How’s your New Year’s resolutions coming along?
A few days in, and many will be struggling or will have caved in altogether. Some will be beating themselves up and take their lack of willpower as yet more evidence they’re unworthy human beings. Others will just fall back into their old pattern without giving it too much thought until the next New Year comes round when they’ll have another stab at self improvement.
New Year: new me
Jane was a bit like that: now in her early 30s, with a young daughter, she’d had several goes at giving up smoking cannabis every evening, only to fall back into her old pattern of behaviour within a few days.
‘Why do you smoke it? I asked her ‘It must be doing something for you.’
‘Work is so stressful’ she said. It’s like a reward for getting through the day.’
‘What happens when you try to stop’ I asked.
‘I get bored’, said Jane without hesitation.
‘How do you normally spend your evenings?’ I asked.
‘Slumped in front of the TV mainly’, she said.
‘What about your partner?’
‘I don’t have a partner at the moment’.
‘Would you like one?’
‘And what’s your strategy for finding one?’ I asked.
‘Er, I don’t have one’, said Jane with a wry smile.
I was starting to form a picture of a life that wasn’t really working for Jane. Now the reason for her habit was becoming clear. There were some gaps in her life that she was filling in an unhelpful way. The cannabis could have been alcohol, online gambling, shopping, over eating or any of the activities that give us a lift.
In a way, Jane was one of the lucky ones. So many start with cannabis and end up using stronger drugs until, in the end, they can’t function without them, can’t get up in the morning or turn up at work on time. A destructive domino effect can result in them losing jobs, losing friends and partners and finding themselves on the streets or even in prison.
That hadn’t happened for Jane so she certainly had a ‘stop button’ but she’d also recognized she wanted to change and was having trouble.
‘Why do you want to stop?’ I asked.
‘I don’t think it’s doing me any good. She said ‘I don’t seem to want to do anything anymore. I feel tired and de-motivated most of the time and my head’s not clear in the morning. Also, I get the munchies after and I’ve been putting on weight.’
This was good to hear. There was a clear incentive to stop. Focusing on goals really helps.
‘So if you cut out the cannabis you’d have more energy, be doing more things, seeing more of your friends and be slimmer and fitter?’
‘Yes and I might be doing something about finding a partner too.’ she said quietly.
As I began to work with Jane using the coaching wheel of life, it became clear that many areas of her life were not working well. It turned out she hated her work and found it really stressful. She’d split up with her long term partner several years ago and lost touch with mutual friends. After she put on weight, she’d also given up going to the dance classes she used to love. Now, many of her emotional needs were not being met. Sat in front of the TV most evenings, she’d been feeling low and a bit anxious.
Human emotions have the role of pushing us towards getting our needs met. Our emotional brain can send us some very uncomfortable feelings designed to prompt us to take action, but many choose to medicate the feelings away, legally or illegally or they irrigate them with alcohol rather than take a long, hard look at what’s happening in their life.
When our needs are met, we feel good. We don’t have a hole to fill and we don’t feel the need to self medicate. Social isolation is big problem human beings, as it is for many animals such as rats.
Rat heaven, rat hell
Alexander’s hypothesis was that drugs do not cause addiction, and that the apparent addiction to opiate drugs commonly observed in laboratory rats exposed to them was attributable to their living conditions, not to any addictive property of the drug itself.
To test his hypothesis, Alexander built an environment where rats were given everything they needed for a good rat life. There was plenty of food, comfortable bedding, things to do and other rats to hang out with. Turns out rats are very sociable, sexual and busy animals.
In Rat Park, the rats had a choice of water or morphine (heroine). Most of the time, they chose the water. But the control group of caged rats kept in social isolation and without stimulation mostly chose the morphine.
The conclusion was stark.
Even though morphine is considered highly addictive, when life was good, the rats did not want it and even rats that had been previously caged and drinking the morphine for a long time, chose not to when they found themselves living happy lives in Rat City. They also seemed to have little problem with withdrawal.
This tied in with the findings of the US Government after the Vietnam War. Many of the veterans were heavy users of heroine when on active service. There was a real concern that, when they returned home, they would bring their addiction with them, but it didn’t happen.
Most of the veterans, who returned to a functioning life with jobs and families, simply stopped using the drug without any problem at all.
Motivation and success
I explained all this to Jane.
She had her own example that she shared with me. In her teens, she told me, she’d tried to give up cigarettes many times. She tried nicotine gum and patches but they didn’t seem to help. But when she found out she was pregnant, something amazing happened. Jane stopped smoking and never mentioned it again. She had, in an instant, become a non smoker. Her instinct to protect her unborn child was far greater than the pull of the nicotine.
So, did Jane give up her cannabis habit?
Yes, of course.
Once she realised her will and motivation were far stronger than the drug, with a bit of help from me, she took action. She lost weight, changed her job, started reconnecting with old friends and activities and even found herself a partner.
As she said to me later:
‘Let’s face it, sitting there smoking pot every night was never going to find me a new man, was it!’
‘We are what we repeatedly do. Success is not an action but a habit’