©2018, ckwallace at ckwallace.com
©2018, ckwallace at ckwallace.com
The Zone of Happiness
This week as I traveled about, visiting the lives of others along the way both online and in-person, I was struck by a few things I’d like to share with you. Specifically, I want to talk about narrowing thinking and how it lies at the crux of the best of human experience.
When I think of those times in my life when I was firing on all cylinders, it’s when I’ve been able to focus at such a deep level my total being was engaged in living in the moment. It’s when the distractions of my surroundings are inconsequential to what’s before me. It’s when time seems stands still.
I’m not sure if you know what I mean, but if you think back, you’ll quickly remember a scene from your history where you were so engrossed in what you were doing that all else didn’t matter. I wonder if you realize it’s at these moments when we are at our happiest.
Let me qualify that statement. I surely don’t mean a form of bliss where we are like Snoopy just grooving to Schroeder’s piano. Though this is sometimes a part of it, it’s by no means the template against which we should judge our affective experience in these circumstances.
What I mean by happiest is more like we are blissfully unaware of feeling at all. At least, the tyranny of emotion is lost for the moment, and we leave behind all feelings of inadequacy. Our usual level of vigilance changes, but it’s not that we let our guard down. No. It’s because something else takes over.
That something is a feeling of almost limitless power, or better, power being expressed at the limits of our abilities. This is when we hit a zone, or our zone, and whether we hit it accidentally or on purpose doesn’t matter. What counts here is a condition which lies at the pinnacle of human expression. It’s as if we know it’s where we belong, a place where good things, sometimes great things, happen.
It’s a serious manifestation of our gifts coming together all at once, without being aware of limits or constraints which might cast doubt upon our competence. It’s more than confidence because it’s a blend of the mental and the physical, a symbiosis, the meaningful whole of an action. It’s the Gestalt.
Practice, Focus and the Impossible
The quick and easy way to hit zones is to practice over and over so new competence is ingrained in the cerebellum, like never forgetting to ride a bike once learned. Being able to shut out distractions is next, narrowing down focus to what is before you, so time is lived second by second, or not noticed at all.
When the first two conditions are met, the longer you linger there, the more chance you have of hitting the heretofore impossible. That’s when you stretch, using your powers of concentration and emotional equilibrium to push the boundaries of your skills. It’s a time when we truly get out of our own way, allowing whatever talent we have to sing fully, to express itself at its peak and beyond.
I’d sometimes get like this after a few years of shooting snooker. In my best games, I wouldn’t even notice my surroundings except for how they were needed to play the game. It didn’t matter who was watching, or what my opponent did. My eyes were on the green table cloth and the balls. My whole body and mind was an extension of the cue and cue ball and I could make that ball do my bidding without regard to limits. I’d control the game in a way far above my normal play.
I say the zone is also when we feel most alive. The connection between our existence and the world around us blends seamlessly, acting as one, without boundaries and without fear or need to explain. We are poetry in motion. We are the poet.
It’s as if we are nodding to the Universe, acknowledging its wisdom in choosing us, in bestowing a chance at life to this very being. It’s when we are fulfilling our promise, the pact we have with life itself.
Cheating the Zone
Sadly, I don’t think we get enough of it. And the peace and power derived from visiting our zone has such appeal that we often try to recreate its essence in other ways. Unfortunately, these are often maladaptive, poor substitutes for the real thing causing more harm than good. What lies at the heart of these coping mechanisms is the desire to narrow thinking, to thin out the complexities of life and simplify what occupies the mind.
Drink a few beers or haul on a joint and watch your thinking narrow accordingly. You’re in some kind of zone alright, but it’s not a celebration of your personal power. It’s a artificial hijacking of your sympathetic system, putting your physiology into a fear state to narrow your focus to escape danger. Whereas the real zone slows your heartbeat and focuses your power, this effect increases the heartrate and scatters your competence.
And it works—soon all your thinking of is pizza, or pussy, or fighting. Or you have slowed your body down, frozen, like a deer standing on the road staring at headlights. Or the rabbit you see on the neighbours lawn, immobilized, heart beating as fast as a snare drum, hoping it blends in.
For some, TV, food, porn, gambling, cigarettes, shopping all have the same capacity to narrow focus artificially, from an external view but without engaging the internal power and talent which exists in all of us. The suicidal try to do the same thing, narrowing their thinking down so effectively to escape the pain of life until, tragically, their options run out.
External vs Internal
The eyes see out, I like to say. So much of what we do is triggered by what the eyes can take in. Like all of our gifts, sometimes our qualities can become faults. Too often we see and respond without considering what we really seek. We all need to narrow our focus, to feel alive and celebrate our gifts in the moment. Too often we seek to do this by taking a pill of some kind, by relying on the environmental, the external solution to what really can only be solved internally.
You might expect I’ll speak now of finding more adaptive ways of narrowing thinking, of recognizing it’s draw as a fundamental expression, and encouraging you to make better choices. But here’s what I was taken with this week:
Turns out we don’t need 10,000 hours to become competent at something. See, the way I just wrote that represents the impression I took from reading Malcolm Gladwell’s famous missive about learning a new skill. It’s my own nonsense and represents the way I, along with most people I know, have misinterpreted the commitment he writes about. He’s talking about elite level mastery, world class level competence.
Old Dogs, New Tricks
In a TedX talk I watched this week, Josh Kaufman talks about researching Gladwell’s misunderstood recommendation and finding it takes around 20 hours to learn a new skill adequately. Of course, I thought when I watched him, I’ve learned plenty of things in less than 10,000 hours! Kaufman breaks it down further, suggesting just 45 minutes a day for about a month will do the trick. This is a refreshing antidote to the Gladwellian notion that it takes 5 years of hard slogging to achieve respectable competence at something.
I have 20 hours. 10,000? Not so much.
In just under an hour per day for a month, you could learn a reasonable amount about something or get good enough at something to then decide if you wanted to learn more! Piano enough to play Fur Elise, a language well enough to visit a foreign country, how to weld so you can make… anything. It just goes on.
Well, there are twelve months in a year, and how many in a lifetime? If average lifespan is 80 and we take just 50 of those years as potential months of learning, that’s 600 months of opportunity. Or 600 new skills we could potentially get good enough at in our lifetime.
Oh my, where have all my excuses gone now?
I was thinking about this when one of the guys in my men’s group told us a family friend killed himself on Tuesday. Booze was a big contributing factor. These are always tragic. People will say the suicidal was selfishly passing their pain on to the living. It’s possible. Though suicidal people who have lived through attempts tell us they thought they were doing everyone a favour. There are no good answers.
Fear Works: Just Not Well
Every day I run into folks who are affected by this scourge—attempting to narrow thinking by taking short cuts—using drugs and alcohol to kickstart adrenaline and cortisol in their system, not realizing that this IS their addiction. It’s not so much the booze or drugs, it’s these fear hormones which create an emotional state providing relief from the complexity of their existence. While in fear, your focus is on survival, a much simpler scope, aimed at satisfying much baser needs.
And food and porn and gambling all do the same thing to a degree, using intermittent reinforcement to distract and narrow focus, attempting to gain a reward by way of a shortcut. Our eyes see out. But it’s here where the maladaptive breaks down: it’s like a dog chasing its tail. We never quite catch up.
And we don’t grow. Confidence wanes further for there is no competence in these.
There are no new skills to be found in that box of donuts, the next six pack of booze, the next shopping spree at the mall or the hardware store, the next pack of smokes or cannabis dispensary. You could argue there are skills to learn from the next porn clip you watch but that really depends how long you’ve been watching, doesn’t it?
What if we all realized this is what we were trying to do: narrow thinking. It’s our natural way of shutting out all the noise. Done right, it’s escapism with benefits. And it represents the only true way of meeting the need to live fully engrossed in the moment.
All sorts of things are like this. Watch any teenager who has mastered a video game at a high level. They get into a zone and if there wasn’t a clock on the screen and levels, they’d make time stand still. Look at their eyes, and they never leave the monitor. A friend of mine use to fly fish with such concentration that rather than go ashore to take a piss, he’d let it go in his neoprene waders and rinse them out later.
Neither of these extremes will kill you. Some of the other ways we narrow thinking can and will. Yesterday I came home from a rather challenging week. Though I’m grateful to find myself alive every morning, I’m no more inured to the pain of life than anyone else.
Rather than go blow my mind with dope or booze, I instead sought ways to just calm myself and heal. Oh, I know there’s still pot kicking around here somewhere. And the beer store is a few blocks away. Heck, I could swallow a few Percocet, bumping up my occasional quarter tablet dosage to two or three full tabs and I’d be nodding in no time.
And these would have left me hung over this morning, feeling dissonance for having compromised my pact with nature, knowing I was ungrateful for the life I have been lucky enough to win. These would have eroded my confidence, which in turn, would affect my competence. This is the truth.
And that’s what meditation is for. No wonder it’s so popular. Even if you’re not a meditator, a walk will narrow thinking just as well. Perhaps I’m at an advantage because I have a slew of cognitive behavioural strategies I can implement to narrow my thinking. Well, these have come with practice. I also slept very well last night. I had to practice that too.
Come to think of it, I had to learn to drink in a dysfunctional way too. In fact, I worked hard at it over time, just as I did with the rest of it, from dope smoking to heroin use. Geez, it took me years just to learn how to roll a joint. Cocaine definitely took some getting used to—fed my paranoia. I puked my guts out first time I did heroin. All of these things took concentration and trial and error before I could successfully use them to… narrow focus. When measured up against all these, it’s actually easier to learn to narrow thinking internally, by far.
So try to think of those times when you entered into a zone of competence, and remember how good that felt.
These days, when things get to me and I feel like I need a break, knowing the secret, the real impetus of my condition, that what really begs my attention is just to narrow my focus, I have other choices.
And in a month, looks like I might just have one more.
You could too.
CHRISTOPHER K. WALLACE
Advisor to Men, Counsellor at Large
©2018, all rights reserved
Kaufman’s TedX talk:
Here is a report about smoking pot during formative teen years and schizophrenia, and another study showing pot smokers with an impaired dopamine system. The Daily Mail carries these and it seems every month there’s another study out, obscured by the cry for individual rights and the unfairness of the justice system over the relatively harmless practice of occasional use. Lots’s of truth to that and I’m generally on board.
But can pot smoking bring on schizophrenia in the susceptible? Sure it can.
These are the kinds of articles which tend to bring out the apologists en masse. I’m not judging pot users. I simply can’t, having smoked it for 40 years. I’m not against occasional use at all. And if you’re life is so pathetically affected by pain or malaise that pot is the only solace you can find, more power to you.
But let’s not pretend it’s good for us. Or, for our children. That would be stupid.
Granted, the low numbers of cases where schizophrenia occurs in no way justifies a ban. And the last thing I want to see is people thrown in jail for smoking a plant. We also shouldn’t kid each other.
I dealt as a kid, grew great plants, made killer hashish and smoked for decades. I’ve pretty much seen it all. These kinds of studies have been around for years for good reason.
I suppose one glaring case in my experience is this one. A single case study if you like.
Mikey was a Lebanese immigrant who arrived as part of the diaspora to Canada, sent abroad without his father. I met him in his early teens when I picked him up at some town homes nearby, where he lived with half a dozen siblings. Mike had a huge nose, big booming voice, not at all handsome by western standards. We put him to work selling flowers and he did well. After a few years, I moved to BC and left the operation to one of the guys with a license.
I heard later that in his senior year, one of the crew began providing him with joints to sell at school. He went from ignored to popular almost overnight. Of course, encouraged this way, he dove in to pot culture. He was suddenly getting attention from peers after years of neglect at home and at school. His job was his only source of significance to then. Now girls actually knew his name.
In his 20s, he called me out west one day He sounded troubled and so I helped him fly out for a visit. Mikey was happy to see us and we welcomed him into our home like family. He seemed pretty normal to me. Until we were smoking a joint one end of night when he told me that sometimes when he smoked with his brother Abdul he was convinced he was out to get him. He felt like his life might be in danger. What??
This got my attention. I’ve been around crazy people my whole life. I’ve seen this turn of events before and could see now all the familiar symptoms. In the three years we hadn’t seen each other, Mikey had changed. In those three years, dope was a big part of his life.
I asked him a few questions without putting him off. He let his guard down and let me in, detailing how his thinking was progressively going off the rails. He knew it but couldn’t trust anyone he knew to confide his secrets. Mikey was cracking under the combined weight of his traumatic life and usage.
Eventually, I told him I was mildly concerned about his mental health. I reassured him that he needed some help with this and that it was most certainly something he could get a handle on. I then suggested he return home, pack his stuff and come back immediately. He agreed and seemed relieved that someone understood what was going on.
Mike returned to Hamilton to arrange a move out west. He never made it.
Apparently, while packing in the 7th floor apartment he shared with his brother, he wound up on the concrete in the parking lot below. As far as I know, it was ruled a suicide. Given his expressed paranoia, this was plausible. Though he never expressed a willingness to hurt himself, we don’t know for absolute certainty what really happened.
That Mikey was in fear I had no doubt. But there are two additional points I’d like to make. One is paradoxical fear seeking. The other is the sensory inputs confidence continuum.
And what of fear? Physiologically, the heart rate goes up, blood pressure rises, breathing shallows and thinking narrows. Classic symptoms of adrenaline and cortisol’s effects on the body.
And what happens when you smoke a joint, drag on a cigarette, or even have a couple of beers?
Well, your heart rate goes up, as does your blood pressure, while your breathing shallows and thinking narrows. Classic fight or flight.
Paradoxically, I contend regular users are not so much addicted to the substance, rather are wired to adrenaline and cortisol; they actively seek out fear physiologically because on some level they are comforted or attracted to this state.
And their usage is masked by a temporary dopamine buzz that lasts only the first bit of the high. Drink all night and you’re really just chasing that first two beers buzz. It can’t be caught. It’s the same with all substances. Hell, there’s no cupcake like the first one either.
Keep ramping up that dopamine artificially and in time, you won’t feel much of anything at all. Pain is one of life’s best teachers. Kill it and shrink in the face of growth; instead of expanding, contract. And the more you disconnect the body from its intuitive self, the harder it is to form an appropriate response to people and events around you.
If someone is susceptible to schizophrenia, adding regular doses of fear is one way to ensure it manifests itself. You couldn’t prescribe a better method of bringing it on than to recommend pot.
Looking to become schizophrenic like some of your relatives? Want to crack under the pressure of your dysfunctional family, with your country at war, your attachments fractured, and adolescent peer issues weighing upon you while your brain is still forming?
Here: smoke this daily.
I’m not even mentioning childhood trauma from unmet emotional needs; or PTSD from various causes; or the after-effects of heavy illness.
Nietzche said, “All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth comes only from the senses.” So, what is filtered through the senses is the raw material you have to make decisions and in part create your emotional state. You fuck with your sensory inputs enough and the brain can’t tell what’s real anymore.
And both of these kill confidence. You cannot be both confident and fearful at the same time. They are mutually exclusive emotions. And if your brain is unsure of its inputs, that’s another blow to confidence. Can you really be in chronic doubt and expect to live your destiny?
Who needs confidence, you say? You do. It’s your juice. It’s what takes your thoughts and turns them to actions. Otherwise, smoke each day and dream of a future that never arrives.
Know anyone like this? I thought you might. It was surely me at one point. And you may know someone whose confidence is so far gone they suffer from what is referred to as learned helplessness. That’s confidence buried so deep that they don’t even entertain the notion of a better way. All growth is stifled, or even retreating.
And how do we get confidence? Mostly from confronting fear resulting in victories big and small, from which we derive an emotional state of progressive mastery. Life gets better when we get better at life.
Our discomfort often drives our motivation. We need the contrast of pain and pleasure to consider our approach. There’s the hunt and the feast. Most happiness comes from the hunt.
It’s also why I don’t smoke it regularly anymore. I solved that riddle years ago. I realized I was inhaling fear and exhaling my confidence one joint at a time. It’s unavoidable. Indeed, when you drink you are sipping on fear and pissing out your confidence.
Most people don’t get schizophrenia from smoking pot. That’s a sure thing. There’s a lovely optimism bias in young people which provides some immunity from even considering it.
But you could. You could wind up like Mikey. Bless his heart and too short life. Another man down and out. And at the very least, you will live life more afraid. Assuredly, you will exist with less confidence.
That is not what the universe intended when you won the gift of life.
Over time, you will find that ten years have gone by. And you will realize you have not really lived ten years. Rather, you have lived one year ten times…
© Christopher K Wallace 2017, all rights reserved
I don’t know much about food addiction, but know a bit about addiction.
In my view, most substance abuse is seeking fear–or a fight or flight response. It’s paradoxical fear-seeking behaviour.
If you are afraid, generally, you’re breathing shallows, your thinking narrows, blood pressure rises and heart beat increases. These are your classic fight/flight responses.
About two beers in, a few hauls on a joint, 6o seconds after lighting up a smoke, etc. the same thing happens: narrowed thinking (which shuts out the bigger picture and its accompanying thoughts), breathing shallows, blood pressure and heart rate goes up.
For some reason, no one talks about this. I contend that a lot of substance abuse is an attempt to put oneself into a fight or flight state, and that the real addiction is to cortisol and adrenaline.
I also think most people learn this very young—even pre-memory, especially in the case of trauma or illness—though it can be learned at any time in the life-cycle. PTSD is an example of stress learning. Other’s are particularly sensitive to their environments. At some point, fight or flight carried the day and that response becomes entrenched as a way of dealing with the world. It’s what keeps them alive at an unconscious level.
I’m not sure what the parallels would be for food addiction. There are actually four Fs in the fear model. Fight, flight, freeze and faint. I’m guessing here, but maybe freeze and faint play a role in food addiction.
Here’s the kicker. Can you be fearful and confident at the same time?
I’d contend that answer is no. The two are mutually exclusive states.
And what is confidence good for? Well, confidence is what is needed to take your thoughts and turn them into actions. Pretty vital stuff in my view.
So if we repeatedly put ourselves into a fear state, over time, we are decreasing our confidence. Over a longer time frame, that decrease in confidence can become something called “learned helplessness.”
That’s where you see no way out, that excellence or mastery in life is something for “other people.” You just hang on. Compromised.
What are the similarities for food addiction? I’m not sure. I’d be grateful if you could help me understand.
I suppose, feeding the pig in all of us puts a person into a state of comfort, while at the same time exerting control, while at the same time feeling guilt and even shame, and somehow also blocking these things in a great narrowing of thinking. Maybe all of those are a form of faint and freeze. We put ourselves on hold using food.
Or does that excess of sugar, or other long-chained sugar molecules from carbohydrates, provide an excitation reaction at the cellular level akin to what happens when I give my five year old too many sweets? Does my greater bulk simply allow me to absorb the reaction better when compared to a child’s? I think so.
Though, without the obvious physiological responses that smoking, cannabis or drinking has. Or, is this true? Is there a definite physical reaction to eating food that is describable, and measurable at the level of blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and thinking? I think you could easily make the case that there is.
There is little doubt in my mind that eating a row or two of cookies changes my state. Is it the “freeze” and “faint” equivalent of the four Fs? I think there might be something to this.
Many former addicts become addicted to sugar. My father quit drinking when I was a boy and used to have bulk boxes of chocolate bars delivered to the house from wholesalers he knew. We kids thought it was great. About a third of people who quit smoking put on weight–trust me, that’s not happening from a diet of vegetables and meat; carbs rule their cravings.
There’s another consequence that is rarely talked about. When we compromise our sensory inputs, the ones our brain relies on to make sense of our environment, we also experience a decrease in confidence.
If the brain can’t discern properly what is going on around us because we are a little drunk, high from smoking dope, agitated on speed or cocaine, or our breathing has slowed and all pain is absent while on opioids, it cannot also be confident. Oh sure, there’s a dopamine rebound effect that can propel us into action. People get high and clean their whole house, or get drunk and start fights. In my opinion, this is the body trying to stay alive–it’s being pushed and it pushes back. In the end, real confidence gets lost in the confusion.
And don’t we compromise sensory inputs while overeating? Doesn’t the overwhelming sensory experience remove us temporarily from having to deal effectively with our environment? Too full to move? I doubt many disagree that escapism is involved.
Escapism being entrenched by conditioning. Rewarded, are we really doomed to repeat the behaviour? Do we become slaves to this conditioning? And what about confidence then? If your control is relinquished, where is your confidence?
I suggest that overeating has a huge effect on confidence. It’s a dirty little secret—like the closet drinker nipping at a hidden stash.
The problem is overeating carbs wrecks your body and leptin/insulin regulation. This further kills confidence as you go from a bit of healthy weight and a pear shaped body, to “big boned” to “chubby” to “a little fat” to “fat” to “morbidly obese.” For many of us, control over our physical destiny gives way to a certain resignation about our fate. We rationalize it until we can no longer.
The questions about confidence then become:
How much confidence am I willing to give up for a fear, or flight, or freeze or faint state?
And, “How much confidence do I have to lose before I make myself helpless?”
Or, “How much confidence do I have to give up just to give in to a bad habit?”
I don’t know about you, but for me, this won’t do.
I have found value in this simple sentence learned from Glen Livingston’s book, Never Binge Again:
“I’m not the type of person who eats a row of cookies. It’s just not me.”
It works more and more as I use it regularly. I say this to myself as I contemplate a binge of carbs.
I am choosing confidence, I tell myself.
I am choosing self-concept by design, not one created from happenstance as I react to my environment.
Having solved the riddle of addiction when it comes to heroin, cocaine, alcohol and tobacco, food addiction is next.
I’m learning just like anyone. I’m interested to know what people think.
© CKWallace, October, 2016. All rights reserved
A few days ago, I shared on Facebook a CBC story about the death of a young man I didn’t personally know. Though he’d graduated high school and was learning to be a welder, Brad Grattan was still a teenager when he succumbed to the effects of playing a game of “beer pong” with hard alcohol. I offer my condolences to his friends and family.
You can read the full article here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/brady-grattan-drinking-game-death-1.3458093
To be honest, the idea of teenagers chugging hard liquor scares the heck out of me. I’ve lived too long and too faulted a life to not realize that that could have been me, or that it could have been friends of mine. Sadly, at times, it has been.
I can’t say I have the best answers to this. Brad had good parents and people in his life that cared and loved him. None of them could have predicted his fate. It can only serve to remind us all to be vigilant, to be parents to our children to the best of our ability. The dangers of drinking hard alcohol at that age are great, and most kids don’t know how lethal it can be. That’s the message his parents, Cody and Tracey Grattan, want people to know.
As a teen fresh out of the house in the 1970s, drinking and drugging parties were the norm in my world. Working with teenagers over the decades confirms things have not changed much since. Absent parents or other positive influences, things can get out of control pretty fast. Many of the kids I hung around with back in those days had brushes with death of their own. Two of my first three girlfriends had been hospitalized to have their stomach pumped because of alcohol. That’s how they did it back in those days. But even if the relationship between parents and teen is good, hard liquor represents one of the ways things can go awry really quickly. We never see it coming, do we?
When I was just sixteen and living on my own at a rooming house in downtown Ottawa, I used to hang out with my best friend at his father’s apartment on weekends. His dad was a medically retired lawyer who had contracted malaria during the 1950s Korean conflict which eventually left him in a wheelchair after developing multiple sclerosis. He managed to wrangle a full military pension but his marriage fell apart as he deteriorated into drinking more and more. The daughters had stayed with their mother while his only son moved into this tiny apartment with his father. There, it was party central most of the time, with every disillusioned young teen from our school area dropping by. Old man Nash would often send us to the liquor store across the street at Billing’s Bridge Plaza, where producing a note from him to the store clerk would get us his gin. Of course, we added our own purchases to the list of provisions too.
I was out of school by then, a high-school dropout. Dad and I had fallen out and I was on my own… something about two roosters living under the same roof and one of us had to go. Leaving a large family of siblings behind, the only world I’d known, meant I’d lost my rudder in life. I worked during the week at menial jobs and spent weekends at my friend’s drinking and getting high with the crowd there. It was where I felt welcomed. I used to sleep on the floor of my buddy’s room in a sleeping back after getting shit-faced.
One time, I drank a whole bottle of rye over the course of the night and blacked out completely. I woke up in my sleeping bag fully clothed and realized I had puked all over myself. To my horror, I then noticed that I’d actually shit and pissed my pants in my sleep, and then slept, unconscious more like it, in puke, shit and piss for the rest of the night. In the morning, all of this was partially dried and caked to my body, great scabs of human detritus of my own making, stuck to me like dried blood from battle. It was all we could do but carefully remove my wallet from my pocket with two fingers, and undress in the bag. I carefully emerged, first a head, then a naked torso, then the rest of me, dried puke on my arms and neck, shit caked against my ass. I headed to the shower and the soiled clothing stayed in the bag. My friend closed off the top of it, pinching it shut with one hand as he pinched his own nose from the stench with the other, and carried the lot of it straight down the hallway to the garbage chute. There it was tossed to everyone’s relief. He lent me fresh clothes so that I could go home. It was my first blackout, and first hangover. Not my last.
Many years later, my own son Corrie approached the age where drinking experimentation would be inevitable. Going off to meet his friends on a Friday night at someone’s house posed the same risk. There’s always a more tolerant parent somewhere who grants access to their basement or garage for mild partying, often as a way of keeping an eye on their own teen as they make their way into adulthood. Better here than out there, they figure. Sometimes, they have substance use issues of their own, but just as often not. It’s someone who wants to keep the fading connection of influence with their child at any cost.
So how did I handle this critical time with my son? Well, I knew that if I lost influence with my boy his peers would take my position pretty quickly. In fact, after around the age of fourteen, I noticed that his peer group had become such a big factor in his life that it was unlikely I’d ever regain what we once had. This was my sweet little boy, the kid who up until age ten automatically put his hand in mine as we prepared to cross a road or walk through a parking lot. I had given up so much to be his father; it was a role that had defined me for many years. How would I protect him from himself?
More importantly, how could I prevent him from becoming me?
Communication was the key, of course. That’s what I did my best to preserve no matter what. It meant suspending judgment and listening, and moving from parent to acting as an adviser most of the time. Easier said than done, that’s for sure, and I was far from perfect at it. But I realized that if I could position myself as his backup adviser, where he could come and rely on safe counsel without me jumping ahead to impose my views on him, I might stand a chance at keeping the connection. However awkward, it worked. People ask me about what my goal was with my boy during those years. My answer was always the same: to make sure he lives past the statistical danger years of fifteen to twenty-five. That’s still my best advice.
I had a big talk with Corrie about the insanity of drinking straight booze. We talked all about blackouts, hangovers, and about me pissing, puking and shitting all over myself. I told him about some of the teens who worked for me, kids he knew growing up by name, and some of their mishaps with alcohol. Sadly, Brad Grattan isn’t the first kid to die this way. When newspaper articles from that era reported how another kid lost his life to this folly, I’d seize upon it and we’d talk about it. We can honour the Grattan family by doing the same here.
Back in the days when I talked to my boy about drinking hard liquor, inadvertently, spontaneously, I ended up blurting out more than I had planned. Desperate, I took a gamble.
I told him I was so serious about this, that if he’d agree to never drink straight alcohol—to be wary of it, to be the guy who says no—I would instruct his mother to buy him his own beer to take to his friends. I remember thinking at the time, did I just say that? At this, his eyes lit up. “Really?” he asked. “Really,” I said. “If you drink a couple of beers in your friend’s basement that’s one thing, but the straight booze thing can’t be part of what you risk. I want to you to promise me and really mean it. Swear on it with me as a man.” He answered, “That’s awesome, dad, sure I’ll take you up on that promise, no problem. I will not drink straight alcohol.” I was crossing my fingers.
So, there it was that his mother and I dropped him off at his friend’s place a few blocks away on a Friday night. In he went, barely concealing the grin on his face as he stepped up to the curb to face his buddies, several of whom where outside, probably waiting to see if he’d actually appear with beer his parents bought him. Holding his little twelve pack of Coors light cans, he showed up like he was a rock star, his status assured at a critical time in his life. And all he had to do was not drink the hard stuff. He’s in his thirties now. He still drinks but has never been a big drinker. Though, I’ll worry a bit when he moves to Ireland later this year. Of all the places…
I suppose I just got lucky. It was the connection between us I worked hard to preserve that seems to have carried the day. I’m probably the least able to judge other’s behaviour given my own past. I don’t condone using my particular method, but that’s part of what worked for me. The important thing is to have the conversation with your teen, and to do whatever you can to keep the connection good between you. People need their attachments and our children naturally want to attach to their parents first. As that connection wanes, they will have no choice but to attach to their peer group. Nature makes it so.
And what do peers know? Not much if you ask me.
CKWallace, 2016, all rights reserved.
Contact me here if you need help getting through to your teen about alcohol.
Photo credit: CKWallace. Son and father with their Dodge pickups 2012.