Tuesday, October 30, 2018

How To Conquer Cravings

I’ve said it before, and I’m pretty sure I’ll say it again - this being sober malarky is quite the up-and-down journey. A couple of weeks ago I wrote this post about getting over the hump. I was feeling in a very positive state of mind when I wrote it. The sun was shining, I was relaxing in the garden and life was good. 

This week has been a little different. Winter is making itself known, and it’s been grey and rainy. I’m feeling drained from working some busy shifts at my new cafe job, which is my first job for a long time and is taking some getting used to. And I’ve got a cold. All I want to do is curl up in bed with a cup of tea, seasons one and two of Stranger Things, and a great big doobie. Hey, hang on a second, how did that sneak in there?! I thought I was done with all that shit. Turns out, nah. 

All day yesterday, all I could think about was smoking. Someone sat outside the cafe with their coffee and had a cigarette, and it instantly made me want to smoke. I rode my bike through The Gauntlet (a pathway in the park lined with dudes selling and smoking weed), and  for the first time in ages it was like being kicked in the stomach. When we were at our friends house I saw half a joint in the ashtray, and I wanted it. It was only once I’d distracted my brain with delicious vegan pizza that the thoughts about smoking went away. 

Willpower and cravings seem to go hand-in-hand. You feel a craving, and then you exert large amounts of willpower until those cravings are under control. But what’s interesting about my recent experiences is that I didn’t feel like willpower really came into my resistance of those cravings. They took me by surprise a bit, because lately I’ve been feeling fine. I think because of that I was interested by them. I noticed them because they were unusual, and then I paid attention and asked some questions. What is happening right at this moment that is making me feel like smoking? How do I feel? Am I tired, run down, feeling sorry for myself? I didn’t judge myself, or beat myself up for feeling like I wanted to smoke. I just observed what was happening. 

The problem with willpower in general is that it’s finite, and very dependant on your physical and mental state. Even the word implies strength - you need to be strong to have willpower, and sometimes (or a lot of the time!) we’re just not that strong. We feel like if we have a craving there are two options available to us - we fight it with our willpower, or we cave. The problem with this picture is that both options have the potential for us to ‘fail’, because at any point our willpower can be exhausted, and when we’re too tired to fight anymore, we will give in. So, what can we do when our cravings bust down the door and kick us in the face? 

Take inspiration wherever you find it! 

I was listening to a great This Naked Mind podcast, and Annie Grace and her guest were discussing this very topic. She was talking to Dr Amy Johnson, author of The Little Book of Big Change, and they had some really interesting insights into cravings, and on finding another way to deal with them. Dr Johnson was talking about energy, how everything is just a transfer or movement of energy, and dealing with cravings is no different. Fighting and resisting it, or giving in and rewarding it are both ways that give the craving more energy, meaning it will grow and grow and eventually come to dominate your whole life - whether you cave or not. 

Annie had a brilliant analogy for cravings that has really made it clear to me how important it is to find a different way to deal with them. She compared cravings to a small child demanding ice-cream. They are going to do everything they can to get that ice-cream - beg, plead, manipulate, cry, scream, stamp their feet, the works. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to deal with a child having a tantrum because they’re being denied something, but I think we all know what not to do. You don’t argue, because they will keep arguing back and they’re younger and have more energy and want  the ice-cream more than you will ever understand. And you don’t give in, because that teaches them that tantrums will get them what they want. Instead, you acknowledge their desire for ice-cream, but you tell them in no uncertain terms that since you are the adult, the one who knows best (and more importantly the one with the money), you are in control of this situation and you will not be moved. Yes, it’s very sad that they are being denied ice-cream, but since you know ice-cream will ruin their dinner you will continue to say no, and then not give a shit that they’re going to burst a blood vessel if they keep screaming. Because here’s the thing about toddlers (and cravings) - they wear themselves out. Eventually they stop because no one can maintain that level of righteous indignation for that long and not become exhausted. It’s just a waiting game, and small children are like fire crackers. They are loud with lots of energy but they burn out really fast. Adults have learnt to be like a smouldering bonfire - it looks like nothing much is happening, but it could go on like that for hours. 

This is the third way to deal with a craving, and it seems paradoxical because you are neither fighting it head on or ignoring it completely. You notice it. You acknowledge it. You hear what it has to say. But you never forget that you are in control, not the screaming toddler banging its fists on the floor. Who would let that deranged monster be in charge of anything? No, you are the adult, you are the one who knows what’s best for you, and you can wait out this fleeting tantrum. Cravings really do come and then go, as long as you don’t feed them. 

I have a couple of tips for making this process easier. The first is mediating (something else I’ve said before and will say again!) The more you practice observing your thoughts and your body, the easier it will be to notice those cravings when they pop up. 

The second is to remember that you are not your thoughts. You are not weak, or a bad person, because you crave something that you used to do that is addictive. Parents (or at least the ones that want to remain sane) don’t identity with their screaming toddlers. Everyone knows that’s just how people who’ve yet to learn how to deal with and express all the feelings that they’re feeling behave. It will pass as they learn, and so will your cravings. With enough time, they’ll be less kicks at the door, and more polite knocks. And then you’ll be able to tell them, very politely, to go fuck themselves. 


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  1. Wonderful read and very relatable. I used to use certain drugs for pure escapism with alcohol being the main culprit drinking cheap cider before working at 8am at the worst of times. It was a way of "coping" with a current bout of stress or problem I was suppressing , some times that very craving comes when I see or hear something horrific but rational comes after as I dissect why that thought pattern arose and realize how destructive it could have been. I still have certain addictions but none that could kill me instantly or harm others instantly.

    When the cravings do come into your head remember why you don't want too give in. Picture yourself reflecting in the aftermath of giving into it, realize your strong and it will subside.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, glad you enjoyed the post! I think the idea of imagining forward, of seeing in great detail what would happen if you gave into those cravings, is a very powerful tool. SoberPunks, another sobriety blog I read, talks about 'playing the tape forward' a lot and it's something I've started doing when I get all nostalgic for the good ol' days of smoking and I think I could just give it a try again. It works really well!