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The Cycle of Addiction
Decoding bad patterns
I often assert that each of us is nothing more than a conglomeration of patterns. People typically distinguish between what they view as their sense of self and their habits. But I feel that line of demarcation doesn’t exist. A habit is just a pattern of behavior. This means absolutely everything we do is one, including how we breathe, think, or chew our food. And as I discussed in The Five W’s of You, there is no seat of consciousness having your experience. You are the experience. Or, put more simply, you are what you do. So fundamentally, you are your habits.
The challenge before us all is to make as many of them as healthy and helpful as possible. Therefore by default, we will be too. This requires consistently examining oneself and finding those patterns at the opposite end of the spectrum. We must tenaciously identify behaviors harming us, figure out why we do them, and try to change.
The most destructive of these, and the ones we should focus on the most, are what we usually label as “addictions.” That word can have a positive or slightly sarcastic connotation when we use it regarding a compulsion to do something like exercise. But most often, the habit in question is ultimately deleterious. Regardless, we still do it because it makes us feel good temporarily. The fleeting nature of that sensation then drives us to engage in it repeatedly. If done enough, we become dependent upon it.
That dependency can be physiological, as is the case with certain drugs. If we give our body enough of a substance daily, we become reliant upon it and struggle to function without it. If it’s suddenly removed, we can experience extraordinarily disorienting, debilitating, and painful withdrawal symptoms.
However, some addictions appear more mental than physical on the surface. Consider gambling or pornography. We aren’t introducing anything into our bodies in either case. That said, we are still feeding off endogenous chemicals in our brains like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and epinephrine that accompany the high of winning or having an orgasm. So as always, we can’t treat our minds and bodies as separate and distinct entities. Any addiction is a mind-body problem.
As someone consistently trying to improve my holistic fitness, I’ve recently been reflecting on my unhealthy habits. I’ve succumbed to many over the years. But when I lay them all out, there is one clear winner (or loser)—alcohol. And the saga of my relationship with this very legal and ubiquitous compound goes back to my childhood.
The day after Christmas in 1988, my father admitted to my mom, brother, sister, and me that he was an alcoholic. The next day he would be checking himself into rehab. Of course, my mother was already aware of this. Conversely, my siblings and I were not. As a thirteen-year-old, I was somewhat naive. I remember my dad drinking every night while watching TV, but I didn’t understand the depth of his problem. From my perspective as a kid, he occasionally just seemed out of it. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered he had been drunk every waking moment for years and even kept a bottle of vodka in the center console of his car.
Over the next week, we visited my father in the hospital a few times while he was detoxing, and the reality and severity of alcoholism became apparent. I distinctly remember watching what chemical dependency withdrawal does to someone. He was shaking uncontrollably and barely able to speak. My dad was the most intelligent person I had ever met, but for those few days, he became utterly incoherent. Somewhere in the course of that experience, I made a promise to myself that I would never touch booze.
My father remained sober for the rest of his life. He died of a sudden heart attack in 2006, having not touched alcohol for nearly eighteen years. As for me, the resolution I made as a young adolescent didn’t last long. I held out through high school, drinking soda at parties while my classmates shotgunned beers and performed keg stands. Of course, they were happy to have me as a designated driver.
College was a different story, however. The rigors of the Naval Academy proved enough for me to toss a few back occasionally or even get black-out drunk at times. Still, it was a pretty infrequent occurrence and nothing I depended on. That trend then ramped up during my year in graduate school at the University of Cambridge in England, where pubs abound. As a twenty-two-year-old with near boundless energy and recovery ability, I could be up late pounding pints at the bar and rise the following day at 6 AM to hit the pool or gym.
Through the thirteen years that followed in the military, my drinking slowly increased, at least in aggregate. Alcohol is prohibited in combat zones for the U.S. Armed Forces. So there were months when I wouldn’t consume any. But at home, the habit transitioned from something done at social gatherings, to something done on weekends, to an every night affair. Red wine became my poison of choice—first a glass, then two, then more. My last active duty tour was in Germany, where beer is one of the four food groups. It’s socially acceptable to drink a giant hefeweizen at breakfast, which suited me just fine. For my last few years on active duty, I had at least two huge steins every night before moving to wine.
Once out of the Navy, things didn’t slow down. In 2011, we moved to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where drinking is also part of the culture. The place is one big party 24/7. Even while owning and running a CrossFit gym focused on fitness, getting at least mildly drunk was a nightly occurrence for me. A few years later, I became the president of a start-up healthy beverage company called Kill Cliff, headquartered in Atlanta, so we moved to Georgia. The party culture was gone, but it didn’t matter. By late 2015, I was drinking one to two bottles of red wine every night. I would wake up the next day with a headache, drag my ass to the gym, burn it off, then go to work. I would also swear tonight would be different, only to swing by the liquor store on the way home and repeat the cycle.
Towards the end of that year, I finally had an honest and lucid moment like my father’s twenty-three years earlier. I think my kids were too young to know what was going on. But at least between my wife and me, I admitted that alcohol was a problem and had been for a long time. I didn’t consider myself technically an alcoholic. The chemical hadn’t yet permeated every moment of my existence. And for the short stretches I had gone without, I never experienced any withdrawal symptoms. But making such a distinction was largely irrelevant. It was a toxic habit—an addiction.
I decided I had to do something bold. My New Year’s resolution for 2016 was to consume zero alcohol for the entire year, which I made good on. Admittedly, the first two weeks were tough. I didn’t experience any physical detoxing or complications, but the pull was still there mentally. Soon after that, though, it disappeared, and the pattern of not drinking became my new normal. And I certainly felt a hell of a lot better. By December, I had lost fifteen pounds slowly over the year without changing another thing about my diet.
That sounds like a happy ending, right? Well, I’d love to say I've been completely sober since, but that hasn’t been the case. I’ve never returned to the consumption levels I had seven years ago, but I sometimes slip back into a version of that pattern. I’ll go months without drinking anything and then have two glasses of wine every night for weeks straight. Recently that seems to be my tendency.
So what’s the point of telling you all that? I have two specific reasons:
I’ve always maintained that the pursuit of mind fitness is a process. There is no finish line, and you never technically win. Which means I’m also still on this journey. I’m a lot better than I used to be. But just like anybody else, I must continue to do the work, including being open and honest about where I struggle. When I look at myself, this is my worst pattern. Admittedly I have other addictions. (I fucking love coffee.) But of those, alcohol is by far the most harmful. And I have an exceedingly difficult time being someone who has an occasional drink. I never get to a point where I’m boozing all day or letting it affect my work, but I also never stop at one.
As much as mind fitness is about developing good habits like meditation and breathwork, it’s also about decoding bad ones. My first book recommendation of 2023 was Atomic Habits by James Clear. It discusses numerous ways to break the cycle of behaviors that don’t serve us. I recommend diving into those practices.
I should state that I believe alcohol can be part of a healthy lifestyle. There’s no arguing that it’s a toxin (read as “poison”) from a strictly physiological perspective. If you doubt that statement, check out Andrew Huberman’s podcast on the topic. However, plenty of people seem to moderate their use of it adequately. In fact, for all the talk of Blue Zones and their magical life-extending diets, those people drink plenty based on my experience witnessing them firsthand. In my estimation, how they do it makes the difference—occasionally, outside, with their community, and not to excess.
As I said, we must examine our behaviors, find those that harm us, understand why we do them, and take action. Although sometimes the understanding comes last. As it pertains to alcohol, I suppose that’s where I am. But it’s here where mental health training gives me an advantage. So when you look at yourself and your patterns, I hope it does for you too.
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DISCLAIMER: RARE SENSE content is not medical advice. Nor does it represent the official position or opinions of any other organization or person. If you require diagnosis or treatment for a mental or physical issue or illness, please seek it from a licensed professional.