I’ve confessed before on this website that I work part-time at a drug and alcohol counseling service on the west coast. Over the years there I have learned a few things, and nothing more important than this – many of us choose to spend our lives chasing a feeling of “good” or “better”. We are convinced that there must be something more to life We have been taught that if we could just change our situation, or take a certain pill, or find someone to love us, then we will feel magically feel “good”.
It’s a trap.
Real life has very little to do with feeling good. There are obviously other, much more important things than feeling something that is fleeting and ultimately deceptive. If you don’t believe me just ask anyone who has struggled with addiction.
Quitting drugs and alcohol is relatively easy, seen in perspective. There is the initial detoxification, usually 5-6 days of discomfort and sick. Depending on any number of factors you may experience sweating, restless-leg syndrome, diarrhea, upset stomach, itchiness, and usually insomnia. Five or six very, very long days that seem to go on forever, then they end. This is traditionally followed by a period of general wellbeing, unless you are coming off of opiates. These little babies have an added bonus – you may have a week or more of absolute exhaustion. What the opiates giveth the opiates taketh away…
Quitting a destructive habit is relatively doable. Unfortunately this is, contrary to some 12-step nazis you may know, only a small part of the issue. The real battle is your life, the other 95% of addiction that is often not mentioned. Your life is your problem, not the meth (take that in context).
After the initial bad stuff addicts often experience a period of months wherein things go much better – they are excited about new possibilities and feelings, they actually have feelings that they allow themselves to enjoy. Food starts tasting better, activities that were once arduous become enjoyable again. You begin to believe that things can change, can really change. This period is rarely long-lasting and usually sets up a person in recovery for a fall.
That’s the thing about addiction. If there is an evil, it is addiction. It’s that old Bugs Bunny cartoon with the good angel and the evil angel speaking into your ear. Drugs are amazing, that’s why people do them. For a while. Ever after you remember the good times and it’s convenient to forget that this is the same voice that took your joy, your relationships, and stole your soul. That’s the thing about evil, if it sounded like evil we wouldn’t be tempted. In the movies the best Satan is the one that is cool, not creepy. Did you see Constantine? Sexy, french, white Armani suit. Very “satan-y”. Evil doesn’t look like that guy in the alley wearing the trench coat. Evil feels right at the time – it tells us what we want to hear, it speaks only good things into that void that is desperately looking for happy. It’s like… dating!
As the good book says, there is a wide road, a way that seems right at the time, but the end is destruction. That voice that has been breathing on you is wrong. It’s the voice that tells you that you have been ripped off by life. It’s the same voice that tells you that if you can find someone else to love you, then you will be happy. It’s the noise telling you that the real world is boring (which it is) and you need to feel better, or feel something, or just feel different. Many of us spend our entire life chasing the dragon, trying to feel something different, something better, something “good”. It is, after all, a wide road.
We’ve been raised on Coke commercials and beer ads telling us that life is about spiking volleyballs, being young and thin, and partying in Jamaica. It’s very intoxicating, this quest for feeling good. It often reflects a deep sense of dis-ease with our lives and a pervading sense that life isn’t turning out the way we imagined when we were young and dumb. There has been far more disappointment and hurt than was advertised. This is often coupled with some intrinsic understanding of our own mortality, of missed opportunities, and of a life that seems to be steaming forward faster and faster. Add the hurt of others, the pain of failed relationships, the boredom of the routine, the lack of money to live the rock star dream, and the horrific struggles with self-worth that most of us battle all our lives and you have a potent cocktail that is screaming out for something more. Some of us drink or take Percocets. Others of us do a variety of more socially acceptable forms of self-abuse and soul crushing.
Here’s one more interesting fact about addiction. The very thing that you are looking for with addiction is the very thing that gets taken away from you. Ask a opiate user and most will admit to you that they started abusing their meds because they felt a sense of energy or a ‘warm hug’ that opioids initially provide. You can get an enormous amount of work done high on meth or Oxys, or even some strands of pot. You are amazed by the general feeling of “good” you have been missing for so long out in Normieland. Everything about the up-front experience with drugs is awesome – more happy, more energy, a great sense of focus, being stoned. Months later when you can not get out of bed because you are exhausted after sleeping twelve hours you still wonder if taking another pill or whatever will give you back the happy it has so subtly taken away from you. One of the single hardest things to do with an addict in counseling is help them enjoy things that were once fun but no longer hold any thrill. Their whole life has become deadened. What the drug giveth…
The thing is, the real world doesn’t make you happy, so get over it. My job may be amazing but it can still suck if I decide it will. I have an amazing family that I can choose to abuse or ignore if I want. I have been able to experience more than many people in this life and I can easily decide to live a life of bitterness or regret or jealousy or fear. Life in the real world involves lowering your expectations – sorry but it’s true. It’s only once we change our mind that our life truly begins to change. Anyone can quit smoking, given enough help. Not wanting to smoke is a different kettle of fish, as they say. People who constantly battle with weight, or smoking, or pretty much any issue in this arena understand implicitly that “just stopping” doesn’t really work. You may white-knuckle yourself out of eating that Whopper but nothing has changed. It’s no surprise, then, that counselors will tell you “change your mind and your butt will follow” (ok, not all counselors but ones that sound exactly like me). Changing what you do rarely is enough.
Changing how you think about what you do is everything.
Many years ago someone told me to “Imagine that I was setting up two lines to snort. One line would be cocaine, my drug of choice. The other line is Drano”. Now the someone asked me, “Which one is worse for you?” Well, the answer was obvious, wasn’t it? Of course the Drano is worse for you, it’s a horrific poison. The cocaine, on the other hand, makes you high (which is good) and then doesn’t kill you (which is also good). The choice is obvious.
“Wrong!” he said.
“If you snort the Drano you are only going to snort the Drano one time. In fact, you may not even snort much of this Drano. The experience is going to be intense, real, and relatively short. You will learn some valuable lessons about Drano. You will be able, after little prodding, to convince yourself that you will never snort Drano again.”
Obviously you see my point.
There is a way that seems right…
It’s one thing to live, it’s another thing altogether to have a life. Spending your whole life looking for something outside yourself to give your life meaning is an invitation to heartache. Many of us are learning that no one else is going to take responsibility for making me whole and I have only one short life to figure out how to be happy.
I can blame the world for my life but in the end no one but me loses.
I wish I could say I have learned all these lessons. I can’t even say I came up with all this rant. What I have learned, however, is that I need to keep thinking about this stuff until something rubs off on me. I am constantly tempted to do what is cheap and feels good at the expense of something better. The more I learn about myself and my demons the more I change, and that has to be a good thing. Learning to sign a peace treaty with my insecurity and poor self-image can’t help but make a difference in my life.
It’s easy to pontificate like this to a bunch of strangers. It’s another thing altogether to have to live this stuff out in front of people who I can hurt.
10 thoughts on “The Myth of Feeling Good”
We somehow think that feeling things will lead to our happiness.
You hit the nailing the head in this post. As an alcoholic in recovery, I agree with you about the evil seduction that ultimately takes away from you what it initially seems to give. And I’m not even a 12 step “nazi”, lol.
I was talking with a colleague today about addiction and the fact that getting clean is the easy part. Her first counseling job was in a rehab center and the addicts would give her a hard time about her not coming from a history of addiction, saying she couldn’t relate to their issues. Her response was that she knew better than most how to live an effective life. Did they want an example of how to live an effective life or how to live in addiction?
I, like you, come from an addictive background. Some days being in recovery just sucks eggs. Today is one of those. I’m getting much better at sucking it up and moving on. I think that’s okay.
Love this! There are feelings that last longer and go deeper than feeling good, such peach, satisfaction, a sense of achievement, contentment. Learning to feel comfortable with these feelings takes time after addiction. I found your description of addiction frighteningly close to the experience of relationship addiction. In fact I might dare to say, the effects and recovery after relationship addiction run deeper and take a lot longer to overcome and heal from.
Love your thoughts on this. I gave up chasing happy a long time ago. Now I just seek little glimpses of joy and have learned to be ok with a whole lot of suck. What I’ve found, as I’ve practiced at this, is those little glimpses of joy can turn in to life sustaining moments that stretch themselves into larger and larger bits – if we let them. So the suck seems less relevant. Either way, a good overhaul of a culture that perpetuates the myth of “shiny happy people” is in order. But then again, if we did that, you’d be out a job 🙂
Scott, this is a fantastic piece. So honest, real and applicable. I have been feeling guilty lately because I am only working two days a week, not because I have to, but because I want to. I think, working more will make me happy, but is that really true? I think the answer is not solved outside ourselves, but inside. Thank you so much for this post. It has made me realize that things, stuff, more work, less work, vacations…whatever will not ultimately make me happy. For me….only more of God can make me happy, content, I guess is the word I am looking for. Appreciate you posting this.
I really liked this post. Have you ever read the book “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden?” It’s a really great story that touches upon a similar concept– the idea that living a “normal” life doesn’t mean that you’re always happy. Instead, it means that you’re okay with things being painful sometimes, and you don’t try to escape or block those experiences out. I definitely recommend it.