Imagine someone taking away your phone for the entire duration of the lockdown. Your collections of books, your Netflix subscription, or your favourite snack.
Now also imagine that whoever this Big Boss-eseque someone is, has also taken away all your work too (we know many migrant workers as well as others from the low-income groups have lost their jobs, so it’s not that difficult to imagine). Now stay with that imagination for a few minutes. What you are left with is the bare bones of your identity. How does that feel?
For a minute all of us might heave a sigh or relief that we are free from work, but then withdrawal symptoms start kicking in and we need something to do. We feel the need to kill time before it starts overpowering us.
If being absolutely alone with yourself for a long time without any distraction feels comfortable to you, then that means you love yourself right to your core. However, most of us are uncomfortable with the idea. It is no wonder then, that we saw people queuing up in huge numbers at liquor stores around the country last week. While it is easy to condemn them as addicts, it is harder to turn the gaze inwards, and recognise the addiction in many of our normalised day to day behaviours.
There are visible and invisible addictions; and some invisible addictions are culturally sanctioned.
In my understanding, any activity or thing that we use, not to enjoy, but to escape our present moment is a drug. And a drug is any crutch we use to push our emotions under the rug (d-rug).
Yes, workaholics! Work can be a drug too! So many men and women seek their identity through work, because that is what we have been trained for in India, and that’s what our education systems are geared at. We are taught to study in order to find a secure job at all costs, to show that we are a ‘somebody’ in a competitive world.
If you find that you are addicted to work, then you might need to detach your identity from your work and understand that deep down, you don’t have to prove your worth to anyone.
Different people might attach their identity to different things depending on their childhood. Some of us tie our identity to how beautiful or fit we look, some to what amazing parents we are, and some to how much we contribute towards society. The list goes on.
If an activity is compulsive for you, if you cannot stop even when you want to, if it has a negative impact on other aspects of your life, and if you turn to this activity when you are faced with a difficult situation or emotion, then it is highly likely that this activity is an addiction. Even if it is one that has the approval of people around you, like tidying up, or being an overachiever.
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Addiction is any activity that we use to escape the present moment
Here is what I learnt from observing myself and others. The key to addictive behaviours often lies in our childhood. If a person’s childhood threatened them in any way, or was difficult to deal with, they begin to find an escape route from the present.
The most threatened ones will turn towards intoxicants. They are often men because in our culture, they have the social sanction to access these escape routes and less social sanction to express their emotions directly. The less threatened ones will turn to digital outlets, gadgets, books, work, travel, binge watching series, shopping, excessive working out, excessive cleaning, etc. Some people might suffer from a trauma late in life and may turn to addiction.
Of course these lines are not black and white, they merge and overlap. I was addicted to reading when I was younger and it was my go to drug to escape from the present. In order to please my mother, I thought I had to be perfect. And I thought books had all the answers and they taught you to be perfect. I got on the hamster wheel of self-improvement. And remained on it for twenty long years. Now I read only for fun. I realised it is alright if I am good enough, I don’t have to be a perfect person.
Perfection is the mother of addiction, and some bonds lead to bondage
Many of us can’t accept our shadow side, there is an extreme desire to be perfect. Why does that need for perfection come about? Probably because either our parents and teachers expected extreme perfection or were themselves caught in the trap of idealism. And so, every time we feel we have been less than perfect, we take to a substance or activity to ignore those feelings of failure and to feel relief.
Therefore, acceptance of our flaws and our emotions, including the unhappy and uncomfortable ones, is one of the most basic ways to deal with the very roots of addiction.
In a TED Talk I heard recently, Johann Harris says that human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other. However, when we can’t do that, because we are traumatised or isolated or beaten down by life, we will bond with something that will give a sense of relief.
It made sense to me. Especially now during the lockdown, when we don’t have the same ability to bond and connect with other people, we connect with our devices, or with mindless entertainment. This is also why our bond to our devices has replaced our bond with other human beings, because we can only connect healthily to other human beings to the extent that we are connected with our own selves.
Self Expression is the gateway to freedom
Notice the word ‘diction’ in addiction?
Notice the word talu (the soft palate in your mouth) in talab, the Urdu word for addiction?
Something about addiction has to do with speech. Because what do we often swallow, apart from food? Our words! And what then lets the tongue loose, so we can finally express? Why, alcohol, the most commonly used and abused substance on this planet!
The swallowing of words is also the swallowing of our emotions. Expression of our emotions has the potential to free us from the sway of addiction.
However, in order to speak our truth, we must be aware of our truth. How do we know what our truth is? At the very basic level your truth is your likes and dislikes. When even these remain unspoken for long and keep piling up, they put a pressure on our nervous system. More often than not, the emotion we swallow the most is our anger.
Unfortunately, demonstrations of healthy expression of anger are hard to come by, and we have very few role models for them. Physical activity is one of the better known ways to release anger, but there are others, like writing, drama and theatre, as well as fighting for a cause. When used unconsciously, they may also become addictions, but used consciously, they can help release anger from our systems.
In case you know someone around you who is experiencing a visible or invisible addiction, just being there for them and being their emotional anchor will go a long way.
One needs to understand this about addiction – the problem is not in the activity per se, but whether one is using that activity to enjoy time or to escape time, to enhance their identity or to annihilate their identity.
Here are my top 5 ways that help me enjoy my time:
- Sit and figure out activities that make you jump with joy. Do them. Don’t do things that don’t make you happy.
- Finish the basic chores so that you can enjoy your time freely later in the day.
- In professional interactions speak logically, but in most personal interactions don’t be afraid to look silly and speak without over thinking. Don’t be rude, but don’t be super cautious either.
- Dance on silly dance numbers. Be as lost as you are profound.
- Find your own joys and casually help other people find theirs.
A little bit of SRK to beat the blues
I would like to end with a quote by Shah Rukh Khan that he had said in his TED Talk: “Consider yourself utterly important in your individual life or while creating art, but when it comes to your place in society and the world at large consider yourself extremely unimportant.”
If you keep having fun most of your living moments, you will soon reach that delicate point or balance where you can consider yourself extremely important and extremely unimportant in the same breath. The delicate balance between self-love and love for others. A quote goes thus: In the face of adversity some people borrow crutches, others grow wings. Be kind to yourself for it takes time to grow wings.
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