Quitting because you can — a bedtime story

I’ve been warming up to a post or two on the power of the internal dialogue. But first, as a lead-up, here’s a little patch of last night, a mundane yet eventful exchange with my son. Strangely, it made me think about quitting drugs. So I wrote this down before I went to bed.

Isabel was gone as of this morning, off to California for the week, and I had my twin 12-year old boys to put to bed. They were tired but not exhausted. They could still think, and reason, and certainly argue (the last cognitive function to blink out for any self-respecting preteen). But more than any of that, they could feel.

As often happens when Isabel goes away, they each wanted to sleep in our bed, with me, to cuddle, or just to feel the close company of a parent who loves you completely. This has become our routine when one parent is travelling. I’d likely read for an hour or two while one boy slept beside me.

twin babiesBut a problem presented itself: how were we to decide whose turn it was? Who got the first night?

They each had arguments. Ruben claimed that Julian always got the first night, and if that wasn’t the case, and Ruben had had the first night last time, then Julian would probably have had the last night. Which would mean that it was Ruben’s turn after all. But naturally Julian didn’t agree. He suggested they do a Rock, Paper Scissors. What could be fairer than utter randomness? But that wasn’t okay with Ruben. Ruben said — and he might be right — that Julian wins way more than half the time. The tears were already rising to his eyes and about to spill over. Julian could see that. Julian remained calm. It didn’t seem as critical to Julian, yet there was no reason for him to surrender his right to engage, because…why should he?

So I got Ruben into our room, his voice already huffy with emotion, with need, with the vertiginous sheering of his self-esteem. Soon he was under the covers, even though no ruling had been announced, stuffed alpacastuffed sealsurrounded by his seal, his other seal, and his alpaca (who’s attained the status of a sacred object). Julian was in his bed, wide awake, waiting for the next move. His demands weren’t spent, just in pause mode. Julian could still win this one, and Ruben would be reduced to soggy rubble.

So I said to Julian: Maybe, just this once, without judging or recording or calculating your advantage, maybe just tonight you could let Ruben have the first night.

Why? he asked.

Simply because…because he really needs it. And you can do this. You have the strength for it. I can see it in your eyes.

But what do I get out of it? he replied, with typical 12-year old logic.

What you get out of it is just the feeling of being good, being the strong one.

I let him think about it and went back to soothe Ruben, who was still at the high-water mark. Then I went back to Julian and I asked him: Well, what’s your decision? Can you let it go…just for tonight?

In a calm voice he said, Okay.

That’s all. He gave it up. I told him I was proud of him, because he’d risen to the occasion. And a minute later I asked him how he felt. And in the calmest imaginable voice he said, I feel good.

reflecting womanThat’s when I recognized the moment of reckoning we often face when we quit drugs. When we let it go, when we say, I don’t need to get high tonight. What we get out of the deal is no calculable advantage, no currency exchange, but simply the feeling of being strong and good and right.

How precious that feeling is! I could see it in Julian’s eyes. He was no longer seeking. He’d let the need go because he could. And his reward was this unity, this glow of self-satisfaction, so different from the moment-to-moment, hour-to-hour strategizing that usually occupies his 12-year-old mind. His reward was a sense of peace, of both letting go and remaining stationary, solid, proud that he could do it, and relieved that the cost wasn’t as great as he’d imagined.

content manThat eye in the hurricane, that moment of grace, is the place we find ourselves in when we say, No, not tonight, I don’t need it. And then…an almost shocking sense of calm, strength, accomplishment, at the core of our being. We didn’t know it would be there until we relented, until we let the desire spin off into space and didn’t pursue it. That’s when we found ourselves to be whole, and there’s no better feeling than that.

I think Julian’s final retort was: “Why should I? Why should I give up something I don’t have to give up?”

I could see that all his sparkling 12-year old intelligence was bound up in that question. And all I could say was: “Because you can, and you know you can.”

(He also got a free back rub out of the deal.)

The expression on his face when I left the room was a soft glow of serenity. Calm Buddha smile

34 thoughts on “Quitting because you can — a bedtime story

  1. matt June 14, 2018 at 5:13 am #

    Thanks Marc, for this wonderful broader context

    With any intractable drive, when desire is incubating a whirlpool of habit action, relenting has its own renewable reward. It’s more subtle and humble than brash victory, but the glue that allows the tribe to cohere and its members flourish… love.

    There is no recovery without love.

  2. Colin Brewer June 14, 2018 at 6:21 am #

    I’m sure love is a nice add-on, especially if you’ve been missing out on it, but an essential, sine qua non for recovery? Surely not – unless you mean non-tribal self-love as well. Lots of people make sudden and lasting recoveries without any treatment at all. They wake up one day, say ‘sod this’ and just stop. Sometimes they do it before they’ve wrecked their health or their relationships; sometimes after.

    “Spontaneous recovery is not understood and largely challenged by self-help group members and professionals working in the field of substance abuse. So strong is the supposition of the process of recovering as a life-long condition that requires treatment and/or a self-help group for on-going support and rehabilitation that recovery on one’s own is given little credence. Yet there is growing empirical evidence that natural recovery not only exists, but may be more prominent than is currently recognized”.

    Burman S. The challenge of sobriety: natural recovery without treatment and self-help groups. J Subst Abuse. 1997;9:41-61.

    • Megan Fitzpatrick June 14, 2018 at 1:19 pm #

      Thank you for this reference.

    • Terry June 14, 2018 at 9:15 pm #

      I’d suggest the majority do this – we just don’t hear about them – I call it spontaneous remission and I see it often in my work and it most often occurs between the ages of 40-50 – this change without treatment (the word recovery I do not agree with) is almost universal in regards to tobacco – there being no tobacco rehabs I know of, least not in Australia where I am. Most ex smokers simply decide to stop and do just like that – in my mind treatment is most likely to prolong the condition and if a person can make an internal decision to quit they are far better off and likely far more successful

      • Colin Brewer June 15, 2018 at 4:13 am #

        Yes, I had smoking very much in mind, though it doesn’t wreck work and relationships like alcohol, cocaine or heroin can do. Approaching 30 is also a factor in many heroin addicts, deciding it’s time they stopped prolonging their adolescence. The lucky ones managed to detox and stay clean, sometimes with the help of a naltrexone implant or two. The unlucky ones found to their annoyance that a permanent change had occurred in their opiate receptors (as I suppose) and they needed indefinite methadone, buprenorphine or morphine to function (we still have a wide choice here). For them, opiates had become like vaping for heavy ex-smokers: medically and socially fairly harmless but necessary.

        • Terry June 17, 2018 at 8:12 pm #

          I do note that there is a small percentage of people often chronic users and often heroin users who cannot manage abstinence for any meaningful length of time and who require what often amounts to a very small amounts of a substitute to somehow provide a psychological type security as if total abstinence is so scary as to be impossible – this is where other substitutes like cannabis or amphetamines can play a part, cannabis in particular for alcoholism or alternatively a regular supply of beer – this constant search for abstinence in many who can’t get there has resulted in many deaths along the way as people like this see themselves as complete failures despite their best efforts

          • Carlton June 20, 2018 at 10:46 am #

            For a large percentage of addicts, totally abstaining is indeed very scary, and seems as impossible as trying to live without food, water or air.

            So rather than seeing an addicts efforts as,  “failing to manage abstinence”  these efforts can be seen as  torturous struggles for a gasp of air, a gulp of water, or a morsel of food.

            Before I recovered, I too had tried to  “abstain” many times. I often got several days, a few weeks, and once for several months, but the return to drinking was like returning to a regular supply of air, water or food.

            However, Recovery, or, “A Massive Change”, (a new proposed term for Recovery), can occur when strong and seemingly permanent feelings for the addiction, change, or “flip”.

            This “flip” may be seen as “spontaneous remission” which a medical/disease-based term.

             But a more common and universally recognized  term would be;  “A Change of Heart” .

            A “Change of Heart”, may never happen for a large percentage of people, and for some it may happen over time, and for some, it may be a “spontaneous remission”, or “flip”.

            • Terry June 20, 2018 at 6:24 pm #

              Cheers Carlton – I agree totally – I too struggled, at one point for 10 years, being unable to manage 1 years “sobriety” trying to achieve the often mythical recovery-sobriety-abstinence using AA. It was only as I aged and as you alluded to, got a job and had some meaning restored, did I stabilise and have a remission that still lasts however that also is because I have replaced that one very negative habit with a few positive ones. This recovery thing is about replacing habits for mine – taking the booze or drugs away and leaving an empty hole never works in my experience. For some too who are not as lucky as you and me maybe they just need to have their addiction managed with less harmful substances while they are supported to find meaning in their lives and then hopefully have the change of heart as you so nicely put it

              • Carlton June 23, 2018 at 6:38 am #

                The term “Change of Heart” helps blur the line between the two labels of “addicts” and “normies”.

                When people have a “Change of heart”, its is not presumed they are forever controlling themselves , or “in remission.”

    • Gary June 15, 2018 at 7:56 am #

      Hi Colin…I couldn’t agree with you more, “spontaneous recovery” not only happens with those impacted by your typical “drugs” and/or alcohol addicted folks but especially with those addiction to smoking and/or nicotine dependent as well. In fact, sudden “Cold Turkey” quitting happens to people fairly often mainly due to the price or cost of tobacco products. Whenever a person comes to the conclusion that what they are doing Is Not Working they tend to be more successful in attaining as well as sustaining life long recovery (or Discovery).

      It’s as though there is a sudden psychological clarity leaving one with but one choice which also makes change easier and manageable coming from the self. As I have said many times “Change is and inside job”!~

      • Carlton June 21, 2018 at 8:10 am #

        Gary, Colin,

        “Psychological clarity” could be considered the discovery and realization that the want and need of the addiction is no longer a major role in ones life.

        It’s identical to when a person “discovers” they no longer love something, such as the works of a favorite musician, writer, etc, or even a person, place or thing.

        This may happen slowly, instantly, or never at all.

    • Marc October 21, 2018 at 11:41 am #

      Here’s a late reply, Colin.

      It’s October now, and I was just made aware of an excellent article in ProTalk on the power of spontaneous (or natural) recovery. Take a look: https://www.rehabs.com/pro-talk-articles/why-addiction-treatment-needs-to-be-informed-by-natural-recovery-data/ Like you, the author urges us not to ignore the fact that most people recover on their own.

  3. matt June 14, 2018 at 7:06 am #

    Hi Colin

    Thanks for this. I think we agree on the treatment issue, and I also believe in “spontaneous recovery”. Notice I didn’t mention treatment in my comment. “Treatment” set back my “recovery” more than helped it.

    But I’m sorry. Whether it’s a self-help group, a yoga class, a therapist, a friend or a puppy– nobody does this alone.

    I am the only person who knows whether or not I have a problem, I am the only person who knows what’s working. I am the only person who can effect a successful recovery…but I can’t do it alone.

  4. Marc June 14, 2018 at 7:22 am #

    Colin, I don’t think it was love that helped Julian relent. Or if anything, it was self-love, as you suggest: recognizing that he didn’t need anyone else’s embrace because he was okay on his own. It was this discovery of not-needing that gave him the impetus, and his reward was the sense of strength that filled out that intuition. The back rub was just a bonus, an add-on.

    Not reading too deeply into this, I saw it as a simple tale…simply about letting go of something you thought you needed.

    But there was something like love in the air. Maybe he felt that; maybe he breathed it in.

    • matt June 14, 2018 at 7:47 am #

      Exactly. But since I love to read too much into things… 🙂

      I would argue that “self-love” and “other love” are inextricably related. That’s one of the reasons mutual support groups work. In my self-destructive behavior, I had stopped loving myself. I had stopped being honest with myself about what was happening and what was important to me. When I see other people who have survived what I was going through, and they are actually willing to help me out of it—that’s a powerful experience. Especially due to the way addiction is stigmatized in this society…

      We learn how to love ourselves, believe in ourselves again when we move away from addictive behaviors…and see that it is possible through the example of others. A big part of self-love is based on my own expectations…in relation with the expectations of my larger group, tribe, community, whatever…

      • Marc June 14, 2018 at 8:15 am #

        Since I like reading into things too…

        I wonder how much Julian’s “abstinence” was aided by his sense of being generous to his brother, and how much came from his sense of being admired and loved by me. i can imagine these vectors of love and care criss-crossing the dimly lit hallway, from one bedroom to the other, as the evening settled.

        • matt June 14, 2018 at 8:38 am #

          yes…how do we form “habits of mind” anyway?

          But “abstinence”? Sounds more evaluative and pro-active to me. I mean, I’m sure you are nice and cuddly to curl up with, but maybe Ruben’s feelings were ultimately more important to him. 😉

          Fast brain, slow brain stuff getting sorted out?

        • Denise June 14, 2018 at 8:48 am #

          I agree. I think you appealed to his sense of himself as a hero, a kind giving person who could be “better” than the emotional little brother… who of course is the same age, but am I wrong in guessing that Julian is the “older” one in behavior, thought and emotion? So he rose to the occasion of proving his dominance.

          • Marc June 14, 2018 at 9:16 am #

            I wouldn’t say “dominance” — he’s not like that. But yes, he was pleased at being more grown up and less needy. Julian is generally a fierce cuddler.

            I wonder if that aspect of the drama can add another plank to the motives for abstaining.

            By the way, note that he only gave up his “addiction” for one night. As per my last post, baby steps….

            • matt June 14, 2018 at 9:26 am #

              …and one of them at a time. To avoid emotional overwhelm. It’s not easy to contain when one gets emo-whelmed…

              • Karen June 20, 2018 at 4:33 am #

                I think it’s about self. Julian perhaps got a sense of himself as strong and independent. I got that when I gave up smoking cigarettes; that dirty, unhealthy behaviour didn’t fit with my sense of self as fit, healthy and smart.

  5. matt June 14, 2018 at 7:23 am #

    I should qualify and define terms a bit. What I believe is “recovery” is re-entry and re-engagement with life– my relationship with the world and others. “Addiction” is a compulsive relationship to a substance or a behavior substituting for that relationship. That’s why it is so lonely and isolative. Social connection and reciprocity are instincts in humans. They need to be a part of re-establishing my relationship with my environment.

  6. William Abbott June 14, 2018 at 12:13 pm #

    What more can be said of this inspiring and enlightening post- but Hussah

    Well one– flipping a coin might have worked better and gotten you to bed much
    sooner !!

    • Marc June 15, 2018 at 4:18 am #

      Rock paper scissors still has some sense of agency to it. It is after all a game with a winner and a loser. And, a bit like poker or even ping-pong, your success depends on mind reading. Maybe that’s why Julian usually wins.

      • William Abbott June 15, 2018 at 8:23 am #

        are these identical twins ? if so how could that be? lol

        no matter it all worked out well and you got some sleep hopefully – one less day til wife gets home

        • Marc June 15, 2018 at 9:36 am #

          I actually don’t mind a bit. They are still adorable, even at 12.

  7. Katie June 14, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

    I ruined the potential this post held for me when I got to [“What we get out of the deal is no calculable advantage, no currency exchange, but simply the feeling] of being strong and good and right.”

    Good and right? Noooooo!!!!!!

    Articles, books and podcasts put these ideas in my head about my existence being essentially a collection of neurological processes devoted first to helping me survive, then to avoiding-pain / pursuing pleasure.

    Would it be like, finding comfort in the knowledge that my enduring this awful, relentless feeling of missing out on pleasure and relief is’ good and right’ because…it might pay off it later? Even though I have no good evidence that it will?

    Cognitive dissonance—how do I infuse the voice wanting me to stop bad-behavoir with ACTUAL emotion to give it some power over my actions?

    Sorry about the tangent. Looking forward to your next posts.

    • Marc June 15, 2018 at 4:24 am #

      Hi Katie, no, definitely not about those neural processes and bits. But also I don’t think it’s about anticipation of a later payoff. I think it’s more like being completely in the present and feeling the whoosh of it, or landing upright after a ski jump, or maybe like when your boots crack through that thin crust of surface ice and you connect with the solid snow-covered ground just below. And you just say, here I am, and it’s fine.

  8. Colin Brewer June 15, 2018 at 3:57 am #

    My slightly flip comment produced more exchanges than I expected and since they were all relevant and civilised, that’s good. However, most clinicians have seen people with serious addictions who just stopped. Yes, sometimes it probably was because they fell very much in love, or got religion, but sometimes neither they nor I could explain it except as a feeling that they’d had enough and just had to stop doing it if they wanted to have a better life, even if that life was a rather selfish one. One discovers most such cases by accident – someone mentions it at a party when they learn that I used to be an addiction specialist; or it’s a patient you’re seeing for some surgical or medical reason; or occasionally an old addict patient you’d given up as hopeless drops you a line. I find them fascinating and – the reason for mentioning it on Marc’s brain-disease-free blog – a challenging poke in the eye for the more blinkered and exclusivist members of the disease cult.

  9. Peter Sheath June 15, 2018 at 11:38 am #

    Hiya Marc, what a lovely piece. Doting dad and his gorgeously empathic, altruistic bedtime story. I too find the comparisons you draw, to stopping using, very true and wonderfully apt. I think there is something in this story that resonates with most of our lived experiences as similarities within the process of giving up. Keith Humphries in his book, circles of recovery, talked about it along the lines of initially finding yourself in some kind of life changing event. It may be finding a job, meeting a new partner, finding religion, etc. He then talked about coming across someone in a position of authority who gives you chance, and you don’t want to let them down. This may be a judge in court who waves a prison sentence, a policeman who doesn’t arrest you, or a parent who has that honest talk with you. He then talks about meeting someone who you believe in and they believe in you. Personally I also believe that things like learning about social responsibility, growing up, altruism, empathy, love, intimacy and spirituality play a huge part in behaviour change, pretty much as evidenced by your boys.

    Earlier this week I was talking to a group of probation officers about substance use, dependency, offending and rehabilitation and recovery. It was very much from a lived experience perspective and I’ve done it quite a few times now. I try to make it as dialogic and interactive as possible and one question always comes up. Someone always asks, “well how did you give up?” And I always find it really difficult to answer. There were so many forces, influences, situations and internal shifts that it seems to get increasingly difficult to articulate as time passes and my knowledge broadens. These days, having left the, “disease cult”, well and truly in my past, I tend to think it was much more spontaneous than anything else. Yeah I scored enough heroin that I thought would kill me but I woke up with a very different head on my shoulders. I stopped using there and then, I’d done with it, but that’s when the work, I’ve talked about above, started. Here I am 18 years later, reaching out from my settee, whilst soberly watching Iran play Morocco in the world cup. A, mostly, responsible citizen, father, grandad, partner and substance misuse/mental/sexual health specialist nurse. How the fuck did that happen?

  10. Eric Nada June 15, 2018 at 11:56 am #

    This is a beautiful story, Marc. I love to hear real life snippets illustrating how those I respect navigate life’s many curves and bumps, thanks for sharing. Sibling relationships and competition really bring up the best and worst of experiencing and learning about power and love. My own experience was a painful one, but more painful for my younger brother who I was very hard on due to my own primordial attachment wounds as a child. I love that you successfully navigated the situation in such a way as to create not only a lesson, but a chance for your son to put his brother’s needs before the usually insurmountable power of wanting to win a sibling argument. The roots of those arguments must be deeply imbedded within the attachment process and in vying for being “loved the most.” It is a normal and healthy version of what must be dysfunctionally represented in the addiction process. And being able to rise above this dominating force using one’s own emotional strength is vital–he’s lucky to be able to learn this young. I have a wonderful father and we are very close, but he was not available for those lessons when I was young. I’m glad (and innately and involuntarily envious) that your sons get that kind of attention from there father at this vital age. Kudos.

    • Carlton June 15, 2018 at 3:15 pm #

      Well said, Eric, and Marc, have you considered publishing a collection of life-snippits like this?

      Its great to read, even if you dont has kids 🙂

  11. Margot June 19, 2018 at 4:07 am #

    Ha ha. love the free back rub. This post reminded me of a podcast I listened to the other day on Craving. Their strategy was to face a craving by entering into the ‘flow’. A craving is a closed-in state of being – a drawing away state. By doing the opposite and opening yourself up – a moving towards state – you counteract the craving. Mindfulness was a feature and they used slightly different language to this. But I thought it was a great strategy to have in the tool box. They have an app that supports the approach that they’ve designed for smoking cessation and cravings for food. Well worth a listen for those interested.

  12. tup July 24, 2019 at 12:36 pm #

    Here is a recent study on how many attempts it usually takes to quit.

    Short answer: average 5, mean 2, outlier 100.

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