LSR #3: Laying off the Smokes (And Other Toxic Crutches)

Contrary to popular belief, addictions do not fuel artistic capability. Smoking, drinking, overeating, dieting, gambling and excessive spending can serve as a form of writers block, keeping us from trusting or accessing our full potential. At their worst, these toxic crutches can nuke our creativity and wellbeing for good.

Stephen King lost all pleasure in writing when his battle with alcoholism peaked. Karen Carpenter died from her addictive behaviors. (Imagine what more the musical world might contain had she healed and survived…) And although it seems glamourous it films, TV and photography, smoking—one of the most common crutches—can monopolize our time, energy and financial resources. It’s also responsible for 1 in 5 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Most smokers, when told to quit, want to know not why, but how, says the American Cancer Association. Most understand the financial burden the habit creates ($3,600.00 per year for pack-a-day smokers in the U.S.) and the associated health risks. But largely because quitting ain’t easy physically or emotionally, 1 in 4 men and 1 in 5 women smoke on.

Like other dependencies, quitting smoking requires knowing why you smoke, a genuine desire to quit and a stronghold decision for change. And wouldn’t you know, many of the techniques useful for overcoming tobacco abuse work well for other toxic crutches.

Since many of you don’t smoke (GOOD FOR YOU!), I’ve decided to broaden the scope of this Lifesaving Resolution. The following are excerpts from Stealth Health‘s “Ways to Stop Smoking Cigarettes & Quit Smoking For Good. As you go through the list, replace the 😦 icon with a damaging habit of your own.

Make an honest list of all the things you like about :(. Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and write them on one side; on the other side make a list of all the things you dislike, such as how it can interfere with your health, work, family, etc., suggests Daniel Z. Lieberman, M.D., director of the Clinical Psychiatric Research Center at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Make another list of why quitting 😦 won’t be easy. Be thorough, even if the list gets long and discouraging. Here’s the important part: Next to each entry, list one or more options for overcoming that challenge. One item might be: “:( helps me deal with stress.” Your option might be: “Take five-minute walks instead.” The more you anticipate the challenges…and their solutions, the better your chance of success.

Prepare a list of things to do when a 😦 craving hits. Suggestions include: take a walk, drink a glass of water, kiss your partner, throw the ball for the dog, wash the car, clean out a cupboard, have sex, chew gum, wash your face, brush your teeth… Make copies of the list and keep one with you at all times. (**This won’t work for all toxic crutches. If you plan to give up cell phone use while driving, for example, sex won’t work—safely anyway. You could instead breath deeply, turn on the radio or clutch the steering wheel with both hands.)

See an acupuncturist. There’s some evidence that auricular acupuncture (i.e., needles in the ears) curbs cigarette cravings quite successfully, says Ather Ali, N.D., a naturopathic physician completing a National Institutes of Health-sponsored postdoctoral research fellowship at the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Connecticut. (**Acupuncture may also help manage alcoholism, binge eating, depression, insomnia and stress.)

Think of difficult things you have done in the past. Ask people who know you well to remind you of challenges you have successfully overcome, says Dr. Lieberman. This will give you the necessary self-confidence to stick with your pledge not to :(.

To minimize cravings, change your routine. Sit in a different chair at breakfast or take a different route to work. If you usually 😦 after work, change that to a walk.

Tell your friends, coworkers, boss, partner, kids, etc., how you feel about situations instead of bottling up your emotions. If something makes you angry, express it instead of smothering it with :(. If you’re bored, admit to yourself that you’re bored and find something energetic to do instead.

If you relapse, just start again. You haven’t failed.

*****

NOW FOR A SPECIAL TREAT… I’ve asked the talented Jan Harrell, PhD to share her insight on toxic crutches. With 30 years as a clinical psychologist under her belt, she’s a resource worth listening to with an attentive, open heart.

Jan and her husband, Alan

AM: From a psychological standpoint, why do most people rely on “toxic crutches,” such as cigarettes, alcohol and over eating or spending?

JH: All of us, while in large, capable adult bodies with well-developed intellectual left brains are aware, even if it isn’t something we consciously think about, of how vulnerable we each are, how little we can ultimately control. With great courage and determination, we step out into the world and try our best to create the lives we hope for, to find safety and fulfilment, all the while aware of that vulnerability.

Sometimes it makes itself known to us as the feelings of anxiety or depression, sometimes it takes the disguise of self-judgment or anger, but it is always a reflection of our deep awareness about how little control we can count on having. Those “toxic” crutches, whether substance abuse (food, cigarettes, alcohol, food) or addictive behaviors (gambling, spending, TV, video games) are places of refuge, where we can both comfort our feelings of being powerless and overwhelmed, and forget them for a while.

AM: How can a person who wishes to overcome a dependency cultivate desire and motivation (rather quitting because they feel they “should”)?

JH: When we truly understand what emotions and struggles underlie our non-logical behavior, rather than being in judgment or it, rather than trying to force ourselves with will-power and logic, we will be able to kindly and sympathetically, support our sense of vulnerability.

If we can accept that our “maladaptive” behaviors were the best that we were able to come up with, but that there are more loving ways to deal with the challenge of human existence with all the unavoidable vulnerability and lack of control, then we will be able to support ourselves in the same kind way we would guide a child who simply hasn’t learned, yet, how to navigate a difficult situation.

AM: What about for those who lack belief in themselves…feel incapable of giving up there crutch?

JH: Our desire to change and find emotional strength and freedom can be the lifeline we hold onto as we find the knowledge and tools we need to create the life we long for.

AM: How important is a support system? When is professional help necessary?

JH: Imagine Freud had been a teacher, not a doctor. People clearly liked to talk with him, so he probably would have offered classes on understanding human emotion. Instead of this being a question of “mental health” or “mental illness” we would all be thinking about emotional education, and what we feel and how we handle those feelings would simply be a course of study we all would take.

If we look at “professional help” as simply doing a one on one study of ourselves, life and how to handle it, there need be no shame or judgment. It would be no different than deciding to take a trip to France and wanting to learn the language so our trip would be a more rich experience. Just because we decide to travel to France doesn’t make us able to speak French! We aren’t “mentally ill” because we can’t naturally speak French! We all need to be fluent in the understanding and managing of our human emotion. If we aren’t, why wouldn’t we want to learn!

AM: (Isn’t she fabulous??? :)) Thanks again, Jan, for your time and wisdom.

****

What toxic crutches have you, or do you wish to, over come? Have they come between you and your passions? Are you able to view “maladaptive behaviors” as the best you can/could do?

Author Interview: Marc Schuster

I’d just finished reading Marc Schuster’s fantastic blog series, A Novel Approach, when I jumped over to Amazon to check out his work. Man, this guy’s smart, I thought. I hope he writes thrillers!

Nope. But my preference turned out not to matter. Marc’s breakout novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, takes off with thriller velocity and supports my belief that all great books maintain page-turner momentum, keeping the reader enthused. His prose are so fantastic they’d intimidate, if not for the pull-you-in nature of the story and characters. I wasn’t sweating through pages at the gym, but in the mind and life of Audrey Corcoran, a middle aged divorcee who’s swept up into a world of addiction.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Marc Schuster’s colorful debut novel paints a riveting portrait of a divorced mother whose quest to be everything to everyone exposes the dark secrets of America’s suburbs.

Audrey Corcoran never dreamed she’d try cocaine, but a year after a bitter divorce, she meets a man named Owen Little who convinces her that a little buzz might be exactly what she needs to lift her spirits. And why not? He’s already turned her on to jazz, and no one in his circle of friends ever thinks twice about getting high. Soon, however, her escalating drug use puts a strain on Audrey’s relationship with her daughters, and she begins to sell cocaine from her home in order to subsidize her habit. By turns horrifying and hilarious, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl offers a scathing indictment of American consumer culture and the wildly conflicting demands it makes upon women.

On the surface, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl is about overcoming addiction. At the same time, however, the novel examines society’s conflicting expectations of women. Consumer culture constantly tells women to be fun, smart, wild and sexy, but at the same time, this same culture also demands that women be dependable, reliable, sensible and safe. In short, women are expected to do it all. Against this backdrop, protagonist Audrey Corcoran discovers cocaine and thinks she’s found the product that will allow her to be everything to everyone. Her struggle with addiction, then, is also a struggle with her sense of identity, and her essential dilemma is whether or not to buy into the myth of the perfect woman or to accept herself as flawed and imperfect, yet no less worthy of love. (PS Books, May 2009)

Interested??? I thought so. Today I’m THRILLED to bring you one of my new favorite authors, Marc Schuster:

AM: I laughed so hard reading the first chapter, I nearly fell off the elliptical. What role does humor play in your writing—this novel in particular?

MS: Thanks! I’m glad my sense of humor struck a cord with you. It plays a huge part in all of my writing. One reason is that I come from a family of very funny people. Our go-to method of communication is joking with each other. Or teasing, depending on how you look at it. This makes communication with the outside world difficult at times. Even when I’m discussing serious topics, my instinct is always to go for the punch line or the easy laugh. It’s something I learned to do when I was very young. I was a very bookish child, which made me an easy target for bullies. The only defense I had was my sense of humor. If I could make people laugh, it meant that they weren’t punching me. Now whenever I’m nervous or in a tense situation, my gut tells me to make a joke out of it. With practice, though, I’ve managed to rein in my jocular tendencies, especially when I write.

With Wonder Mom, the humor is there to leaven the heaviness of the subject matter, but it’s also there because life in the twenty-first century can be so surreal that it’s hard not to see a funny side to it. The novel is about a woman dealing with addiction, which isn’t a funny subject at all. But the world she lives in is so full of contradictions, and places so many ridiculous expectations upon her, that the humor came fairly easily. I guess I’m trying to say that I didn’t have to inject humor into the story. Telling it straight—in essence, holding a mirror up to our world—provided all the humor I needed.

AM: Wonder Mom also inspires I’m-so-touched chills, heartache and serious thought. What inspired you to take on such heavy issues? 

MS: The idea for the novel came to me years before I started writing it. I was working on a paper for a course I was taking in graduate school. The paper was called “Laughing Gas Theatre: TS Eliot and the Numbing of the Masses.” Though it was about drug use and other modes of self-medication that were becoming popular in the first half of the twentieth-century, some of my research turned up first-hand accounts of contemporary drug use. One book I read included a case study of a divorced mother who tried cocaine because her boyfriend said she might like it. When she was interviewed for the study, the woman had only tried it once, but she said that she would definitely try it again because she liked the outgoing and confident person she became when she was high.

I could be wrong, but I think the book was called The Steel Drug. The last time I looked at it was probably in 1997, but the idea of this mother experimenting with cocaine must have stuck with me. A couple of years later, I was in a writing group, and every month we’d come up with writing assignments for each other. One month, the assignment was to write about someone with an obsession, and I immediately thought of the woman in the case study. Where was she now? What had become of her? This line of questioning led to a short story that eventually evolved into the novel.

AM: If you can do it without getting arrested 😉, please tell us about your research. 

MS: I really only buried my nose in books—nothing stronger, I swear! For the most part, my research consisted of reading case studies, though for some of the more technical details of drug dealing, I turned to the US Government for help. The National Institute on Drug Abuse website offers plenty of information on things like the going rate for a gram of cocaine and the kinds of ingredients that drug dealers use to cut their product. Once or twice, I drew on experiences that friends of mine offered when they found out what my book was about, particularly the more visceral experiences like Audrey’s description of the acrid drip in the back of her throat. But overall, my research hinged almost entirely on print sources like the aforementioned Steel Drug and another excellent book on the subject titled Cocaine Changes.

AM: You wrote Wonder Mom/Party Girl from a woman’s perspective—and quite well. Did you find “writing female” different than writing from a male standpoint? Was it more challenging?

MS: Once I started writing from Audrey’s perspective, it wasn’t difficult at all. Obvious differences aside, she’s not too far removed from me. I’m highly sensitive to criticism, as is Audrey, and I’m the kind of person who strives to keep other people happy, just like Audrey does. The big difference between us isn’t so much that I’m a man and she’s a woman but that she turns to drugs to deal with stress, whereas I just curl into a ball and hide under the table. Which isn’t to say the fact that Audrey is a woman doesn’t matter. It just matters in a different way—in terms of the social queues she’s always receiving from the world she lives in.

Part of my research into Audrey’s character was reading through magazines that are traditionally geared toward mothers. The ads in these magazines tend to create a mythical perfect woman that mothers everywhere are supposed to strive for—at least as far as the ads are concerned. One thing in the back of my mind as I was writing from Audrey’s perspective was that in addition to all of the other pressures in her life, she also had the added pressure of knowing that she didn’t measure up to the myth of the “perfect mom.” On one level, a purely intellectual level, she could tell herself that it was, indeed, just a myth, but on a more emotional level, she still wishes she could be the perfect mother she sees depicted everywhere she looks.

AM: You wrote much of the book in present tense, which I love, by the way. Why?

MS: There’s an illustration of sorts that appears somewhere in the middle of the book. It’s a black square that takes up most of the page. On the page before the black square, the narrative is in the past tense, and on the page after the square, the narrative moves into the present tense and three months have passed. What I want to convey here is that a distinct shift has occurred in Audrey’s life and that decisions from the past are finally catching up with her. I also like the immediacy of the present tense.

AM: Without preaching, you managed to convey valuable life lessons. I wouldn’t be surprised if the book changes or even saves some lives. Have you considered this? Was it a goal?

MS: The big thing I was really trying to do with the novel was to humanize addiction. It’s a misunderstood concept in our culture, and one that’s highly maligned. We tend to see people who fall into addiction as weak or, worse, morally corrupt. But there are so many complicated factors that lead to addiction, and, in some ways, the impulse to self-medicate is a highly sensible one. As thinking creatures, we recognize that we’re in pain, that pain is bad, and that getting out of pain would be a good thing. It’s a perfectly rational train of thought. That’s what happens to Audrey, and to some extent it’s what happens to many people who struggle with addiction.

One interesting thing that’s happened since the book was published is that some readers have told me that I was, in fact, telling their story. One woman approached me after a reading and said, “This is my story.” She went on to explain that she had gone through a rough divorce and that some friends had turned her on to drugs. She eventually stopped using, but she was glad to see someone talking about her experiences in a sympathetic way.

AM: Your next novel, which I can’t WAIT to read, The Grievers, comes out in May, 2012. What’s it about? 

MS: I’m calling it a coming of age story for a generation that’s still struggling to come of age. It’s about a group of friends who attended a fairly prestigious prep school in their teens and are, in their late twenties, finally coming to terms with the fact that the world won’t be handed to them on a silver platter. At the same time, they’re dealing with the tragic death of a classmate and their alma mater’s efforts at using the tragedy to turn a fast buck. As heavy as the material may sound, there’s also some levity in there. I was lucky to get some advance praise from a few of my favorite writers, including Beth Kephart who wrote, “Raging cluelessness has never been this funny or, in the end, this compassionate.” That about sums it up.

AM: What books do you most enjoy reading? Can you read and enjoy your own?

MS: I love everything from the paranoid futures of Philip K. Dick to the magical realms of Neil Gaiman and the twisted present-day reality of Chuck Palahniuk. I’m also a big fan of Don DeLillo and Kurt Vonnegut. Lately, though, I’ve been reading short story collections. Two of my recent favorites are Steve Almond’s God Bless America and Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.

On occasion, I might look at a passage or two from one of my own books, particularly when I’m gearing up for a reading, but for the most part, my books just sit on the shelf like neglected houseplants.

AM: Ha! I have a few of those. (Neglected house plants, that is.) What do you hope readers will gain from your writing?

MS: To me, a good book is a friend of the mind. I want readers to feel at home in the worlds that I’ve created, to pick up one of my books and enter a mental space where they’re completely welcomed and never judged, a place where they can be human and see what it means for other people to be human, too—to revel in the glory of our shared imperfection.

AM: Any tips for up-and-coming novelists?

MS: Read a lot, and read a wide range of books. On occasion, I meet would-be authors who tell me they don’t read much because they don’t want other people’s writing to influence their work. This is a ridiculous position to take, and writers are the only people I know who tend to take it. Graphic artists, musicians, and standup comedians all steep themselves in the work of those who’ve gone before as well as the work of their contemporaries. Why? Because they recognize that they’re part of an ongoing, ever-evolving dialogue. And the better writers recognize that, too. Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Also, keep at it. I wrote four novels, each incrementally better than the last, before I wrote The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. There were many points along the way where I thought I should just stop writing. Usually these points coincided with rejection letters. But I kept at it largely because I couldn’t keep away from writing. I’d have an idea, and I’d have to start playing with it, developing it. If you have stories to tell, then keep telling them and keep working on them. And do it because you love writing, not because you think there will be some kind of major payoff somewhere down the line. Writing itself is the payoff.

AM: Brilliant. Thanks again for doing this, Marc. Best of luck in all of your ventures!

For more information, visit MarcSchuster.com and his blog, Abominations: Marc Schuster’s Random Musings and Ephemera.

To purchase, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, visit Amazon.com.

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Have you read Wonder Mom and Party Girl? Any thoughts to share with Marc? I always love hearing from you.

HALT! Your Craft Goes There

Looking Inward to Stave Off Artistic Blues

If you know me personally or read my recent post, The Case for Christmas, you know I’m a diehard holiday fan. But even we tinsel-crazed, holly-loving, Santa-praisers can fall prey to craft-itis—a psychiatric condition characterized by sadness, loneliness, self pity, foggy thinking, insomnia, heartache and/or frustration. (Not exactly a cup of Christma-Chanu-Kwanza-dan tea…)

Others ask, “What’s wrong?” You say, “Nothing.”

But something is. Craft-itis symptoms rarely feel “right,” even if we rationalize or expect them. I’ve been spending time with loved ones, we think. I should feel GREAT! Instead we feel hollow, misunderstood, guilty for feeling anything but joyful and exhausted by our attempts to hide it.

As important as it is to take breaks from our craft—in my case, writing—such respite can bring a basel level of turmoil. Left untreated, our symptoms can deepen and proliferate, making us feel more suited to a psych ward than holiday gatherings.

So what can we do??? Fortunately, a lot.

I like to use the acronym H.A.L.T., which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. It’s conventionally used as an addiction management and self-care technique. The idea is this: Hunger, anger, loneliness and exhaustion often go ignored. If we continue to ignore them, we’re bound for trouble. When you feel you’ve hit a wall of sorts but don’t know why, you simply pause (halt) and look inward. Ask yourself whether you’ve been eating and sleeping enough, if you’re resisting anger or feel alone.

We can take H.A.L.T. a step further by applying it directly to our craft:

Are you HUNGRY for creativity? ANGRY that you haven’t been expressing it? LONELY for companionship only the page (or canvas, piano, etc.) can bring? TIRED of socializing and wearing a happy face when inside you’re aching?

You’ve HALTed, so now what?

Awareness is much of the battle. (As soon as I realize that I’m not crazy or selfish, I often feel loads better…) If you’re truly hungry, eat. Balanced meals and snacks at regular time intervals helps ensure positive blood sugar balance, energy and moods. Staying well hydrated is also important. If anger is your issue, address it. Mad at your spouse? Talk it out. Angry at the world? Try exercise, meditation or therapy. If you long for companionship, seek community. Join Twitter conversations, such as #MyWANA or #amwriting. Share lunch, coffee or quality phone chats with friends. If exhaustion has you down, do something restful, such as napping, reading poetry or listening to soothing music. Aim for earlier bedtimes if you can.

If your symptoms stem solely from craft-itis, try the following:

  • Drop everything and get creative. Longing to write? Write. Feel like singing? Sing. Whatever it is, make it your top priority and do it. If your schedule doesn’t allow for creative time pronto, make a plan for the near future.
  • Schedule creative time into your every day. Even ten to twenty minutes per day can make a tremendous difference.
  • Go to bed and/or wake up a half hour early. Dedicate the time to thinking about, doodling about or partaking in your craft.
  • Talk to others about your craft. Even if your loved ones aren’t creative types, they probably want to support you and learn about your work. “Hey, haven’t I told you what I’ve been working on?” is a great way to start. (Not everyone knows how to broach artistic subjects, but trust me—most are interested.)
  • Read a great book or watch a great movie. Captivating stories are what led many of us to our creative paths. Reap the benefits we hope our work with provide to others: a medicinal escape. (For more on this topic, read Jessica O’Neal’s insightful guest post on Myndi Schafer’s blog: The Power of A Good Story.)
  • Focus on others. This may sound contrary, seeing as I just alluded to the fact that tending to our creativity or isn’t selfish. But once you know what the root problem is, fixating on it in a woe-is-me way is. Make a plan to fuel your creativity, be thankful that you have something to ache for (many people wish they had such passion…) then get over yourself. Doing something thoughtful for others can help us do so.
  • If your symptoms are severe or you simply want professional support, see a trusted therapist. Occasional “emotional” checkups are at least as important as physical exams, IMHO. 😉

What about you?  Are you prone to craft-itis? Have you nipped it in the bud? I’d love to hear your thoughts.