Silver linings playbook

My wife and me recently watched the movie Silver linings playbook. The main character, Pat, is a bi-polar man, who would have caught his wife having an affair with his colleague, almost kills his colleague and is sent to a treatment center. Once Pat is out of the treatment center, he tries to clean up, believing that his wife still loves him and will come back to him if he fixes himself. Inspite of his wife getting a restraining order on him and his family asking him to move on. The movie is a comedy, well made (won oscars) and does a great job of showing the suffering he endures because of his delusional thinking. I was cheering from my seat hoping that Pat gets better and almost wanted to shake him out of his warped sense of reality. Hmmmm.. I’am sure that’s exactly how my wife feels at times.

Delusional thinking. The Buddhists say that delusion is a state of mind in which reality is not seen. At my last session with my therapist, the movie was still fresh in my mind and as we were discussing me, I realized that my own thinking is delusional in many cases. Here are some of my delusions.

  • Giving meaning (usually negative) to my feelings, no matter what the reality is. The mind thinks that a) everything is bad and b) exaggerates how bad it is. An example: If I’am feeling anxious about our finances, then the mind thinks we’ll end up on the streets and that the future is bleak. Never mind the fact that the issues we are facing with finances are temporary, plus, it’s not so bad.
  • That I don’t have needs and wants. Not taking care of myself. There is this sense of being a tough person, who can handle stuff and not make a big deal about it. I don’t really feel that I’am very tough inside, on the contrary, I’am quite scared actually. But I think I suppress my needs and wants to portray this tough exterior. It bites me in the ass since this leads to building up resentment and a general sense that things I want, or outcomes I desire, will not happen.
  • Believing that I can do everything and at the pro level. Basically, that I’ll be able to do anything and everything and be the best in all of them. See, I’am no superman, but the mind still believes that to be the case. Never mind the fact that my days only last 24 hours (as everybody else’) and when this get’s split up between family and work there’s not much time left to do much. This kind of thinking has some bad side effects. I will attempt to do something but set such a high bar (pro level) for myself that no matter what the results, I’am not satisfied. Many times, I’ll simply not even attempt certain things since I would have reasoned out and resigned to the fact that it can’t be done. After all, it would take a lot of time, which I don’t have, to do something perfectly. Now this means that a number of ‘enjoyable’ things are simply not even attempted and this feeds into the general sense of despair that life sucks.
  • Thinking that I’am not good enough. This ties into the previous delusion and is perhaps linked to the general sense of dissatisfaction at not having achieved perfection in everything I attempt. My mind believes that I’am not good enough. After all, I can find at least one person who is doing something much better than me (without knowing what their lives really look like from the inside) and hence I must be a failure.
  • Magical thinking. Having unrealistic expectations, no dreams, that things will somehow, magically work out. And when the real laws of gravity kick in, feeling shitty that the desired outcomes didn’t actually happen. An example is this expectation of retiring at 40, having earned enough money. Raising healthy well adjusted children at the same time, while traveling all over the world. And let’s not forget having time to be party, be physically fit and healthy along the way.

So here’s my silver linings playbook: When I’am stressed out or I feel that I’am getting depressed, check my thought process – is what I’am thinking real? Recognize that I can’t do everything at the same time and consciously try to do one or two things, at the most, at any given time. Also try to break things up into smaller pieces since reality is that I will be stressed for time. Most importantly, start taking care of myself by doing things that I like,  in small chunks.

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My approval rating

In any other life, I might be a celebrity or perhaps running for office.  Such is my obsession with my ‘approval rating’.  i.e. the constant need to fit-in and get approval from people.  The funny thing is, this need for approval is an unconscious one.  I do not post on facebook and count the number of friends I have.  In fact, I get edgy and uncomfortable when somebody praises me.

In the past, I hadn’t quite zeroed in on this thirst for approval.  But something interesting happened over the weekend.  I should have been happy – My job situation is working out, I’ve been off the booze for over six weeks now and as a couple, we are making significant strides in getting a handle on our lives.  Instead, I was weighed down by my black dog and that didn’t seem right.  I went out on a long drive tracing back the events of the past couple of days to figure out what was happening and here’s how it all fit in.

I was comparing my career, achievements, financial well being etc., with that of people I knew.  Friends mainly, which makes it even harder – I am jealous that somebody has it better, followed by judgment that they have it easier in some areas of their life.  Not exactly how you win friends and influence people.  It was triggered by a piece of news that an acquaintance found a job in the same firm that I didn’t get recruited into.  Plus it was becoming very clear that we are running out of funds and we would have to be very careful with our spending.  A double whammy – Somebody else won a prize and would do better in their career plus they had more money to boot.  By this time I’am feeling depressed, worried about the future.  I can’t win this race and I’am a loser.

See, I grew up in a poor family and some of my early childhood experiences (more about those later) have been those of scarcity.  The experience of living on the other side of the tracks  have created some non-negotiable (non-negotiable in my mind) decisions about what a dignified and safe life means.  You do not have dignity, safety or respect if you are poor.  If you are poor, the society does not care about you.  You are not important, a human being, somebody who has a voice and feelings and needs.  You could be a doormat for all they care.  My childhood memories have been about trying to get that respect by being smart and well behaved, hoping to secure enough financially to never having to face scarcity again.  Being smart could be the ticket out of the mess.  Being well behaved since I had to continue to receive the support I needed (cash or kind) and had to suppress the sense of indignity that resulted from said support.  Plus, to show them that I will make it in spite of all their negativity towards me and my own lack of resources.  That I would make up for my deficiencies with my smarts and creativity.  Constantly looking for their approval.  Fighting the ‘not good enough’ tag placed on you, but feeling that way nevertheless.

This is my formula for my approval rating:  Am I marching towards gaining their respect  or approval (through my ‘achievements’) and do I have enough money so I’ll never have to experience such poverty again.  I recognize that this reads like a cartoon super hero fantasy story.  Unfortunately, my adult brain is wired exactly like this (or so it seems).  As any number of wise people and their books would say, I’am living somebody else’s life.  Perhaps this explains my identity crisis.  It’s a bad formula really, since both the variables are not under my control – I cant control what others think about me or my past.  And my current mood reflects how bad the formula is.

What worries me is the sense of depression –  Nothing I do seems to get my approval ratings higher.  I’am now getting to a point where I’am giving up the fight, being a victim – i.e. If only I had a better set of circumstances, I would have done better.  Not a fun place to be in.  Towards the end of my drive, I was desperate to come up with a solution for this and here’s what I need to figure out:  Do I still need an approval rating?  Can I be fine without getting everybody’s respect or a ton of money?

Identity Theft

What I’am talking about is being somebody for everybody, doing things to please everybody and anybody.  Losing touch with who you really are and what you wanted to do.  After a number of years of such existence, you eventually don’t recognize the person in the mirror.

In my case, this is driven by the need to fit in so that I’am not the odd person in a group of people.  The group of people, of course keeps changing.  It might be a bunch of parents and kids in which case I’am the attentive, caring, worried parent.  It might be colleagues in which case I’am the person who can keep calm, handle a situation, who knows it all.  It might be drinking buddies in which case I’am the one closing the bar.  The interesting thing is that each of these examples requires one to live a different life, be a different personality.  Many times, this is driven by fear.  Somehow worried about what the future might hold, or the results of an action or a decision.  Or how my actions might be perceived by others.  You cannot pretend to be liking and doing things while your instincts are crying out for something else.  Faking it for too long is tiring.

What triggered this thought is my frequent ritual of finding a new job.  Here’s how it goes.  The old job somehow did not fit what I wanted.  It was a dead end, or I just lost interest, or it was not going to make me any money.  The reasons can be innumerable, but it’s now time to move on.  Then I look at my resume and the current job market.  As it always happens things have changed since the last time I looked for a job (The tech industry, especially, is notorious for changing fast) and somehow I find myself doing this job search in a hurry, under a deadline, with a dwindling savings account.  In this situation, I’am prone to say ‘yes’ to anything that comes along my way.  Infact, I am desperate to fit into any company (small, large) any job description, any domain of expertise.  More often than not, I’ve been lucky to be hired in some such firm and the whole cycle repeats itself.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Eventually, it’s become hard for me, in my own mind, describe who I’am.  Or be able to articulate what I like.  Having made so many compromises and having worn so many masks, I cannot identify myself.  The irony is that the perpetrator of this identity theft is none other than myself.

I’ll have a diet coke

I’ve never had diet coke before, certainly not in a restaurant with a bunch of friends celebrating a birthday.  This is exactly what I did a couple of days ago and man, does it feel good and more importantly reassuring.

Good because I had diet coke instead of an alcoholic beverage (funny how they use this fancy description for booze on airplanes.  Why cant they say “Hey, the booze cart’s coming out, do you want a beer?”) while the six gents around me were getting into beers and shots.  I didn’t succumb to the temptation of having “one” and that felt good.  In fact, I also for the first time enjoyed an awesome arugula salad.  Maybe arugula salads are always awesome and I was simply focussing on alcohol before. Who knows.

Reassured since I was worried about how this thing will play out.  Will I succumb to my brain’s need for alcohol, will I get “persuaded” to have that one drink?  In typical fashion, I didn’t even have a game plan for what I would do if such a situation arose and so by the time we reached the restaurant, I was feeling out of sorts.  In the end it worked out well and I actually didn’t feel the urge to drink and funny enough I didn’t ‘miss’ having a drink.

Which brings me to the minefield that is society and friends, when it comes to a recovering alcoholic.  In this context, friends fall into three categories.

  • First, the ones that think you should be drinking.  These are the ones you used to hang out with.  Often late into the night, driving them back to safety (since you could hold your drink better etc. etc.) .  They miss those times and they care about spending time with you.  These are the folks who will say “How long do you plan to not drink” or “It’s good, you should give it a break for a couple of months”.
  • Second, the ones that think you should not be drinking.  These are the ones that are very clear about why you should not drink.  They might have seen you go out of control, are generally alarmed at what you are doing etc.  They care about you, are more mature than the first group and they protect your decision to not drink.  These are the folks who’ll say “Good dont drink”.  They’ll also tell the first group to stop persuading you to drink.
  • Third, and these are the worst of the lot.  They don’t or can’t understand what this is all about or they simply don’t care.  These are the ones that say “what’s wrong with having a drink.  Why, I have a drink every day and nothing’s wrong with me”.  This crowd is basically saying  “I’am better than you” and that sucks.  It sucks since you are trying not to think about a beer but deep down, you still miss the beer.  It also sucks since they are a living testament that somethings wrong with you and that you cannot control your drinking.

And what about the society?  I just had a manager tell me something on the lines of : “You should connect with those guys from the other department.  Take them to the bar and buy them a couple of drinks”.  Damn, if I get started on that path, I will soon lose my job.  Roll into safeway and I’ll see a bunch of booze stocked at the entrance, next to the BBQ supplies.  Now, I like BBQ but…

The other day, I saw a couple of teenage girls pour a hearty amount of rum into their water bottles, hide the 1.5 litre captain morgan in the bushes.  In broad daylight.  In a busy shopping area.  Hoping to come back for a refill later.  I sometimes think it’s better to be diabetic than an alcoholic.  People get it if you say “Cant do cakes, I’am diabetic”.  What we need is better awareness about alcohol.    Till this happens, I’ll have a diet coke.

 

Patience and faith

It’s been over five weeks since I haven’t had any alcohol.  I was expecting this to be pretty easy, since common sense says “Do not poison yourself and you’ll be just fine”.  The effects of not drinking should have been good right?  My experience has been the exact opposite.

  • The body is more tired since it is not getting enough calories – seems changing eating habits takes a while.  Most of my calories came from alcohol and a quick search on google will tell you that these alcohol calories are simply sugar.  To make up for the lack of nutrients in a beer diet, the brain apparently makes adjustments by reducing some hormones and increasing others.  Take out the beer and whatever’s left in the diet, the brain goes crazy.   Over the last few weeks, I’ve been on a sugar binge like never in my life.  Think tubs of ice-cream and anything with sugar in it.  As the body craves for nutrients, my lack of a proper diet, eating at the right times etc., leads to tiring out and feeling depressed.
  • Sleep.  It’s common knowledge that alcoholics drink themselves to sleep.  It was no different for me and alcohol was the sleeping pill on any given night.  Now take that away and I cannot sleep.  It looks like I’ve “lost” the skill to sleep by myself.  I have been up till 3AM or 4AM most days, wasting my time watching netflix.  One general advice is to read instead of watching TV and this helps sometimes.
  • Exercise or the lack of it.  Again, the problem here is the lack of a routine before quitting.  All of a sudden, exercise becomes an issue.  First, the body cannot do much (it’s sorta wasted out) and there is no energy to exercise (general fatigue and depression compounds this).  Secondly, I dont know where to start and how I can add this to my routine.  When one needs to start with figuring out a 24hr gym membership it soon becomes a lost cause.
  • They say that the root cause of alcoholism has to do with the soul.  Something’s not correct in the thinking, being able to handle stress etc., and it leads to drinking.  This root cause does not go away with quitting alcohol.  You hit the grand realization that there’s a shit load of work remaining to be done and that it’ll take a better part of your remaining life to do so.

In fact, the biggest downer is the fact that you started at -100 when you were drinking.  When you stop, you get to, say, -10.  You think that something big was accomplished, and true, it’s something big for you.  But the rest of the world carries on and in their eyes nothing has been accomplished.  You were stupid to have gotten to -100 to start with and now that you’re still not ‘normal’ do not expect a pat on the back!

Which brings me to patience and faith.  Without faith that it’s all worth it and that things are pointing in the right direction, it’s easy to give up( especially when you have a society and a bunch of people goading you to drink, but more on that later).  I have to believe (without any evidence) that it’s for the good.  That things will take care of themselves, if I stay the path.  And loads of patience.  I would love to have the effect and outcome I desire (which is be energetic, less depressed or moody, etc. etc.) fast, but things take their own time.  It’ll take some time (and I dont know how much) to heal the body and mind that was subject to copious amounts of alcohol for the last 3-4 years.

My engine used to run on alcohol, now I need to tune it to run on faith and patience.  It’s a work in progress and I can only believe that it’ll all be fine in the end.