How many of us have tried to make changes in our life and failed when our willpower has waned? When we set those massive new year’s resolutions to go to the gym, lose weight, giving up smoking or drinking. Why does it so often go wrong, even when we have every genuine intention of doing it?
I guess this was a question I asked myself time and time again, as I would relapse back to drinking. So capable of achieving some many things but slipping over the same banana skins time after time. What was the thing that broke this cycle finally (Well as I write 2 ½ years of abstinence)? It was learning that it often takes a hell of a lot more than will power and that actually willpower isn’t an infinite resource no matter how strong minded we think we are.
I always got that addiction is the strongest of habits, but I guess I never really understood the vice like grip that habits can hold over us, both good and bad. After reading the power of habits by Charles Duhigg, a lightbulb most certainly went on in my head. I will try my best to keep it in simple terms that I reckon can be applied to any challenge in life.
The first point I will make is that like most things it’s not about targeting the big changes it’s about starting small and being utterly consistent. Once we form a strong enough habit loop it becomes something that can be harder not to do than do, maybe that makes sense when you think about addiction. So I will use my example that is the real deal when it comes to my drinking.
Anyone who knows addiction will know that the compulsion to do, to take is unbelievably strong, like a hidden force controlling your body, no matter how hard you fight. Well for me the first step was stepping away from the places that put me at highest risk of drinking. I gave up playing rugby knowing that at that time being around a drinking environment socially was not something I was strong enough to handle. The idea that we can put ourselves around our demons and simply use willpower is flawed to my mind. Once we are around those things, habit takes over so in my case it was natural to then drink. My feelings would build up to full blown panic attacks at worst, my petulant 7-year-old routine often used from fear of simply not wanting to put myself at risk of relapsing. For many years I thought I had to live my old life, do what I had always done and again rely on my inner strength to fall back. But whilst that habit is live you are always only a minute away from failure. When people say, just the one could tip me back, it’ because it’s really just like sliding down a giant snake and starting the journey again. The bigger problem that with every relapse, our battered confidence in our ability to defeat our foe is lessened further still.
I never got when I was a kid how my Uncle who was such a good guy, couldn’t just give up or George Best, Gazza. But as grew older the strength of addiction made perfect sense. The claws once locked into us can be fatal to so many. So what am I saying apart from a random splurge of thoughts. That firstly if you want to make serious change in your life you can’t expect to live the same life. Your brain is always expecting that component that you are now saying you don’t need, but putting yourself in the same place. Example – Why would I think hanging about in pubs now abstinent would be a good idea?
My first step of breaking away from rugby was only a small battle. I remember the worst feelings of anxiety around a Saturday teatime, the time that defined my old social life for my whole adult life. It was awful feeling completely devastated that I could no longer just be one of the boys. To have the only existence I had ever known taken away from me. Not just missing the game, but my whole social circle now practically gone. My normality was just that and at that time I could see no other way, just as my brain couldn’t comprehend removing these things from my life. I tried smoking dope, not a massive amount as, well I can’t smoke and a have a kid’s chest. But enough to relax me, to not want to drink and to simply be calm. Luckily I realised the stupidity of swapping bad habit for another.
So I turned to something that had become habit, only by the choice to own a dog many years ago, to simply walk. To click dog lead on and head out the door, walking till the feelings began to be replaced by an endorphin release that felt altogether better. Where instead of the brain spinning and thinking like a knotted ball of twine, it would unwind like a conveyor belt. Ideas would start to take shape and problems seemed to have definable answers, or at least stepping stones to working towards their completion.
Again it was not willpower that was going to help but using simply habit. Walking the dog, a daily activity, that would give the prize and reward of feeling relaxed. I analyse my drinking habit and getting to the root cause, which I can confidently say was about achieving a state of rest, peace within, stemming from childhood when I began drinking to forget, to be the person I wished I could be. My habit loop told me that when I wanted to relax I would drink. Sadly, it was a floored strategy that sure gave me some Dutch courage but began to give other worries about what I’d done, or said then the deep feelings of self-loathing that ultimately followed many years into the future. What cemented this habit loop, love! Yea when I stopped giving a shit about everyone else a dog asks so little of you that small walk everyday seemed manageable. Again in relation to the drinking when I felt really anxious I could a double up and take that walk, that I needed to take anyway.
So the seed was laid for my first charity walk across England maybe aiming to help further cement this habit loop. My work and the setting up of BCT gave me another defence strategy, that of busyholism. Not giving the brain time to think about things of a negative nature. Rolling from task to another till through sheer tiredness I would drop to sleep.
This initial period of success was maybe just a little luck, as it was after yet another relapse that my belief in firstly understanding habit and secondly trying to tip them in a positive way came about. The mistake that many a drinker has made is that “I’m ok to have one or two”. Just a simple glass of wine with a meal, it can’t harm. I’m not the person I was and it’s not so bad now. The slow relapse a well-known phrase, with that one glass slowly but surely building back upwards. I had also gone back to playing rugby again, quite apt as I write this blog I have just attended my first training session for some 3 years, am I making a mistake well hopefully not. But the drinking was returning to those problematic levels, where the depressive periods following were getting longer and deeper till reaching the point of suicidal thoughts.
I once again picked myself from the bottom step and looked up at the epic mountain to be climbed. One day a time is the saying, one step at a time. Well these are true whatever the challenge to be undertaken. So during this period I read the book I mentioned earlier and began to put in place my own control measures. I do love the idea of risk assessing my life in this manner. I had to get rid of the riskiest activities in my life that could cause me to fail. So sadly once again this meant giving up rugby once again, even though I had managed to work my way back into the first team, which did mean a great deal. I now knew that I needed to come up with a new activity to replace this lifelong one. So I decided to use running as Meg was now too old for long walks. So each Saturday afternoon I would put the running shoes on and head out for a long run. No matter how anxious I would feel I would tell myself “If you are gonna moan and whinge, do it once those feet are on the pavement and you are moving”. I knew fine well that once moving at some point those horrible feelings in my stomach would be replaced by that lovely little buzz where everything just seems a lot better. Even better once back in the house I began to feel a state of mind I know truly crave, the one I call serenity within. A feeling of no longer worrying or caring about anything, maybe even learning how to enjoy the simplest of moments, such as a sunset, a bird singing, you get the drift.
I began to race, with the simple aim of linking it into my competitive nature giving me a focus to keep me getting out the door. But never forgetting what my true aim was, to simply stay well. I began to realise through my racing that I could have a social life that didn’t rely on drinking. More sharing a brew, a cake or a trail or two for hours on end. Stepping into that world even though of course tiresome leaving me feeling mentally on top of the world. I also linked into the fact that my long term battles with depression meant that physical pain could be accepted and actually felt quite good, it was honest and valid, unlike the pain of the black dog and the stigma that still lives it. I began to see that socially I had only ever lived the most limited of palettes. Sure there was an amazing folk out there had a good time, simply high on life.
So 2 ½ years later I am once again looking at how I apply this thinking to achieving in my life. Looking at how I can use habit loops in my life and also to go back and revisit things that mean a great deal. I yearning to return to rugby has built up in me over this period, it’s hard to describe the attachment to the game, but It’s like home. It’s a place that feels so natural that when it’s missing it really is a hard to handle. So I made the decision to pull my boots back on and be back in that culture, could it be a mistake? well only time can tell. But maybe I have finally changed my habit loop where drink, relaxation and stress are concerned. The old association doesn’t seem to have its hold it once did over me.
What pulls me back, the feel of a rugby ball in my hand just a like a kid giving a pass or making a tackle. 25 years on from the first time it once again feels something really special. How long does it take to change a habit loop, a decade maybe well in this case that’s what are talking? So for the quick fix merchants that’s not great news, but the journey can only ever start with a small action. Something that we can positively imbed in our daily lives. Think about attempting to go to the gym 5 days a week, when you have never gone to a gym and certainly not 5 days a week. We put our success in the hands of will power and we also scare ourselves to shit as the goal is just too big. Then when we fail we totally crush ourselves for that lack of commitment. So when the days are toughest it ain’t about hitting the gym of an hour it’s about something so small that we can taste success, then got on a bit of a roll. Maybe we’ll without realising do 15 mins, 30, an hour after all. The biggest the challenge the more we need to find the small wins, sometimes these are simply not going backwards. Merely surviving the day is as good as it gets and we need to say well done to ourselves on these days.
I remember the first time my habit loop was truly tested this last period of abstinence. It was when I had to close BCT’s café named after my beloved Grandparents and a period that felt like total failure as I returned to construction just to survive. The task of clearing out the kitchen left to me with all our amazing staff now departed, I sat in that kitchen and considered going to Weatherspoon’s and having a Guinness. The woe is I approach, justifying to myself that sure it would be ok to fuck up today, no one will hold it against you. The depressive’s friend, beating ourselves with our own stick rather than use anyone else’s. But for whatever reason I simple thought lodged in my head, that sticks with me and maybe as much metaphorically stays with me, I decided I would simply turn right.
So back in the day when I was drinking I would turn left out of my street and simply cross the road to Aldi to buy my red wine. But whenever I ran at that time they would all start by turning right and heading down Norton Avenue. On the good day’s turning right was easy, but each time I did it I reinforced my habit loop that when times get tough I turn right. So as I sat in Weatherspoon’s with a coffee instead of a beer, I told myself that I needed to commit to just one simple act each day. When I arrived in from work, I would instantly put the running shoes on and head out the door turning right. Each day all I had to do to get rid of those dreadful feelings of woe, was to fight the urge to sit down, stick on those running shoes and turn right.
Those day’s turned into weeks and those weeks became months, followed by years. That was the role that running began to do for me. During this period, I have tried to replace busyholism with learning to enjoy the moment more often, simply enjoying what was around me, whether that’s the people or surroundings. So recently after playing rugby with old pals and attending good friend’s birthday parties where I was surrounded by the old drinking crowd and realised there wasn’t a single part of me craving what they were taking. Knowing that I can really get high on life leads me to thinking I have to go back to the places where my heart feels deepest. No grand agenda just to enjoy doing the things that have made me happiest as long as I am physically able, which isn’t forced to be long, if the feelings after one training session are anything to go by.
So when we want to make big change what are the key elements, well here goes:
• Risk Assess your life, where are the highest risk activities / people maybe. Don’t keep testing your resolve especially when weak.
• Substitute the behaviour with something else, smokers use chewy, ecig’s etc. all based around keeping the habit happy.
• Don’t make it too big, it only scares the brain and that causes another load of problems. Start small and try to do with utter consistency especially whilst feeling good.
• Surround yourself with energizers, people who lift you up, give you energy and allow you to be the real you.
• Understand that on your down day’s we must be realistic with our goals, we can’t change too many things at once. Some day’s simply getting out of bed maybe our success.
• Realise that making lasting changes to ourselves takes time but by using small wins we soon cover a lot of ground.
• Do things that make you truly happy and try to work these into any habit you are trying to form.
• Work around the things you can make part of your daily life, that works on the bad day’ and not just the good.
I know one thing about my journey it’s no longer just about beating my demons, but about how it can be applied to having a rich and fulfilling life. But for me right now it’s also about going back to where the good and bad times seem equally etched and hopefully writing a new chapter. When you love what you do, we never see the hard work.
Peace & Love