Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Things fall apart

Last week was quite a week. One minute I was way up in the Hollywood Hills shooting a TV show. Then I flew all the way back to New Zealand to attend a conference with some world famous psychologists. It should have been a vibrant, exciting week. 

Except it wasn’t.

Have you ever become so engrossed in a book that everything else around you seemed secondary in comparison? I certainly have. Many times in fact. During this particular week, my mind got locked into “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” by Jordan Peterson. I read it after seeing his name so many times in psych circles that I got curious. It’s mostly a thought-provoking book. Sometimes a little wandering, and others downright brilliant.

One thing stood out that I couldn’t get out of my mind.

Things fall apart.

Peterson wrote about how everything in our life is subject to decay. We buy a car and think it’s going to be beautiful forever. Ten years later it’s a money pit. A new iPhone has a shelf life of about two years. Whatever it is, from a home to a road to a building, it’s going to fall apart. 

And it’s not just material things that fall apart either. Who among us hasn’t been in a relationship that started with passion and incredible sexual chemistry that slowly faded into something a lot more tame? Or perhaps we’ve looked someone in the eye so sure we were going to be together forever that there wasn’t a shred of doubts in our minds.  And yet years later we can’t even find something to talk about with them. Families that spend so much time together sharing rooms, eating meals and taking vacations, may only see each other a few times a year as adults. A job that we were totally excited about in the beginning becomes stale and boring three years later. Friends we were inseparable with become people we exchange the occasional Christmas card with. 

You get the idea.

Things fall apart.

If you’re still reading, you are perhaps thinking, “Why are you pointing out this depressing shit man?

I think it’s important to remember that things fall apart because it reminds us that we can also extend the life of things by doing some maintenance along the way. Here are a couple examples. 

This is Irvin Gordon, a teacher sitting inside his little Volvo he bought for $4,000 dollars a long time ago. He’s not rich and never won the lottery. And yet Irvin and his little Volvo have driven over 3 million miles together. 

Over this time, Gordon has gotten 857 oil changes, swapped out 30 drive belts and used 120 bottles of transmission fluid. Because of all of his tender loving care and diligent attention, his Volvo has never broken down. 


Here is John and Evie Kaspar, who have been married for 70 years. They made a touching video talking about how they accomplished this amazing feat. It’s full of warmth, love, romance, as well as gentle nagging and teasing. Here is it if you want to watch a nice story. How to be married for 70 years.

But the video I’m more interested in is the two of them singing, “Baby Got Back” together in their 90’s. I think this video has the REAL secret. 

Never stop laughing together.

And when in doubt, cue up a little Sir-Mix-A-Lot when you want to get busy.

No matter how old you are.

I love both these stories because they show that, although things most certainly fall apart, we also have incredible power to delay this process. 

It clearly has a lot to do with how much maintenance we want to put in. 

The problem with things falling apart, is we often don’t realize this decay until it’s already happened. We miss someone terribly after they leave, but took them for granted for years before we finally realize this. We think our health is going to hold up forever, and then are shocked when the doctor delivers the bad news, despite the fact we neglected our health for years. 

Although it might seem depressing to contemplate how things fall apart, I actually think it’s something we should think about every day.  It reminds us to be more present, more attentive, and more aware of the little bits of maintenance we can do to prevent the rapid and inevitable decay.

The examples above are genius level maintenance people, but for those of us that are not so gifted, perhaps we can still think of a few things. Maybe we can take the stairs occasionally instead of the elevator to make a little improvement in our health. Perhaps we can write a letter to our partner telling them all the things we appreciate completely out of the blue. Maybe we can make a point of getting together with family and old friends once a year “just because” instead of waiting around for Christmas and the holidays.

Because things fall apart.

In one of the last pieces of this chapter, Peterson talks about how he saw his 80-year old parents a couple of times a year, as they lived a fair distance away. He thought about this for a moment, and a startling realization came to him. 

He may only see his parents 20 more times in his entire life.

And if you knew that, really knew it, what would you do with that time? Would you sit around watching TV? Argue over silly things? What if it was the very last time? What would you say? What would you do to ensure the snapshot of that memory was one that you would remember?

It’s a powerful thought, and one I think we SHOULD be talking about. Use your time. Love your time. Fix your time if you have to. 

Let’s all strive to be a little better maintenance men and women.

Because things fall apart.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The powerful relationship between addictions and the connections in our lives

In the last month, I’ve seen the two best videos I’ve ever seen about addiction. One is about a bird, and the other is about some rats.

Here is the first video called “Nuggets.” I have been using it with people addicted to video games, porn, alcohol, meth, and even their phones. I believe it shows the cycle of addiction almost perfectly. At first, a big payoff, then less so, and finally no payoff at all as we need the drug just to return to our baseline.

I showed it to a teenager recently, who made a fascinating observation. He asked, “What if the bird only takes the nuggets because there are no other birds around?

Which brings us to amazing video number two. An incredibly insightful video titled, "Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong" by Johann Hari.

As you might guess from the title, Hari has some ideas that rock the foundations of a lot of what we accept as common knowledge about addictions. In essence, Hari makes the bold claim that addictions are not as much about chemistry as they are about connections.

He begins his tale with a story about rats, and more specifically rats on heroin and rats on heroin in “rat park” which is essentially a kind of Disneyland for rats.  The findings were powerful and showed that rats that had “connections” and the ability to chill with other rats, have sex, and play, had significantly lower rates of addiction than the rats who were left in lonelier conditions. Those rats essentially did heroin until they died.

The findings challenged some of the traditional ideas that addiction was a chemical process influenced by genetics and other biological factors. Although SOME of addiction is undoubtedly about those things, this connection piece is also pretty interesting.

He also uses the example of the veterans from Vietnam returning home. A huge number of the soldiers experimented with opiates in Vietnam, yet only a small portion of those soldiers remained addicted upon their return. What was the crucial variable here?

Many of the men came home to families and loved ones and their communities, and quickly turned away from the drugs. 95% of them stopped using heroin upon their return.

What might this say about connection? Perhaps human contact, love, friendship, and community are huge mitigating factors in the development and sustainability of addictions.

In the US right now, there is a raging Opioid epidemic that is virtually ruining entire communities. And we’ve thrown a lot of drugs at the problem trying to make it right.  I’ve done a stint as a psychologist at a methadone clinic myself.  And truthfully, a “heroin addict” often didn’t look at all like what I expected. There were lawyers and students and business people along with people struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

And looking back, the one thing I DID notice about these people was that they often had flimsy connections in their lives. Bad marriages, difficult relationships with parents and children, loneliness, isolation.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule. Some people certainly DO become addicted even when they have healthy and positive connections and support in their lives.

But I’m guessing these are more the exceptions than the rules.

Much debate has taken place around the existence of an “addictive personality.” Some believe firmly in this concept, while others believe it is dangerous to remove the personal responsibility piece of sobriety by calling it an addiction or a personality trait.

Although I’m only a case study of one, I would have to agree that there is such a thing as an addictive personality. Firstly, I’ve studied the lives of a number of celebrities who substituted one addiction for another during times of “sobriety” from a problematic substance. It’s a common pattern known as addiction substitution that shows up in the lives of a lot of people struggling with sobriety.

But closer to home, I know my own life. I’ve always been a creature of excess, and if it’s bad for you, I’ve probably done too much of it at one time or another in my life. Looking back, I thought about these moments when I was most vulnerable. What were the common denominators during those phases of my life?

Loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection. Without question, these things are connected. The psychologist Alfred Adler said we have three major “tasks” in our lives, which are love, friendship, and work. He posited that we might drift towards addictions when we had deficits in any of these three major areas.

It makes a lot of sense. When we are lonely, disconnected, or lacking a sense of purpose in our lives, we fill that void with something else.

It’s not hard to see it when you think about it.

In an era where we don’t sit down for dinner as families, we have our noses in our phones all the time, and people don’t know their neighbors very well anymore, it’s even more interesting to think about some our new 21st century addictions. Video games, checking our phones, online pornography, fucking Candy Crush. Whatever the flavor, it seems useful to think about this relationship between connection and addiction.

In thinking about this, I observed a number of students joined in solidarity who walked out of their school to protest gun laws in the US. I admire their willingness to stand up for what they believe.

But I also saw think we need to be thinking about how bullying, a lack of inclusion, and connections affects our lives. Strive to connect with people you see losing their way. It has huge implications for our future mental health.