The salt is out everywhere and right now we are in the midst of a rain that is frozen. I’m content to remain here and do various things that need doing, but the dogs, they are bored. And I am anxious over their boredom. I feel responsible for it. I feel responsible for everybody’s boredom. Even yours. My therapist would probably remind me that nobody actually holds me accountable for their negative feelings, least of which their boredom. Nobody. Probably not even the dogs.
I know she’s right. At least about people. At least about you. But I do tend to think that I am in my dogs’ thoughts constantly. They are in mine, after all, and it only makes sense it would work the other way. They may not “hold me accountable” for their boredom, but they certainly hope I will fix it. On the list of things they hope for every day (a new bone, a fresh tennis ball, a squirrel under the shed, a groundhog sighting) there is certainly this: Bald Man Relieves Us from Boredom.
Look, scratch what I said previously. I’m positive the dogs do, in fact, hold me accountable for all of their feelings, especially their boredom.
But here’s what they don’t realize: I’m actually doing them a service. First of all, I’m saving their paws from the burning rock-salt on the roads. But more than that, they actually need to be bored. We all do. A recent New Tech City episode is all about this, and they are starting a project this week called “Bored and Brilliant” to help people confront their phone addictions. According to some experts, we need boredom. We do not get enough boredom. Boredom makes us more creative. Boredom is essential to our lives. And it’s difficult to know where our current lives of non-boredom are going to leave us. Lives in which we are constantly entertained by our phone. Lives in which the Internet is always there and we have everything to watch at our fingertips.
My dogs tolerate boredom better now than when they were puppies. They mostly accept it. For instance, they are lying down right now, while I write this.
But whenever I get up, whenever I make a move, there is a look of expectation. And if the day turns to night and we haven’t done anything, it gets worse. There’s a desperation in their eyes. In their yawns. Dogs need to walk. It’s just a basic need. They need to walk the same way I need to move and do things with my day. They need to check their spots like I need to check my feeds. They need to piss on their various places the way I need to jot 140-character missives. We do this to feel as though we exist, to feel as though we are putting something on the Great Timeline:
Leave shit here. This spot seems good.
I need to leave my daily mark on my world, however small. I need to leave parts of myself lying around. It’s habitual. It’s addictive.
I listened to this NPR piece about heroin addiction recently. In it, there’s a great line: “We think of ourselves as controlling our behavior, willing our actions into being, but it’s not that simple. It’s as if over time, we leave parts of ourselves all around us, which in turn, come to shape who we are.”
We are none of us are free from habitual behavior. From addictive tendencies. Really it’s just another way of saying: we are none of us free from circular, repetitive thought and actions. And as the article above suggests, these thoughts and actions are often tied to place. Change the place, and you might get new thoughts and actions.
Ah, new thoughts. New actions. So attractive to think about. So, so new. But eventually they will boil down to the same thing, won’t they? An addictive pattern.
The specific fuel might change: Alcohol. Exercise. Nicotine. Food. (Sugar. Carbs.) Internets. Opiates. Sex. Parenthood. Art. Religion. Atheism (which can be the same thing as “Religion”). Dog Ownership. Any of these things can be an addiction. Any of these things can trigger a dopamine high. Any of these things can mess with our serotonin.
The things that get us high.
The things that make us feel alive and help us forget we are dying.
The things that kill us.
The things that make the day happen.
The things that bring the day to an end.
These are all just things we do. They are all just human behaviors. And be wary of anybody who judges somebody else for one of them. Because the people judging are the ones who probably have a really big ugly one locked away somewhere.
All judgment is self-hatred. All judgment is self-shame. Believing in a judgmental and non-forgiving God is believing in a self-hating tyrant. Fuck all the self-hating tyrants.
On the evening of January 3rd, I slept on my bathroom floor. Sometime during the night, Rothko found me there and started barking at me. I’d like to think it was out of concern. But I think he just wasn’t sure whether or not it was me. My wife heard the barking and realized I was still sleeping on the floor and brought me to bed. At this point, it seems my pants came off, but this is strictly conjecture. I don’t remember any of this.
It only took three days into the new year for this to happen: The invincibility of evening, the trembling regret of morning. If you ask me about it, I’ll tell you it might have been a bad shrimp. Shellfish can make for a good scapegoat in the event of a bathroom-floor situation. They help you avoid talking about the four tumblers of whiskey and two glasses of wine and two more tumblers of whiskey in the span of a few hours.
I’d like to say we were “partying,” but even though it was Saturday night, it was just a quiet night inside. My in-laws were visiting. We hung some paintings on a wall. We ate shellfish at the dining room table. I did the dishes. Pretty much as domestic and non-partying as you get.
When I finished the dishes, I sat down in a chair and that chair sat still while the rest of the room kept moving. And then I knew how things would end.
In 2014, I drank nearly every day. The only days I did not drink were days I had an excruciating hangover or I was on opiates. I was given a ridiculous number of opiates for a neck injury I experienced last winter after breaking up ice in my driveway. I like opiates. I like the way they make my skin itch. I like the deep calm and focus I feel. I like the way my breathing slows and deepens. I firmly believe, however, that you shouldn’t mix opiates with alcohol (too much) because of the very real side-effect that you might stop breathing in your sleep.
Let me be clear: no doctor has ever indicated I might be an alcoholic. Partly this is because when they ask me how much I drink, I say, “Two to three servings a day, sometimes more.” I do not indicate what “sometimes” means. I do not indicate the size of the servings or their alcohol percentage. Nor do they ask. They write something in my chart and then they say, “Try to keep it to two.” And I say, “Right.”
Another piece of advice I got from a doctor: “Beer is terrible for you. Substitute wine.” Beer has been a tremendous inspiration to me. It was a sad prescription to receive.
I assume all doctors know we are all lying . Or that we are selectively telling the truth. So they look for other signs and indicators. With me, they see a mostly healthy-looking adult male who is fit and exercises regularly and who seems to have his wits about him.
One of my favorite things about drinking too much is the challenge of pretending I have my wits about me.
I have a complicated set of feelings about drinking, or any drug use, really. Some of my feelings are ones that recovering addicts might find wrong-minded or offensive or both. People have strong opinions about this stuff. I know that. I’m sensitive to it. I recognize that, if I am an addict, I am a pretty high-functioning one. Some people might call me “lucky” for that. For what, exactly? I guess for not having it “bad enough.” Bad enough that it would destroy my relationships. Bad enough that it would kill me.
To that I would say: Isn’t it? Isn’t it killing me? Isn’t there something killing all of us?
But I get the sentiment. I get that there are varying degrees of addictive or self-destructive behavior and some people have absolutely no control over it and end up completely losing themselves to it more quickly than others. I have known some of those people and I have been close to some of those people. I have known people who have quite literally, and with absolutely no mistaking it, died because of drinking. These are the examples people sometimes point to and say it’s “tragic.” I assume that they attribute the word “tragic” because of the popular characterization of addiction as a disease. The belief that, on some level, these people are victims to it. That the addiction is outside of themselves.
This characterization definitely seems to work in that it helps a lot of people find hope. It helps a lot of people change their behavior. It helps people recognize that they are “not in control.” And therefore if they want to stop, they have to treat it like a battle that they commit to every day. To put the thing outside of a “self,”to say to a person that she is not the thing controlling her. It’s beneficial to frame things like this. It works.
I just don’t think it’s true. I think we are our behaviors. When you start selecting behaviors and saying, these behaviors are me and these other behaviors are not me… I just find that problematic. On what basis are we making those kinds of decisions? On the science that we currently know? What happens when all behaviors will have an area in the brain we can point to? I agree more with the neuroscientist David Eagleman who would argue, “We are our biology.” Which seems obvious, right? But he takes this much further than many people would. He appeared on a RadioLab episode about “blame” which had a segment about the field of Neurolaw, where defendants use brain science to argue that they aren’t at fault.
One of the things discussed in the piece is that the primary obstacle in our understanding of the brain has been our technology in imaging it. But now, as our brain scans have become more sophisticated, we have started to uncover more information. It’s as if before we were looking at a photo of the earth from space. But now we’re starting to get closer. We’re inside the atmosphere now, and some day we may have Google Street View on the situation. And as the technology continues to get better, we will be able to pinpoint exact areas of the brain where certain “abnormal behaviors” reside. It is not out of the question, therefore, that one day we’ll be able to see the exact location in the brain that makes a person commit a crime. And so then the question will become (maybe already has become): Is a person at fault for a crime (or a behavior) or is he a victim of his brain chemistry?
It wasn’t me who robbed this liquor store, my brain made me do it.
It wasn’t me who injected all of this heroin, my brain made me do it.
It wasn’t me who raped this child, my brain made me do it.
Eagleman argues that “Blameworthiness is the wrong question for a legal system to ask.” He says, “The point is it cannot be a just legal system that in one decade says you’re blameworthy and then in the next decade says oh, you have…‘Schmedley’s Disease.’” He goes on to assert, “The reason none of this makes sense nowadays is because saying ‘was it the person’s fault or was it something about his biology’ doesn’t make sense as a question. They are inseparable.”
How about this:
We own our behavior. It is part and parcel of us. Maybe it’s our circumstances in life that brought us here. Maybe it’s our brain chemistry. Maybe it’s religion or god or the devil. Maybe it’s some other thing we haven’t yet identified.
Yes, yes, and yes. It is all of those things.
But in addition to those things, it’s also us.
It’s also you.
It’s also me.
Last year, two high-profile people either “died at their own hand” or “fell victim to their disease,” depending on your perspective. Robin Williams hung himself and Phillip Seymour Hoffman overdosed. These two deaths affected me. They affected many people on a personal level. There was an outpouring of sentiment all over social media. One sentiment was: “We need to put an end to suicide!” Another was: “Fuck addiction!” Another was: “Depression sucks!” (Social media doesn’t provide much room for embellishment or nuance.) The suggestion, to me, was this: on some level, these people were not responsible for what they did. It was a condition that did it. Their condition was responsible. And if we could’ve just fixed their condition, well shit, we could’ve saved them, you see? One assumption, one great big assumption in this line of thinking, is that, in the end, they wanted to be saved.
Saying you want to eradicate suicide is basically just saying you want to eradicate death. But death is the illness and we all fucking have it. Absolutely nothing will prevent it. People have to die. Alcohol, drugs, suicide: These are just ways to do it. One of the things you get to choose in life is whether or not it’s going to be your way. That’s empowerment, not sickness.
These deaths were sad in the same way that most deaths are sad. But I don’t think they were “tragic.” These people, who many of us loved in our own way, weren’t “victims” in the same way that the people who died on 9/11 in the Twin Towers were “victims.” These people were who they were because of the things they did. And they did the things they did because of who they were. These things they did may have killed them. But try this: they may very well have died sooner if it were not for these same things they did.
Christopher Hitchens, who died at least partially, if not entirely, because of his drinking wrote in a 2003 Vanity Fair essay: “What the soothing people at Alcoholics Anonymous don’t or won’t understand is that suicide or self-destruction would probably have come much earlier to some people if they could not have had a drink.”
In an interview after he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, a disease that was likely caused by his smoking and drinking, Hitchens was asked if he would do it again. Would he live the same way? He said he would.
He might have been telling the truth. Or he might have been talking out of his 62-year-old asshole.
Since January 4th of this year, the day after sleeping on my bathroom floor, I have not had a drink. I’m going to continue to do this until February 4th. One day, I may decide that I need to do it forever. But for now, it’ll just be a month. I want to be that person for a while. I want to remember what that feels like.
People ask, why do you have to be a teetotaler? Why not just drink on the weekend? Why not only have “a drink.” I ask myself these questions, too. And I don’t know the answers. I don’t know why. All I know it’s much easier for me to cut it off completely, than it is to control the frequency or rate.
And so far? It feels pretty good. I’m a little chagrined by the fact that I like Sober Me. This bastard does more things. It’s not that he’s more driven, it’s just that he’s got the capacity to drive a little further. He is a little more clear-headed. His mind is a little more sharp. He stays awake longer. He tends to think less about failure. He tends to be more positive. When he wakes up in the morning, he starts solving problems. His brain starts where it left off instead of from scratch.
But I’m still not sure Sober Me is actually…me. Sure, he’s a pretty decent guy. I’d be friends with him. He might end up even being one of my best friends. I could envision asking Sober Me to be the godfather of my dogs (or children). On snowy days, he’d probably come over and clear my driveway and not ask for anything in return. Sober Me is a stand-up bloke.
But I think, at the same time, I might always be a little suspicious of Sober Me. What keeps that guy ticking? I would ask myself. Some kind of dark magic? What’s that bastard hiding?
The truth is, I’m pretty sure he would always kind of piss me off. The smug little prick.
I sure as hell wouldn’t fuck him.
Since January 4th, I’ve been living a life of substitution.
For instance, seltzer water is my new jam. I’ve become a connoisseur of the club soda. The differences between various seltzers are subtle. Some have sodium, some don’t. And the ones that have sodium have different levels of it. There are also varying degrees of carbonation.
My favorite brand has turned out to be Boylan.
Club soda has helped provide that burn in the throat and on the tongue that I like to feel. It’s given me that satisfying sound of the bottle cap opening. With club soda, I can do the things I’m used to doing and feel some of the things I’m used to feeling while cooking a dinner.
I can make a satisfying belch.
Also, club soda keeps me clear-headed afterwards. Which makes it possible to work on writings at night.
I’ve been doing the swallowing of vitamins. I’ve been doing the climbing of more stairs at the gym. I’ve been putting more weight on the bars and on the machines. I wear a heart-rate monitor at the gym, and my rate is consistently lower than it was before I started all this. I have more energy.
Despite the rocky start, 2015 has been full of the clean and the good.
Look, I’m not fooling myself: self-improvement and self-harm are opposite sides of the same psychological coin.
Reasons not to stop completely:
1) Let’s say, for the sake of argument, I stop altogether. I stop primarily because I think it’ll help me live longer. Then let’s say I die in ten years. I die of something unrelated to it. Then I would have spent ten years of my short life not doing it, not doing one of the things in life I enjoy. And what good would that have been?
2) Control is illusory. We are not in control. Exerting control over uncontrollable things is stressful. Stress kills you.
3) I’m less concerned with living longer than I am of not being myself while I’m living.
The Refrain (there is always a refrain)
My therapist is right: I’m not accountable for your boredom. And even though I’m not fully convinced of it, I’m probably not accountable for my dogs’ boredom, either.
This piece, these 3,000 odd words I just wrote, will not eliminate your boredom. In fact, it might exacerbate it.
I can’t control any of that.
But I can control my own boredom. I have had many different ways and means to fight boredom in the past. But right now, I’m fucking bored with those. I’m bored with the bathroom floor. I’m bored with the itchy skin. I’m bored with the panicky fear of not having an escape hatch to get out of my brain. I’m fully responsible for the ways I choose to deal with these boredoms. And right now the way I choose is to be sober and to write this thing.
Boredom is a great catalyst.
Everything is great and everything is unbearable. Maybe one of the reasons everything is great is because everything is unbearable. Maybe one of the reasons everything is unbearable is because everything is great.
Right now, the roads are no longer salty. The temperature is no longer in the teens. It is a balmy 36 and I think I will take the dogs for a walk. And it might be the greatest thing the three of us do today. It will temporarily relieve us all from our boredom, or it will make us more bored. But it’s the thing we like to do. It’s the thing we need to do to keep our wits about us. And so we’ll keep doing it. Until we get bored of it. Or until one day we can’t.