Forming New Habits

Habits. Some are good. Some are unhelpful. Some you wear on your head. I’m going to talk about the first two. If you’re interested in the third, I suggest you check this out.

I’ve read some books plus a couple pamphlets I picked up at my doctor’s waiting room on the subject, so suffice it to say I have a habit of reading about habits. That’s a sort of expertise, right?

According to Charles Duhigg, who actually invested more of his free time to the subject than I have, habits cycle through three stages:

1. Trigger. This is the place or situation where your brain lights up with glee and says, “I know how to deal this this! Get me to the drinks cupboard (refrigerator, gym, pyjama drawer, mobile phone app of choice, casino), and fast!”

2. Behaviour. That’s the thing we do on autopilot once we’ve been triggered to action.

3. Reward. Dopamine, ahh sweet sweet dopamine. Our brains love a dopamine hit.

When I took on Dry January, I knew the hardest thing to do in lockdown was to get rid of my signal or trigger. So my strategy was to keep the trigger but change the behaviour to one that still provided my brain with the positive feedback I presumed it was craving.

I decided on the first of January that whenever I felt like it was time for drinkies, I would make it snack time. I knew this wasn’t the most helpful thing I could do, but in the circumstances, it was a reliably easy behaviour that could stop me from imbibing. Other folks can drink tea or eat carrot sticks. I didn’t have much hope that, while my husband swilled his home brew, I could ease my pain with raw vegetables.

Carrots, in my world, cannot compete for dopamine supply against a brimming cupful of cocktailed bliss.

Now I’m at the point where I want to ditch my snack habit, not resume my drinking habit, but engage with my lockdown reality.

Facing My Trigger

Basking in newfound sobriety allowed me to identify what had been triggering my lockdown drinking.

For some people, I can understand this experience would be downright upsetting. Covid has been a bastard. For many it has been completely devastating. In my case, it has swung between terrifying and annoying.

I don’t drink when terrified, but I do, as I’ve discovered, when I am catastrophically bored or resolutely frustrated.

During this time, we as a family have been watching a lot of television. Casting my mind back to my adolescence, I watched very little television. I was a physically active kid. Most nights I was out doing my improving activities (or secretly out doing un-improving activities…don’t tell my parents). I was not sat on my keister mindlessly soaking in the popular culture.

This broadcast media addiction developed during the past 20-plus years I spent raising my wonderful children. The Dry January helped me see that my precious bairns are all growed up now and their safety and security is not dependent on my rear end being glued to a sofa several nights per week.

A new question poses itself. Perhaps I drank and now snack to help me deal with yet an older habit that I have outgrown? The trigger isn’t boredom and frustration. It is boredom with young-family coping strategies that I never before had the insight to see as now unnecessary.

Yeah, but Lockdown

Ah, but what about lockdown realness? We live in a rural area with no streetlights. I can’t go out on my government-approved walk after sundown because I’ll trip in the poorly-maintained road and get run over by the local drug dealers on their way to work.

I want to connect with my beloved resident family members when they agree not to be on their devices or doing on-line schoolwork. It’s harder to find a board game everyone agrees to play than to find a movie or series we all harbour curiosity about.

Taking the car anywhere is right out because everything is shut, you need to be on a mission to buy something vital, and no socialising is allowed.

I have a pathological aversion to extra-curricular housework that goes above and beyond the bare minimum. I get that other people find it very satisfying. I find it thoroughly enraging.

Crafts, while delightful for many, are a plague for me on two fronts. First, as an artist, much of my day already consists of, frankly, craft-like activity. Second, a curse of carpel tunnel makes me fearful of many fun-sounding repetitive activities like knitting that tend to go well with tv watching.

Where does this leave me? My trigger is a feeling that I am confined to my home, with a responsibility to negotiate a peaceful get-together with all resident family members after the sun goes down. In the summer, this isn’t troublesome for me as we can gather outside, television free. And the dark hours between sundown and head-down are fleeting. In deepest, darkest winter, they stretch out like a featureless barren wasteland. In the past year I populated this landscape with an agreeable wash of drink. In January, I tried to texturise this desert with cronch and MSG.

The Buddha (and my spiritual woowoo friend) would probably exhort me to embrace the dark emptiness. Firstly, it’s temporary. Winter always passes eventually. Second, there may be something to discover there. Even a desert teams with more activity than you initially think.

Oh let me wander the booze-free snackless boondocks for forty days and forty nights and therein I guess I’ll find salvation. Cold turkey, here I come.

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