Your logic skews to internalize this ‘truth’ and restructures your perception of reality to support these new priority permissions. Past traumas become more painful – the memories will actually alter. Physical pain becomes more pronounced. Even daily strife seems more apocalyptic. Eventually, the addiction gets tied into survival itself, deep in your limbic brain. Then you’re really screwed, because to dislodge it you’ve got to break that bond by pushing your insatiable to its be-all-end-all limit. Rock bottom isn’t a catch phrase; it’s a biological event.
Asking an addict to give up his/her insatiable of choice is asking them to live a life of less-than, of deliberate ‘missing out’, in a universe of mocking abundance. It’s counterintuitive and downright abusive. Because, as addiction alters the chemical landscape of the brain, what used to be enough… just isn’t. Not doing drugs, or even not wanting to do drugs isn’t the answer. An addict must be coached how to rehabilitate their brain until they actually, on all levels of cognition and emotion, want to want not to do drugs. How? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but stay tuned to upcoming posts for some innovative Blank Canvas Living ideas, techniques, and exercises.
I believe Peaches Geldof, an admitted perfectionist with a creative brain prone to obsessiveness (documented eating disorders and – well intentioned – attachment parenting), was looking for her Secret Garden. And in this society, aren’t we all? For Peaches, a lifetime of unhealthy observed and inherited brain patterns, exaggerated by addiction, kept leading her back to heroin – the universal good mother. It wasn’t supposed to kill her, just give her a break, a rest, an ugly-edged bliss in a viable world that must have left her feeling constantly on-edge, never good enough. I don’t blame her. Not because she had a disease, but because she never knew she could create a choice.
So many of us live double lives. I don’t just mean having a young filly or a well hung, obedient boy toy shacked up across town. I’m talking about your Secret Garden. You know, the private place you escape to when the world gets too loud and needy or we reach a Tetris tipping point. We all have our own version of ‘Me Time’, but often what begins as a safe sanctuary slowly de-evolves into a dangerous, even lethal, prison. One day you look up and the walls of your Secret Garden are too high to climb and you’re trapped as a slave to your glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls.
Feeling all high and mighty watching a Youtube obesity documentary while picking at a plate of asparagus on my lunch break, I was suddenly blindsided by an embarrassing parallel. The woman on screen had bustled her kids off to school, tidied up, put in a load of laundry, and then – efficiencies done – took a plastic grocery bag full of chocolate bars out of a hidden cupboard and proceeded to devour the entire gluttonous mess in a highly ritualized performance.
“This is ME-TIME,” she declared to the camera, almost as a threat. Woe-betide the fool who would dare try and rob her of this one true, loyal pleasure!
“Oh shit,” I said to myself, “do I really do the same freakin’ thing?!”
Of course, just like most of us, but my Secret Garden involved getting drunk and stoned watching old online episodes of Antiques Roadshow on a tiny netbook in my kichen while sitting on one of those horribly uncomfortable 1970s plywood stacking chairs. Grim. But how had this happened? I was in love, full of potential, with all joints as yet in working order. How had this sad, rather tragic scene become my be-all-end-all?
Genetics and circumstances dictate our unique set of personal glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls. These behaviours and externals are what we feel make our lives worth living. Some lucky bastards are coded to respond to running and quinoa, while others get off on fries or affairs. Stress, biochemistry, and trauma can make the brain more vulnerable to adopting extreme, often dangerous, glamours (eg: cutting and drugs) because these behaviours provide an immediate and seductively efficient neurotransmitter reaction. Tolerance develops over time and before you know it you’re either 500 pounds or base jumping!
Just like yours, my Secret Garden had been planted with all innocence – just like the one in Burnett’s classic children’s novel (a personal fave!). I made my own clothes and acted out heroic stories in the backyard – happy as a clam! Then life happened and somehow I ended up on that stupid hard-ass chair!
Be honest. What does your Secret Garden grow? Because whatever you think you want, whatever you think your dreams and goals may be… here’s the truth: your unconscious, primative mind is, at this very moment, concentrating all its energy and effort on the simple goal of getting you into that garden and keeping you there.
But we’re not children anymore. Once we acknowledge our current glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls, and accept them with unrelenting compassion, we can begin to pre-train new ones and eventually switch over more permanently. Click here to read about how the relationship between your efficiencies and indulgences can help reveal (and even begin training!) new personal glamours.
We all have a Mitch-the-insatiable-itch. Yours may have a different name, or set of genitalia, but we all need a way to negotiate with our brain’s limbic system – our emotional selves. Science has found that our prefrontal cortex, our ‘rational’ brain, is second in command to our limbic system. Our conscious selves are gatekeepers ever struggling to hold back the dopamine wielding forces of our emotionally charged motivations and temptations. Brain scans can reveal a decision up to 7 seconds before you consciously decide! Of course, this shouldn’t come as any surprise to those of us who have ever sat down, rolled up our sleeves, and inhaled an entire pizza. Either we were so wasted we’d already locked out our prefrontals, or we were actually able to rationalize this act of symphonic gluttony. Scary thought either way! And for those of us who have never adopted a rigid set of internal regulations (hello anyone creative, oh, and anyone madly in love), we so often sabotage ourselves by being able to effortlessly ‘rationalize’ the most absurd glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. When the Calgary Flames are down 5-1 in the third, and Harvey the Hound is still dancing manically in the stands, drumming up a rallying cry from the crowd… sometimes a mascot is our last best hope for survival. A limbic mascot is a visual thinking tool that can be used to help create a subtle separation, a space for negotiation, between our emotions and our intellectual reasoning. To ensure we stay faithful to our long term goals, we often (hourly unless you’re one of the lucky ones) need to challenge the urgency and importance of short term impulses that are demanding (and I do mean demanding) attention and satiation. A limbic mascot can serve as an entity of attribution that allows you to make these conscious intellectual challenges without directly attacking your ego.
Mitch-the-insatiable-itch is my limbic system middle-man. He’s ever-present in Blank Canvas Living’s sidebar, and he’s even snuck his way into one or two posts. The petulant little darling is all belly and cute pink package. Go ahead and read in a light dose of Freudian penis envy – but they really are such fun. He has a perpetual indignant frown and fingers for pointing at what he wants, but no real mouth. He leaves all the verbalization, rationalization, and justification to the prefrontal side of the equation. He’s a master of the ever-so-seductive myth of “this is the last time.” I love the little guy, even though his ear horns mean he’s rarely sitting on the angel side of my shoulder.
I’m so curious, dear readers, what would your limbic system mascot look like?
The language we choose to use has incredible influence over our perception of reality. Every word is linked into an ever evolving neural network of associations, concepts, and emotions. Meaning is culled from these maps, which are culturally driven yet far more flexible than one might think. Addiction, habit, compulsion, rock bottom – these are dangerous, helpless words. There’s no way out of ‘compulsion’, and ‘rock bottom’ is a bleak, cold, lonely place. The idea that we have to reach it, the bottom of the well, before we regain our right to the word ‘choice’ means that we are forced to do real social and physical damage before admitting defeat and winning control. Brain chemistry is the author of these words. They feel so right, so real. That’s why we use them. Withhold satisfaction from an addict and their brain spirals into an unbearable chemical panic. This panic dictates its intentions to our prefrontal cortex, as to a willing, eminently obedient 1950s secretary. Our impatient limbic boss says, “You know what I want to say, Honey. Just put it into your own words and send it off.” Our words. Our choice. Glamours These are the things that make make life worth living. We ‘get off’ on them. Take them away and life dims to survival. We are genetically and culturally predisposed to our glamours: in how we are coded to metabolize nicotine, or the density of our D2 dopamine receptors, or what Disney taught us about love. These glamours, some innocent, even healthy, and some decidedly not, are then triggered by personal experience, be it the red lipstick of our favourite movie star or first hit of cocaine. Humanity needs its glamours. Biologically, desire drives our movement through time. Without it we, quite literally, will cease to breathe. Even the most hard-core guru will agree. Beyond our base appetites, our glamours are our sparkle and armor against the inevitability of suffering and death. But sometimes a glamour will slip past our conscious control to become… Insatiables Birth is not moderate. Death is not moderate. Life, therefore, is not a moderate act. By their very natures some of our glamours can biologically begin to stretch our appetites out of proportion, especially when we use them to cope with an immoderate world. Our dopamine baseline and receptor density can change. With food, the hormone leptin can throw things out of wack. Anything can become a pathological obsession: Diet Coke, cats, clutter, gin, sex, reality TV… anything. An insatiable is something we can’t get enough of and its pleasures begin to overshadow all others. We make choices that always somehow circle back to satisfy our cravings. Romantic love is an insatiable, but while it chemically evolves, some insatiables risk becoming… Be-all-end-alls This is the end-game. When an insatiable becomes a be-all-end-all, we live our life in service to its mastery. Nothing else matters. Take it away and life looses its last hint of luster. It is our all, and by its exclusion of all else, without intervention, will end all. Our brain wants only this, all the time, whatever the cost. It is the only appetite worth satisfying. Chemically, it owns our motivations and our reasoning. But it is not rock bottom. It is an honest moment with our soul, an acknowledgment of circumstances. It is the moment of choice – our destruction or the originating glamour’s destruction? One must end. Changing our language opens up a new neural network of more empowering associations, concepts, and emotions. And by doing so, it also opens up new paths of treatment. Choosing the right variables/symbols is always the first step towards balancing an equation. I promised my Blank Canvas Living Creative counselling client, who was brave enough to strip off her muumuu and reveal her insatiables, that I would show her a different path and guide her through change. Come join us on the journey. This is a Story Thread post – Click to read more…
If these words are yours, own them. Wear them. Go to Walmart and buy the widest, ugliest muumuu you can find. Take it home and drape it over your naked body. Be brave. Look in the mirror and see your true reflection. This is reality. This is what your brain has done to your life. There is no shame here, only pattern and practice. This is habit, addiction, and insatiable desire…
“I’m so sorry,” says the woman trying to squeeze herself through the doorway of my Blank Canvas Living Creative Counselling office. She’s wearing what’s got to be the most horrifically unflattering muumuu ever created.
“Don’t apologize,” I tell her. “The only thing you have to be sorry for is, quite frankly, that awful muumuu. Why on earth would you do that to yourself?”
“I’m lost,” she says, and bursts into tears. She’s in the room now, but she can’t even sit down. There’s some unspeakable bulk, all sharp corners and clinking sounds, writhing under the synthetic pink and orange atrocity.
“You’re here now, and that’s huge. Not as big as that muumuu, mind you, but major non the less.”
She gives a weak smile at my even weaker joke and looks at me expectantly. This is how it always goes. There’s this idea that I’m going to make some diagnosis and write a prescription or trace some emotion back to its pattern of childhood origin. But that’s not the way creative counselling works. I’m not here to waste anybody’s time. My job is to strip the problem down to the story and brain habits that are causing it. And I know this woman’s not going to like what I’ve got to ask her to do.
“Take it off. For the love of gawd,” I beg her, “take off that hellish thing so we can see what we’re dealing with.”
“What?” She says, giving me a worried look. “Seriously? But I’m not wearing anything underneath.”
“Good, all the better. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to be perverted or anything. Just trust me on this.”
Bottles of white wine, cases of diet coke, cigarettes, tabloid magazines, 12 boxes of Peek Frean cookies, television remotes, Facebook screens, automatic negative thoughts, phones waiting for calls from bad men… the baggage is a tonnage of habit and addiction. The woman’s body is creamy and lovely at the center of it all, but her face is red with shame. She won’t even look at me.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispers, “I never realized how bad things are, how much I’ve been carrying around. It’s ugly isn’t it?”
“Not near as ugly as covering it up with that gawd awful muumuu like you’ve given up on yourself. Look, if you’re brave enough to show me your body and brain like this, then you’re brave enough to change it. You don’t need all this shit. I can give you a new language and way of maximizing your humanity without needing to rely on external emotional regulation. I’m not talking about yoga rituals or 12 steps. I’m talking about a way of real-time dialoguing with your brain’s perception of reality. You just leave that muumuu with me and I’ll transform it into a tactile demonstration of what this process is all about. Sound like a plan?”
“This isn’t some new-age-y bullshit, is it?” She asks. I can’t blame her; I’d be suspicious too.
“No bullshit. It’s already saved lives, including mine.” I leave her curious as I go to find her another outfit to wear home.