I’m a 42 year old writer, musician, comedian and podcaster from Wales (the small bit to the left of England where they make Doctor Who and Sherlock, and where seagulls carry umbrellas). I discovered the show in February and have since listened to about 90% of them. It has helped me in many ways but one has come as a complete shock to me; it has overturned one of my longest-held opinions. Brace yourself Americans: until a few months ago I DIDN’T BELIEVE IN ADDICTION.
I’ve always taken the existential view on life: we have freewill, we just usually choose not to exercise it out of fear. I have always believed that alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders etc are not clinical conditions in and of themselves, rather they are epiphenomena – symptoms of an underlying depression or anxiety, and it is that which needs to be treated. I believed that people made conscious decisions but then denied it to themselves. I saw addiction as a cop out that lets people carry on doing something they want to do and say “It’s not my fault.”
It’s not as if a tractor beam drags you to the pub or off-licence – you CHOOSE to go. If we think nothing is anybody’s fault then we have to get rid of all prisons and courts. I once said this to a social worker and she agreed with me. However, I now believe addiction does exist, that I have several of them, and I think I understand the root of my previous opinions.
I was a ‘mistake’. My mother frequently used this word to describe my conception for as long as I can remember. She wasn’t a nasty person by any means. But still, it made me feel that I didn’t belong – not just to any particular group or faction of society, but on the planet at all.
My father left when I was five months old so I never formed an emotional bond with him. The first time I remember going to spend the day with him at the age of 3 I didn’t know who he was, or indeed what a father was. I thought I was being punished for something and that my mother was leaving me permanently with this stranger. I never called him ‘dad’ or anything because it felt fake.
Around the same time, my mother went into hospital for a routine operation. I must have half-seen ‘Logan’s Run’ or ‘Solyent Green’ on TV because somehow I had formed the idea that hospital was where you were taken to be killed when your ‘number came up’. I couldn’t understand why she seemed happy to be going to her death; I clung to her leg and screamed my head off as she was going out the door.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I have severe abandonment issues, and to this day I still see rejection everywhere. I acquired a step father at age 7 who was a total piece of shit and constantly told me I was useless and lazy. I was often blamed and punished for things I hadn’t done and he took a sadistic pleasure in upsetting me. My mother never stood up for me in all this – more adandonment issues.
This constant stream of negative opinions about me, bullying in school, and the feeling that my mother often sided with my step father over me has led to a lifetime of alienation, depression and the feeling that everything is my fault, that there is something fundamentally ‘wrong’ with me. No wonder I always thought that my addictions were just my inherent greed and laziness.
In junior school I ate 5000 calories of chocolate a day, plus several bags of crisps, normal meals, huge pieces of cake after every meal and 3 litres of coke. I would shoplift sweets or steal money from my mother’s purse to buy them. At 10 years old I was 10 stone, twice that of some of my classmates. How I don’t have type 2 diabetes or worse is a miracle, especially given my adult intake of alcohol and cigarettes.
My stepdad always said I was greedy (despite him having type 2 diabetes from drinking, smoking, terrible diet and zero exercise), and I agreed with him because I had zero self-esteem. Other than being fat, I never had any health problems from my diet, and I just thought it was normal. I never considered this an addiction or something that I shouldn’t be doing: I had very little comfort in my life, I hated being at school and I hated being at home, so I ate at every opportunity because it was all that was then available that made me feel better. It simply became a reality that I never questioned.
I will share one other relevant snapshot from my childhood. When I was 12 my 11 year old friend died and I went to his funeral. I was already an ardent atheist but after this I became a total nihilist. My life suddenly seemed unreal – if he died then so could I at any moment – and I became incapable of imagining any kind of future for myself.
Even now, it is rare that I can think about more than two weeks into the future without experiencing a complete blank, as if I might not exist beyond that point so what’s the point in trying to do or achieve anything? As a result of this worldview, I have followed the path of least resistance my whole life, gone where the simplest choice has led me or often failing to make a choice. I’ve never been able to plan for the future or achieve things that others seem to find simple.
I’ve also recently realised that his death may have been the source of my suicidal mood swings. After all, he was in every way better than me. He would have had a better life than I’ve managed and I think on some level I feel guilty that he died and I lived, that I don’t deserve to live.
I have lived my life almost entirely in the present, which of course is one of the prerequisites of a healthy mind and an enjoyable life. This has allowed me to be creative and highly prolific. However, as well as the aforementioned problems with future planning, I’ve also had a problem with assessing the passing of time and the passages of my life. I have great trouble seeing beyond my current mental or environmental state and being aware of changes within them.
Therefore, it is only relatively recently that I realise I engaged in the same negative behaviour or thinking for months or years at a time. The repeating patterns of my addictions have only become clear in retrospect now that I’m middle-aged and reflective – at the time I just couldn’t see them because I lacked an overall perspective on my life.
I loved alcohol from an early age and would raid the drinks cabinet whenever I was alone in the house. By the time I was 17 I would go to parties and drink anything I could get my hands on, usually ending in a blackout.
In my early thirties I embarked upon my heaviest period of drinking – I got hammered every night for 18 months. I worked out once that I was drinking 200 units a week (equivalent to 100 pints of beer or 100 single spirits). If I went to the pub I’d have six or seven pints of Guinness and then six or seven double scotches. One night I had 3 pints, 16 shooters (whisky, brandy and baileys) then another 9 pints. I didn’t fall over or make myself ill, I just got a takeaway and walked home; it was just a normal night out.
If I stayed home I’d have two to three bottles of red wine (which one night resulted in me nearly drowning in the bath). On the weekend I’d have three or four bottles of red wine or a bottle of neat scotch. Once again I experienced no health problems and held down a full-time job throughout. Once again I never thought I was an addict or alcoholic; this was just how my life was at the moment. 90% of the time I was having a blast.
I still drink now, though nowhere near that much, because I still enjoy it. These days, though, I am more discerning: I don’t touch spirits and I only drink real ale, Guinness or one bottle of wine. I’m very sceptical about genetics influencing behaviour, so I question the relevance of the fact that my father’s brother drank himself to death aged 49 and their father was a very heavy drinker (thankfully, my father wasn’t). I believe we learn rather than inherit our behaviour, and I didn’t grow up amongst alcoholics or addicts.
I started smoking at 25 when I was first put on anti-depressants. For years I could take or leave them – I’d smoke 20 a day for a week under stress and then nothing for three months. During the last few years the gaps between packs have become shorter and shorter (although overall my life has got better and better) and I now become anxious when I get to the end of a pack if the shops are shut or I’ve run out of money. Sometimes recently I’ve found myself shaking like a junkie when I have to go a few days without them. I often hate smoking and don’t enjoy it, especially as it greatly exacerbates my eczema, but I continue to do it because, volte face, I am now chemically addicted to nicotine.
I’ve smoked cannabis a few times (who hasn’t) but I never had the money or supply line to smoke it regularly. If I had, I would certainly have become a daily smoker. Fortunately, other drugs, for whatever reason, have simply never interested me.
I still often eat when I’m not really hungry or stuff down huge bags of fatty, salty snacks just for the sake of it. I’ve always thought it was OCD that made me incapable of putting aside a bottle or packet or bag of anything until it was empty. Now, through listening to the podcast, recognising so much of myself in others’ stories, and doing a lot of thinking about my life, I’m forced to admit that I’m addicted to smoking and over-eating.
I’m also addicted to sleeping during the day and staying up at night, getting out of commitments/obligations (even when it’s something I would enjoy), avoiding humanity, changing decisions within one second of making them, checking my keys and wallet for anything from 5-50 minutes before I leave home, and constantly checking I still have them when I’m out, trying to destroy anything good in my life (probably because I still don’t believe I deserve anything good), talking to myself out loud, picking at my skin…
There are more but you get the picture. The point is that I now accept that I have multiple addictions, rather than “I’m a lazy, useless piece of shit.”
Part of that is that Paul’s repeated entreaties to “have compassion for yourself” have finally got through to me. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say that I love myself, but now I don’t hate myself and, more importantly, I don’t BLAME myself. I accept that I have solid reasons to feel abandoned and cut off from people, that my step dad’s verbal abuse obliterated my self-confidence and it’s only in recent years that I’ve got it back. My often not being able to get out of bed is the result of insomnia, chronic pain and depression rather than laziness.
I’ve been listening to a lot of old episodes of the podcast recently, and have realised something surprising: I am no longer beating myself up. Hearing so many people conclude their interview by saying that they still struggle made me realise that I have recently removed that particular weight from my shoulders. I no longer feel that my depression is MY FAULT. Along with accepting the existence of my addictions, I have also come to accept that the things that get to me are real things that would get to almost anyone. I now believe that my depression and addictions are a ‘valid’ reaction to the life I have so far lead.
I also believe that my failure to achieve my lifelong dreams has resulted from my depression and addiction, and not from me being shit at everything. I’ve also realised that I have in fact achieved many more of my ambitions in recent years than the negative parts of my brain ever allow me to realise. I’ve improved hugely as a writer and musician over the past few years and am now finally getting noticed. I can also now also envision a future for myself, one where I achieve my goals and have a stable life rather then repeating the same self-defeating patterns ad naseum. So a final thank you to Paul and everyone I’ve interacted with on the forum. I can’t say that I’m ‘cured’ (if that’s even possible) but I now know myself so much better than I did a year ago. I don’t blame the podcast guests for their problems and struggles so why should I blame myself for mine?
Marcus’ website is marcusfreestone.com Check out the podcast and free e-book positive thinking and the meaning of life