How do you know when a habit becomes an addiction?
It’s when the cessation of that habit causes discomfort, pain or irritation – real or otherwise.
For example, I am hopelessly addicted to coffee – which I lovingly refer to as the elixir of life. If I attempt to abandon coffee for even a short period of time, say two hours after I wake up in the morning – I‘ll suffer crushing headaches and a general feeling of anxiety. Give me my coffee, though, and my head stops hurting, the clouds part, and the world looks like a much better place.
I know I’m addicted to the stuff, and I know addiction is generally a bad state of being, but quitting coffee (at least right now) is pretty low on my list of self-improvement needs.
I have thought about it, though.
I don’t like the idea of needing anything (beyond basic nutrition) to function properly, so I have toyed with the idea of quitting. I think I may actually try it one of these days, too. But not today.
Today, my servile groveling before the goddess of the coffee bean (my wife’s name for Starbucks) is nothing more than an example of what happens when an addict tries to quit. Alcoholics know this phenomena as Delirium Tremens, or DTs. It’s Latin for shaking frenzy, and refers to the negative side effects of quitting alcohol.
But I wonder if the same thing happens when you stop a healthy addiction? If you stop doing something that is good for you, do you suffer withdrawal just like when you quit a bad habit?
Apparently, you can – as I found out last night.
Let’s call it Delirium Cogitans – thinking frenzy.
Until yesterday, I had written and published something on this site every day, without a break, for thirty-three days. I was in a pretty good flow, enjoying what I was doing, and seeing side benefits of productivity and creative thought that I never expected.
But yesterday at 11:00 p.m., I still hadn’t written anything.
We spent the day doing other things, and time got away from me.
No problem, I thought.
I’ll just rattle off a quick article before midnight.
Then my wife gave me the look.
The look that says “You need to get some sleep. Stop being so OCD. Relax. GO TO BED!!”
She can really communicate a lot with one look.
So I went to bed – but I didn’t go to sleep. I immediately succumbed to a fit of Delirium Cogitans. I lay there in bed, my mind racing over all the dire implications of breaking my writing streak.
I ran over several options to fix it, such as sleeping for just a few hours and then getting up at oh-dark thirty to write, or maybe writing twice today to make up for the lost day. My mind was running a thousand miles an hour, trying to salvage my fallen dreams from the smoking ruin of my spineless lack of commitment.
Then I thought about what I did accomplish yesterday.
My wife and I spent most of the day working on a video of our journey to adopt our daughter. This project has been left idle for far too long – especially considering the fact that we brought our daughter home more than two years ago. I was supposed to produce her video, but it kept getting pushed back, so yesterday we spent most of the day on it, and we made incredible progress.
It felt great.
I also spent an hour and 45 minutes editing a novel for a client of mine, and got more than 3,400 words edited. My client has been incredibly patient with my decreased production recently (for which I’m exceedingly grateful), so it felt great to make that kind of progress.
Most importantly, I spent some quality time with my family. We all played a game together after dinner, and once the kids were in bed, my wife and I watched a really lame movie together. (We can have fun even when the movie is bad.)
So in spite of what Delirium Cogitans was telling me, the day was not a loss at all.
The point is that yes, even good habits can elicit certain strong reactions when you quit. I stopped writing for one day, and spent a sleepless night wondering how I could ever recover as a writer.
Ridiculous, I know – but it felt real at the time.
Realistically, I knew when I started my Write Every Day challenge that it wouldn’t last forever. I wasn’t particularly worried about how long it lasted at all – at least, not until the actual ending of the streak was at hand. Then I involuntarily started focusing on the legalistic Every Day part of the challenge, rather than the functional Write part of it.
The Every Day part only existed to support the Write part. It was there to help form the habit – to get me doing what I need to do as a writer. It worked, because now I realize that writing is no longer a task. Now, I need to write.
I also need another cup of coffee.