Addictive by design

I don’t remember the name of the bar, but it was loud. Not too loud, I supposed, because as long as we shouted, we could still hear one another. When I wasn’t trying to listen to those around me I’d feel curiously transfixed by the neon flashing sign behind the bar. Beer, it said. It was important for my socially anxious self to know that beer was there in full support.

Occasionally, a sudden noise, like the clink of a glass, a squealing laugh, or someone’s shouting, grasped my attention for a moment or two. My eyes would dart about as nervously as the mind did behind it. It was a little chaotic in there. A few too many colours and shapes about the space, but they were arranged in a fashionable style, so it felt sort of friendly and reassuring. The music was the fairly terrible sort. The sort that I’d hear everywhere yet still, if I worked on subduing my consciousness sufficiently, I’d soon be nodding or tapping along too happily. It was a lot for my senses to take in. Such is always the way with that kind of place.

The chairs we sat on were comfortable, but not too comfortable. I fidgeted about on mine as I tried to excite people, some I knew well, others I did not, with my latest story. I always had one. And if I didn’t, someone else would probably have a story to tell others about me. A legend, they would sometimes call me.

Same old story

The story I was telling was about me being somewhere in Madrid the previous week. I’d been roaming around yet another city crazed out of my brains on whatever substance I could lay my hands on. There, I’d gotten myself in and then serendipitously out of trouble again and again. My memory was sketchy, however, and so I filled in the gaps to great effect. There were parts that appeared to be very funny – but that was just the way I had learnt to recount such events of my life. At base, it wasn’t very funny at all. At base, I knew, especially when I sat with myself on the nights when there was no-one around, that it was a story fuelled by a hell of a lot of pain and suffering.

I was on my fifth beer by the time I was recounting that story in that bar. Already more than I had wanted before I’d began the night. And I was smoking again too, another thing I hated myself for doing, yet was unable to resist when the circumstances were just so. I was still sober enough to know that the night wouldn’t be going in the direction that would bring any long term rest bite from that pain and suffering. It was going to go the way that it always seemed to go – at best I’d probably piss somebody off, but it was more than likely I’d wake up in a place I’d never seen before with an all too familiar feeling that I’d done something terrible. Though, at least there might be another amusing anecdote out of it that might keep that pain and suffering concealed.

The most painful thing

I was running myself into the ground. Others had had enough too, and it was getting worse as the years went on as my more meaningful relationships were thwarted; ironically, by the very substance that I was primarily using to overcome the anxieties that I thought were a barrier to having better relationships with people. I’d vow to get a grip of things or never to do it again, yet I’d do it again. And again. Yet, when I woke up the next day after the night in that particular bar, I once again said never again. It turned out that that on that occasion it really was never again – and that was exactly 15 years ago today and I haven’t touched alcohol ever since.

The most painful thing about my alcohol dependency was the self-recrimination the next day. I’d feel guilty about whatever it was I’d done and that I was nothing less than a despicable piece of shit. I’d feel so terrible that the only thing I could think of doing was to drink some more. I felt trapped and that the trap was entirely my own making. It took me years to understand that I was in part lured into that trap. Nevertheless, to get out of the trap, I needed take full responsibility for my part in getting there and there was a lot of vulnerability in doing that. I then set about designing a life where I was not overwhelmed by the temptations to do the things that on my stronger days I know don’t bring me any joy – certainly not in the long term, and often not even in the short term too.

Other traps

It’s not just alcohol. That certainly was the worst of them for me back in the day. I can still lose hours on the internet as I click on one thing after another. There are the overly sugary-salty-oily foods that seem to taste so good, yet have my body suffering somewhere down the line. I used to spend a fair bit of money on looking the way a smiling someone on an enormous billboard looked. Exercise can even be problematic – after I gave up drinking I filled the big hole I had with training for long distance events that, though gave me a nice physique and boosted my self-image, weren’t actually healthy. The last race I did I ended up on drip, which was shockingly normal for that kind of event.

Although I gave up cigarettes when I quit the drink, I still get the odd moment of desire, and these days it is infinitely more likely I’d smoke a cigarette than drink alcohol. In fact, alcohol is no problem at all – when I do walk into bars like the one I described, which is rare because I prefer an establishment that serves good tea (normally non-caffeinated), I just think “this is a really terrible place that’s really hard to be sober in” and get on with meeting the person I’m supposed to meet in there.

How its designed to be

I’m not a despicable piece of shit, and never was. It’s quite clear to me now that that’s the kind of self-belief that took me down that road in the first place and kept me trapped for a long time. It’s a difficult one to break free from. Yet, I somehow did. No matter how bad I got some people weren’t shaken and they remained steadfastly supportive.

With far more distance from my problems with alcohol, and other things too, I can see that there were plenty of people about preying on my insecurities and all my propensities to make mistakes. There still are. Simply because this is the environment we live in right now. An environment where economic and business interests are the priority.

I stay cautious and try to discern whether the thing I have miraculously found myself craving is in the best interests of my happiness and wellbeing. Most of the time it is not. It might keep someone else financially afloat however, and that was probably why I came to be craving it. The most effective triggers can’t even easily be traced.

The thing is that we humans are awash with flaws. We make errors and miscalculate all of the time. That’s very normal and it is OK. We can give ourselves too hard a time about making so-called “bad” choices. It is just that there are some people who are well versed in knowing all the details of every common error we make and will use them to make money. And so that is why things are as they are. They’ve been designed that way.

Not a question of blame, but questioning our environment and designing something better

It’s difficult not to keep scrolling on those social media news feeds, isn’t it? They’ve been designed that way. Actually designers borrowed tricks directly from the slot machines of Las Vegas, such as the bright colours, refreshing mechanisms, sporadic rewards, that keep people using for much longer than we know is ideal. Keeps us connected to what’s happening apparently (although it is selective), but the longer we scroll the more adverts we see. . .

I don’t blame anyone, certainly not myself when I make a mistake, because we’ve come to live in a world where profit gets placed ahead of people. Some people fall for it more than others and often they’re really vulnerable people. The really sad thing is that those that get lured get the blame rather than us questioning ourselves and the broader environment that perpetuates a lot of unnecessary struggle for the sake of a quick buck. Time for us to design an environment that supports our happiness and wellbeing.

But anyway, 15 years dry, I’m happy. It wasn’t always easy. It could have been harder had I not had the personal support I had, but it could also have been far easier too if addiction weren’t so profitable.

*** Below are links to some related blog posts

10 years of facing what is

Vegas and the desperate hunt for an improbable happiness!

Your happiness! Whose responsibility?

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