The Secret to Licking Addiction

Most of us develop habits that eventually begin to get in our way and sometimes even alienate us from others. One such habit for me was an addiction to coffee.

 At the time, I was working as a clinician in a mental health clinic. Because some of our clients were taking psychotropic medication, we checked them regularly for side effects, such as tremors and irregular muscular movements. Additional meds, like Cogentin, were used to counteract those side effects.

 At about 5 o’clock one night, I said to a client, “Bill, time to stretch out your arms and hands to be sure everything’s OK,” and I demonstrated by stretching out my own arms and hands. Bill exclaimed, “Hey,Elizabeth, I think you need some Cogentin!”

 I was shocked to see that I could not stop my hand tremors, and I knew the cause was my coffee consumption (7-8 cups a day.) This incident served as my wake up call and I determined that I would get off coffee. However, my training had been that addictions were extremely hard to lick, if ever, and required extensive therapy and perhaps drugs to control. 

I began to look at the extent of my addiction. I chose my friends by whether they drank coffee, had no tea drinking friends. I chose the meetings I went to by whether coffee was served. I gave travel directions to people by Duncan Donuts landmarks and knew exactly where they were located throughout the northeast so that I could take a break every two hours on trips. 

I even kept a 16 oz. coffee cup on a small table next to my desk so I could take a discreet slug of coffee between the 50 min. sessions with my clients. At home, I had a cup of coffee next to me when reading a book or any other activity.

 All of a sudden, I began to resent the hold coffee had on my life and the people and events I was missing because of my habit. That was my true Aha! Moment. I began to resent coffee, and gradually stopped drinking it altogether because I was sure it was an addiction and one cup would put me right back on it again. For several years, I avoided coffee.

 Then I found that I could have an occasional cup and enjoy it, without worrying about becoming addicted because I now have a stronger base. I enjoy a wider circle of friends and activities and have no desire to let anything get in the way of this lifestyle!

 –And the secret?  Nothing new here: Eastern philosophers long ago taught that the secret to an intentional life is the ability to remain alert to each moment. Meditation became popular in this country when people sought to gain control over wandering, troubled minds. Training included sitting still for increasingly longer periods, repeating mantras in a relaxed state, scanning the body continually, or just watching thoughts come and go like so many fish in a stream.

 When I applied this philosophy to drinking coffee, I began to see coffee as less of a friend than a nagging nuisance. My reliance on a fix left me feeling wired or wiped out by attempts to maintain a steady state. When I decided to cut back, the intense craving was right up there in front of me, whether I distracted myself with running or other active movement. The minute I sat down, I needed that fix. It wasn’t until I began to see and resent coffee, as a merciless taskmaster in my life that I was able to fight back and claim my right to be in charge of my life.

 It doesn’t matter what the addiction is. The secret is to watch it. Notice how it directs your life, the friends you choose, your emotional state, your ability to shift when necessary, your freedom to travel anywhere, the quality of food you eat. Do you crave it? Does it take up more of your attention? Have you had a history of quitting, withdrawal and relapsing that reinforces a pattern? If you’re a student, do you end up late for class because you needed a cigarette between classes? Do you miss assignments because you came into the middle of a session? If you’re a parent transporting children, are you splotching car seats and carpets and clothing with spilled coffee?

 Spring is a great time to take a good look at our habits. It’s time to put away the heavy stuff of winter and travel lighter, time to plug in to fresh energy  from all the life springing up around us, time to slough off excess baggage of whatever is out of line in our life. It’s also a time to cheer each other on for all efforts as a means to keeping each other well!

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