How to Kick a Habit

A week ago, I turned twenty-seven. I’ve always loved birthdays, but this one felt particularly special – apart from the usual felicity, I was also turning an age that has real significance for me.

For many years, I thought that I’d die at twenty-seven. Yeah, I know – so does every troubled youth. Many of the wonderful, troubled, creative people that I admire did, and based on how I was living in my twenties, it seemed to me completely logical that by twenty-seven, the body, and/or mind would give in. With the rate I was going, I imagined that, by then, my organs would be failing, my life circumstances would be in disarray, my addictions multifarious and full-blown, and my sanity tenuous, hanging by a thread. Less depressing for me than the thought of a short life, though, was the very real possibility that I would die at twenty-seven without anything to show for it, thereby missing out on the “rock-and-roll” death accolade – instead, falling short of the mark at a sad “premature”.

Now, I know I have a whole year to make it through alive, but, in stark contrast to the way I felt before, this seems more like an exciting adventure than a difficult challenge. I’ll (figuratively) drink to that!

For a bit, on the day, I was hyper-conscious of the ego, picking apart my excitement to see if underneath was just self-centeredness. I won’t do anyone the disservice of pretending that I haven’t got an ego, but I did drop that thought in favor of this one – I love birthdays for the same reason I observe the lunar cycle.

Renewal. Birthdays are the ultimate new chapter.

In observing the lunar cycle, I am given a tangible opportunity to review my intentions every two weeks – when there’s a new moon, and when there’s a full moon.

On the new moon, I’ll usually zip around the apartment blowing on a lit bunch of sage to cleanse all the negative energy that’s built up over the month. I’ll light some candles and incense and get all cosy and shit, and I’ll sit in meditation for a while before writing down (straining my eyes a little in the candlelight but preserving the atmosphere) my intentions for the coming month. Then I let go and trust myself.

It gives me the opportunity to look at what’s not working in my life, or look at areas I’d like to focus on, or just check in with the quietness inside where my intuition, wisdom and peace live. When I do, I realise that everything is fine; nothing’s calling for a freak-out. All I have to do is briefly check in like this, and then I don’t have to worry about the future. I’ll intuitively know what needs to be done.

At the full moon, I sit in meditation, review the new moon’s intentions, and bask in its illuminating glow to see if anything is begging me to look at it. Often, there’s something. Mostly, in fact, there’s something I’ve been avoiding that crops up. The full moon is a time of intense energy for me – more on my werewolfishness another time.

I’ve been dealing with a particularly bad habit since I got sober, that’s been top of the list for many, many moons. It’s not smoking, it’s not picking my nose, it’s not swearing (clearly I don’t consider that a bad habit). It’s decidedly weirder and more secretive. I’m not going to go into detail now (I plan to another time), but let’s just say that it relates to food, particularly sugary foods. I’m sure that many people can relate.

In any case, ‘habit’ (as always) is a euphemism – it’s a full-blown addiction. I’ve tried and failed a number of times to kick it, and just haven’t been able to – every time I take the crutch away, I fall flat on my face. I’ve been in therapy trying to talk it out, in Bikram trying to sweat it out, with my guitar I’ve tried to play it out, on dancefloors I’ve wholeheartedly tried to dance it out; I’ve tried thinking about it, singing about it, ignoring it, focusing on it, attacking it, denying it, allowing it, stroking it and approaching it from every angle you could imagine.

Nothing, thus far, has worked as well as turning twenty-seven did.

Like I said, birthdays are the quintessential milestone. So on my last day of being twenty-six, I woke up and, having resolved this the night before, told myself, “I’m not going to do this anymore – in fact, I don’t do this anymore.” Not I can’t, not I shouldn’tI don’t. I didn’t need to think further than the present moment and, at most, the day I was in. It’s the exact same way that I gave up alcohol – one day at a time.

For some reason, I’ve had a resistance to using that method to stop this habit. And that’s exactly what it is – resistance for its own sake, afraid of what would happen if this crutch was taken away.

I was holding on, for lack of a better way to self-soothe. But with therapy, meditation, mindfulness, general wellbeing and healthy thought patterns, better ways to ease the anxiety of daily life have been developing; better yet, the need to self-soothe in the first place has been slowly diminishing.

So, as with all my other addictions, this one fell from me like an old and useless layer of skin at Goldilocks o’clock (when the time was just right). The moment of release took little to no effort, but putting my faith in the process and trusting that this would eventually happen, did.

It happened with cigarettes. It happened with caffeine. And now, with my only remaining addiction (for the moment, at least), it happened, too.

I treated myself to a Buddhist meditation retreat – alone a sign of how I’ve changed! – which took place this past weekend, a couple of days after my birthday. During the three days of noble silence, numerous insights rose from the quietness within and were offered by the wonderful teacher who led the retreat. To each, I could probably dedicate an entire post, so I’ll just mention one. The teacher, Santikaro, closed the second night’s Dhamma talk with an anecdote about his own teacher, who died some years ago. For the last ten years of this monk’s life, he’d been contemplating a single phrase that appears only in early Buddhist texts and that’s quite difficult to translate from the Pali to the Thai as it comes out sounding too offensive. In English, the best translation that he could come up was this: “I ain’t gonna mess with that no more, dammit.” He suggested it as the best approach a person can take in dealing with one’s dark parts.

I’m wary of placing too much weight on coincidence or seeing in the world only the things that support my theories. However, I also know how unique the quality of insight feels – it’s clear and simple, subtle. This was one of those moments. It came quietly as a whisper.

I don’t want it to be this simplistic – I really don’t. I’ve got a lot of ego invested in habits being difficult to kick – it took me years and years to strip mine down to what I’m left with today. When you’re in the thick of addiction, the perceived helplessness and lack of choice are suffocating, and that becomes a part of our story.

But every recovery starts with a choice. Though our circumstances may differ and our opportunities vary greatly, to ignore that there is a choice involved, as I think perhaps I have for a long time, is to undermine the beauty of recovery. In fact, I think that it’s this choice at the heart of it that, rather than taking away from the process, makes the whole thing all the more inspiring.

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