Do you have a vice? Many small ones? One massive one? What do you do habitually to release pressure when your system floods with emotion? Grab a bagel? Smoke a cigarette? Call a friend to “vent/gossip”? How long does relief last? Does self-loathing follow?
I define a vice as anything I use to detach from my experience of the present. Vices come in many shapes and sizes, some are innocuous; socially acceptable behaviors and others wreak havoc. They don’t have to take on extreme forms like alcoholism or an eating disorder to negatively impact your life. Most of us learn how to manage our vices by accessing quick relief without causing long term damage. Drinking, overeating, smoking, sex, TV watching, shopping, social media, gossiping- the list is long.
Emotions that trigger our vices are not necessarily negative. It all depends on the neural pathways carved out in childhood. Neural pathways regulate our feelings, reactions, and thoughts. Think of them as hiking trails carved into the gray matter that sits in your skull. Neural pathways explain why it’s easier for me to remember to brush my teeth in the morning than for my 8-year-old son.
Our history causes irrational relationships with present circumstances. When presented with a choice, our brain automatically chooses the path of least resistance. We are all wired up by the time we are twenty, our free will is an illusion.
It took me a long time to be happy without a sense of dread stealing the show. Due to my past, my brain kicks into high alert when the coast looks clear. Falling in love with my husband, without alcohol to calm my nerves, was a terrifying experience. It made sense why I drank heavily through past relationships, I was scared that everyone would leave me like my father did.
During the first six months of our courtship, I smoked and overate. Two packs a day was my average. I smoked first thing upon waking and right before bed. Sometimes I woke up with anxiety and smoked in the middle of the night. My fingers were stained yellow with nicotine. But smoking wasn’t enough, so I started binge eating. When I couldn’t sleep, I would sneak out of bed into my future husband’s kitchen and devour an entire box of cereal in the dark. I never felt full and wouldn’t stop until my distended stomach ached. These vices offered temporary relief by distracting me from the source of my discomfort. It was easier to obsess about my weight than get in touch with my belief that I was an unlovable and defective person.
It took time and rigorous work with my sponsor and therapist to identify the disturbance. Awareness is the first step. I learned that logic will not shift behavior, only action has that power. A daily prayer practice finally gifted me the willingness to stop smoking. I’d never considered quitting, smoking was my best friend and first addiction. Even though I was skeptical, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. My desire to stop drinking had been lifted this way, so it was worth a try. Two months later, on a subway ride to work, I experienced a moment of grace. I threw out my cigarettes in a garbage can at the top of the subway stairs and went to a Duane Reade to buy Nicorette. I’ve never smoked again.
Binge eating was a gradual fade. After an injury forced me to abandon my punishing cardio routine, I followed a suggestion to experiment with other forms of exercise. Weight training and yoga planted me in my body. Respect developed as I grew stronger and I realized that my mind and body were partners. As my overall mood improved, I gave up caring about my reflection in the mirror. Working out to expand my mind and spirit changed the way I viewed exercise.
We can re-wire the neural pathways that regulate our mental state and emotional responses at any time. Living a Groundhog Day existence is a choice. There’s a lot of brambles to whack through in the beginning, so patience and compassion are essential. To grow, I must be honest with myself about any behaviors that stand in the way of my serenity.
Dealing with extreme vices requires courage. Removing the vice is not the hardest part of the process. Waking up in a life that you didn’t consciously create requires re-structuring. Many people return to their vice because the amount of work occurs as overwhelming. It’s a more comfortable short-term choice to stay numb, but the long-term cost to your soul is deadly.
So why bother looking at your vices if they don’t hurt anyone or you can manage them? Because if you’re schedule and conversations revolve around your TV programming, consider that you haven’t yet created a life you love. It’s waiting for you. As a recovering TV zombie, I can say this with certainty. Trading down vices is a significant first step, especially if you have a big one to confront. Watching TV for 4 hours a night was better than pounding two bottles of wine. Don’t get me wrong, Sunday at 9 you’ll find me glued to GOT but some nights I don’t even have time to turn on the TV because there are so many other things I want to do. A great show or meal becomes an additive after you face unprocessed emotions and fill your void with meaning.
The fewer vices I have, the more awake and open-hearted I feel. Acceptance of myself and others expands as my loathing self-talk dwindles. My creative energy has doubled. I feel more generous; nothing makes me happier than being of service to someone else. I sense the presence of something greater around me, inside me and I never feel alone. My capacity to be with upset has increased. I learn from painful experiences as they are unfolding. I don’t view lows as bad and want to rig my life to get more highs, I want it all. Above everything, I want to be free, and my freedom is dependent on my ability to identify and let go of mental states and vices that that block me from living in the sunlight of the spirit.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”