Lessons from Alcoholics

There’s a new double-memoir written by mother and son alcoholics Martha Grimes (a well-known mystery novel writer) and her adult son Rob, which I heard about on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Simon Scott. I have had a few friends who had fallen into this kind of bottomless despair, and one of the challenging aspects is trying to have an empathetic conversation about the choices we’ve respectively made in our lives, and why. It has been impossible for me to figure out the common ground to base a discussion, and this has bothered me for a long time.

The interview, which is excerpted here on npr.org, gave me a glimpse into the mind of the alcoholic from two engaging conversationalists. Rob, the son, described how there’s a sense of entitlement within him, he says, that wants what it wants and that is part of him. His mother adds that there is no reasoning with it, because it is not based in reason.

I found this interesting not only because of the insights it gave me for talking to alcoholics, but also for the shared universal problem of self-defeating behaviors. I spend a lot of time trying to reason my way through my productivity blocks and frustrations with progress. While I wish I could say that I beat back the resistance every time, in truth it doesn’t. Every time I choose to watch TV instead of writing a blog post, or play a video game instead of learning how to make IOS applications, or decide that I would rather eat some snacks than cook something…this is a battle that is lost. I’ve spent years looking for patterns and reasons for it, and have evolved a nifty set of principles that generally keep me moving in the right direction. I don’t mean to trivialize alcoholism by comparing it to procrastination, but perhaps it really is just something unreasonable that is inside me that feels it is, as Rob Grimes describes, entitled to have what it wants no matter what the cost. By extension, choosing to act is a matter of effort and discipline despite that feeling always being there.

Secondly, Martha Grimes talks about what she liked about drinking, how it gave her a “connection” of sorts. When she stopped drinking, she had to face “the void” that the drinking covered-up. There’s the expectation alcoholics have, Rob further notes, that once one is sober everything will be better. That’s not true…the hard part is then dealing with the void like everyone else. Again, I’m not trying to trivialize this, but the notion of “the void”, which I think of as that emptiness one feels because something seems missing or has not been found, is something that everyone can identify with at some level. If I look into myself, I can see that I have a desire for connectedness and achievement because something is missing. This gives rise to some of the frustrations I’ve described over the past few blog posts. I wonder if the feeling is also “beyond reason”; perhaps it’s some neurological function that craves the stimulation of newness and the company of friends when I’m working solo in my basement for days on end. It may be more expedient to just accept the void as a common human feature, and re-route my thinking around it. I don’t think I can force the universe to fix it just by wishing it, but I can make myself more comfortable by being accepting of my desire to fill that void in as prudent a manner as seems appropriate.

I think one reason that procrastination feels bad is because of our awareness of this void. The void might be the gap between one’s desire to have a certain status due to perceived potential, or it might be impatience that arises from the sense of entitlement due to one’s self-assessment of cleverness. There’s lots of reasons to feel a void because of such-and-such pre-existing conditions preventing us from experiencing elevated happiness. When procrastination has the power, it’s because we haven’t imposed whatever willpower or discipline we have available. The battle is between our rational self that knows better and the willful irrationality that makes us behave in the opposite way. It’s not a fair fight when one side doesn’t play by the same rules, and then twists them to manipulate our reason to do its bidding. There’s one way to deal with it: don’t engage. Don’t make exceptions. Don’t be an enabler of the destructive behavior, and don’t get pulled into a story where you are made to think you are the guilty party.

I wonder if these musings will really stick. Is it possible to learn how to become “procrastination free” for 20 years? It may not fill the void, but at least we would be getting things done.