Monday, November 1, 2021

Existentialism the Easyway®

After a few too many sleepless nights of doomscrolling, I finally buckled and bought a copy of “Smart Phone, Dumb Phone.” I'd been putting it off for a while, because there's something fairly pathetic about being a compulsive phone person, but willpower alone wasn't doing the job. It was time to call in the experts.

In this case, the expert is Allen Carr, whose Easyway® method to quit smoking has grown into a cottage industry of … well, what would you call it? Cessation techniques? Carr's adherents claim that his methods can help with everything from smoking and drinking to gambling and weight loss to, well, just about any other compulsive behavior you can think of. Best of all, the programs promise no willpower required – just follow the steps and you'll be free of your problems in no time.

I'd heard of Carr before, but always had him in my mental Rolodex between Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey, pegged as one of those self-help gurus beloved by people desperate to be told what to do. Unfortunately,  after spending too many nights reading about the collapse of Western democracy until 3 a.m. in the morning, I had to accept I was one of the damned. So, the hell with it: Tell me what to do, Allen Carr! I'm desperate!

Carr's Easyway method works the same way regardless of your substance of choice. He describes it as undoing the “brainwashing” that got you addicted in the first place, which you might have received from any number of sources: family, friends, advertisers, the culture at large, etc. Regardless of how it happened, Carr argues that your addiction is proof that you have, in fact, been brainwashed.

Why? Because addiction fails to deliver. Every time you reach for that cigarette to calm your nerves, Carr points out, what you're really doing is relieving the anxiety caused by smoking itself. He compares it to wearing tight shoes for the relief of taking them off. If you really wanted to be happy, you wouldn't wear such small shoes in the first place. 

So when you take a drink, puff a cigarette, or spend five hours scrolling through Facebook, you're actually causing the anxiety these things are meant to relieve. Your entire baseline shifts: instead of living in a neutral state with occasional big spikes of happiness, you spend most of your time feeling awful and needing help to climb back up to neutral.

With me so far? Good, because that's the key to this thing. Carr's method is based on the idea that once you understand the lie of addiction – once you see that it doesn't make you feel good, and can only make you miserable – you'll be able to un-brainwash yourself and stop. When you reach for a drink, you will no longer believe it can ease your anxiety; instead, you'll see that it's actually to blame.

You get the impression Carr never drank himself sick for weeks at a time. He probably never looked at his own bloodshot eyes in the mirror and thought, This is what you deserve, you piece of shit. In Carr's worldview, addiction is all just a misunderstanding. There's no room for the person who wears painful shoes because they believe, deep down, they deserve it.

Now I know what you're thinking: What does Kierkegaard have to say about all this?

Lucky for you I've been reading The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard's book on despair. Now, for Kierkegaard, despair is a very particular thing: “to be unaware of being defined as spirit.” In other worlds, "despair" means to think of yourself as strictly a material thing, no different from any other object or animal.

There are different flavors of this, of course, and since this is Kierkegaard he naturally spends much of the book cataloguing each different kind on painstaking detail. There is despair caused by over-attachment to material things, and despair caused by wishing you were somebody else. But there's one kind of despair in particular that I think might be useful here: the person “in despair to will to be oneself.”

Well, wait, what does that mean? He describes someone so attached to their own idea of who they are that they refuse any kind of outside comfort:
“And to seek help from someone else – no, not for all the world does he want that. Rather than to seek help, he prefers, if necessary, to be himself with all the agonies of hell.”
Kierkegaard continues:
“[A person] is pained in some distress or other that does not allow itself to be taken away from or separated from his concrete self. … Once he would gladly have given everything to be rid of this agony, but he was kept waiting; now it is too late, now he would rather rage against everything and be the wronged victim of the whole world and of all life, and it is of particular significance to him to make sure that he has his torment on hand and that no one takes it away from him – for then he would not be able to demonstrate and prove to himself he is right.”
In other words, the despair here arises from identification with misery. Instead of letting pain go when relief finally arrives, it becomes a core part of that person's identity. And so when you threaten the misery, and you threaten the person.

There's a saying I've heard in recovery meetings, and that I've quoted before in this blog: “Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink.” Self-pity, self-flagellation, self-inflicted wounds; all these things are as much drivers of addiction as the belief that a substance can offer some happiness. Carr's method addresses the hope for pleasure, but in my experience it's sometimes the misery that addicts hold the most precious. And although there doesn't seem to be an easy way to fix both, that doesn't mean that it can not be done.


Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...