Monday, November 28, 2011

Addiction and Learning...

Our brains are wired to learn stuff - to speak a foreign language, play music, or do arithmetic. We can learn what makes us feel good about ourselves and how to prioritize. A big part of addiction is the learning of it. Drugs and alcohol teach the brain certain pathways to pain relief, euphoria, numbness, lessening feelings of grief, loss and guilt, anxiety control, mood stabilization and relief from depression and other psychiatric disorders. At first drugs work, until they don't work anymore, and it can be years and lots of damage before an alcoholic realizes that he/she needs a divorce from Mr./Ms. Smirnoff. (footnote 1)

So how do you get a divorce from the only thing you have ever really known, this thing your brain has learned to crave as strongly as it craves food, sex, air and sleep?  Craving is a mystery - the diet business thrives on low rates of weight loss success - not for lack of desire to lose weight. Wanting to get clean and staying clean are two different things but if an addict does not pick up his/her drink or drug he/she will not get high. So until the neurological brain chemistry mystery of craving is solved the practical question is not what stops craving but what stops relapse. (footnote 2)
There are a lot of approaches to relapse prevention - psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, hospital or clinic rehabs, outpatient treatment, etc. but the approach that has the most consistent and highest success rate is "working the program" of Alcoholics Anonymous and/or Narcotics Anonymous, i.e., go to AA/NA meetings, get a home group, get phone numbers, use them, make a coffee commitment, get a sponsor, work the steps, lose the old friends, develop a sober network, avoid "people, places and things". Early recovery is a full time job. (AA does not work for everyone - I am just reporting what experience has shown to have the highest success rate - by a wide margin).
If you want to be a lawyer you need to learn what lawyers do. If you want to be a teacher you have to learn what teachers do. If you want to learn sobriety you need to learn what the sober do (and I do not mean just the sober in recovery, I mean what regular non-addicted civilians do - what the poet Marie Howe calls, "What the living do"). 

The 12 steps of AA are what the living do. Some people think the 12 steps can be divided into 3 categories; 1) accept that substances are making a mess of your life, 2) fix your mess, 3) going forward, do the right thing. Some think that is pretty much what non-addicted civilians do - if they make a mess they clean it up and they move on. It can be tough sledding. Life on life's terms is rarely euphoric and often boring, sad, hard and way too frequently brushed by tragedy.  But the living somehow know, deep down, (footnote 3) that while pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice.

Sobriety does not guaranty the absence of pain and suffering but it does provide a chance.


FN 1: That you come to want what sobriety gives you more than you want what Mr./Ms. Smirnoff gives you.

FN 2: You probably have to learn how to stop using before you can learn why you used in the first place. Rarely is the order reversed.

FN 3:  You need a deep reason to stay sober because white knuckling it only works for so long.  By "deep" I mean a reason of the heart (whatever that means).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Debates, The DMV, Genius and day to day...

Watching the Republican debates and seeing the likes of Perry, Cain, Bachmann et al. I have the same feeling I get when I go to the DMV or to Costco, or to the post office or to a third world country - a feeling that there is a flaw in the design, though given the setting, the dysfunction seems organic and culturally interesting - the result of certain parameters that dictate behavior and expectations that require you to suspend disbelief and accept the lunacy. As my friend, Alexis, commented the other day (I am paraphrasing, she said it better, less caustic)- it's as if Palin opened the barn door of stupid and now stupid is seen as a positive. They should rename them the Banana Republic Debates.

We have learned that Steve Jobs put off cancer treatment while first pursuing fruitarian therapy. Very bad unscientific decision coming from a genius. Alexis and I wondered if this means that his Apple genius might have been less genius and more about finding the right market for his obsession. There are lots of examples of really successful people believing in really wrong things. It takes a certain delusional obsession to take the big bets that can lead to becoming a zillionaire. And like the Palin effect - once crazy works, crazy no longer seems crazy (often the dazzling hedge fund managers of one or two years crash spectacularly the next). Once you are wildly successful in business, cinema, religion, politics (anything?) it seems that going forward it can be challenging to be rigorously honest about your own character defects and personal moral inventory. Let's just say that no matter how many true believers a guru might have I would find it hard to use the words "enlightened being" and "chain smoker" in the same sentence.

Anoher example that presses my skeptical button is the guy who founded PayPal, Peter Thiel, a billionaire with some odd notions - universally lauded as a genius. PayPal was a brilliant secure on-line payment program that filled a need in internet commerce - (Thiel made $50 million when he sold PayPal to eBay - he then invested, on a lark, $500,000 in his friend, Mark Zuckerberg's, Facebook start up - that stake is now worth an estimated $1.7 billion) but does that combo of luck/genius/timing outweigh being a born again libertarian whose latest project (along with Patri Friedman, grandson of Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman) is called SeaSteading - investing in sea worthy free standing oceanic platforms as autonomous experimental communes in international waters?

Day to day life in the trenches doesn't stand a chance.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rubber bands, Slinkys and Occupy Wall Street...

I am ready to admit that humans are powerless over the world's economic systems and that the world has become unmanageable.

Check this out: (hat tip to

" throughout all of human history up until 2003 we created 5 exabytes of data (five billion gigabytes). We now create that much every day. In 2011, we’ll create 1.8 zettabytes of data (a zettabyte is a 1000 exabytes) and we’ll be creating over 20 times that by 2020."

The world has too many moving parts for anyone to understand or manage. So complex that not only can't we figure out the answers to the problems that face us (economic, social, scientific) - there are no answers.

Imagine that the world is made up of rubber bands and slinkys. If you stretch a rubber band and then release it it snaps back to its original length. A slinky once put in motion down a set of stairs will continue down the stairs (In other words some things go back to the way they were and other things once set in motion continue to keep going). Now imagine a bazillion rubber bands and slinkys comprising a giant Rube Goldberg contraption and all the comings and goings and interactions and interrelationships of all these zettabytes. And there behind the curtain stands whoever... Obama, Romney, Berlusconi, Papandreou, Hu Jintao - people - talented people but human (i.e. flawed and imperfect (some more flawed and more imperfect than others). I am not sure any human can even tell which are the rubber bands and which are the slinkys any more.

I think that is what Occupy Wall Street is about. I think it is not just about economic reform (although that is a part of it). It is not just about a political point of view (although that is a part of it). I think it is about a belief that the world has too many moving parts. It is about the kind of community and society people want. It may even be about our existence.

As one Occupier was reported to have said:

"It is not OK for the richest 1%, to make us bend to the will of the financial institutions and the labyrinth of dividends, offshore tax havens, and money making schemes. Stop referring to fair taxation as socialism. Stop telling dishwashers and migrant farmers that you earned your money, that you work hard for what you have, because lots of people work hard and don't have. There are a lot of hard working people who are not rich. Don't look down from your fairy tale and tell us that people get what they deserve. Stop quoting Reagan. Stop telling us that riches beyond imagination breeds innovation. Stop pissing on our leg and calling it rain.

Occupy Wall Street is not a set of demands, it is a statement: We exist."

PS. I read this piece to my wise and now 87 year old Uncle Yoda (who lives in Santa Barbara, CA because he says it is the only place on earth where calling heaven is a local call) and he said that it was "Typical Rough Fractals, lovely, well intentioned, idealistic and full of shit". He did add however that he does think that "the problem with the world is that it is run by humans and that does not bode well for the future of mankind".

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What The Living Do - Poem by Marie Howe

What the Living Do

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.

And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.

It's winter again: the sky's a deep headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living room windows because the heat's on too high in here, and I can't turn it off.

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those

wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.

Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want

whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss -- we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,

say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:

I am living, I remember you.

~ Marie Howe ~


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