Tue. May 17th, 2022

Filling the Void: Channeling My Compulsions Into Productivity

How do you stop craving and thinking about something every day? You don’t!

Black & white image of man working at typewriter

I crossed the threshold of my third year of full-dry sobriety this past April. In truth, I hardly noticed it happened. I was busy. Busy with work. Busy with family. Busy obsessing about things beyond my control. But I wasn’t busy thinking about drinking.

Those who know about my past experience abusing alcohol have asked if I’m cured, or have moved beyond the need to abstain from alcohol consumption. Perhaps, some have assumed, there really wasn’t an issue in the first place. The answer is no. I’m not cured, and I haven’t moved beyond the need to abstain from drinking.

I’ve been successful at sobriety for one reason: replacing my drinking with other compulsive behaviors. I’ve channeled my compulsive behavior toward less destructive acts. Specifically, I’ve taken to writing as something I do in almost all of my free time. This strategy works for me. Until it doesn’t.

I’ve always fancied myself a writer. I used to drift off into an alcohol fueled sleep clinging to the thought that one day I’d write something great. Possibly the very next day. The next day I’d get drunk again instead. Fun cycle. I had thoughts about writing a memoir. I was certain the world would gobble up the story of my broken childhood. I thought about writing great dramatic fiction, and about publishing my research in research journals.

I’ve ended up writing mostly about what I do for a living, and how my field (design/tech) can address how we promote the use of alcohol at our workplaces and events. I’ve published a book with a real publisher. I’ve also published research from my dissertation. Writing has helped me heal. Writing has also manifested as another compulsion I need to manage.

I turned to writing when I faced sobriety head on. I remember sitting on my couch craving my traditional Sunday morning drink. Instead, I fired off a pitch to an online magazine editor. A simple article based on applying a principle I’d learned in grad school to digital design. I got a positive response two days later! They wanted to present my pitch to their editorial board for discussion.

I spent the next few weeks compulsively checking my email. Another behavior I already engaged in, but now with an added sparkle of hope each time I hit refresh. I’ve been Inbox-zero since my first email address. It took a month for the editor to reply. I’d written up and sent two more pitches for similar articles with other publications in the meantime. All with potentially positive responses. I’d probably refreshed my email 30,000 times during the month. Minimum.

The editor replied with good news, as did the other two editors; my pitches were accepted. I slipped into writing for four or five hours daily. I wrote the articles. I revised the articles based on editorial feedback. I also pitched more pieces. Some were accepted. Some were declined. Some landed into a black hole and I never heard a response.

I realize this cycle of writing and pitching is similar to abusing alcohol: craving, buzzing, binging, disappointment. Craving the high of a new email containing positive news. Buzzing when I hear back that a publication wants to move forward. Binging on writing until the article (or book) is complete. The letdown of still feeling like I lack something once a piece is released. The compulsion to keep engaging in the behavior.

I’ve often thought if you want something finished you should find an addict – we finish shit – we finish the last bottle of alcohol, we finish the bar, we finish everything we can get our hands on. I’ve become that way with writing. I’ve had articles in my head for years that are still coming out. It just takes some time and thought to put together an outline and an argument. Something within me won’t let me say one or two or ten is good enough. There must always be more.

So, now I’m a published author. I frequently put out new articles. I have a backlog of a dozen more topics I’d like to write about. I spend the time I would otherwise have been drunk and out of control writing. Everything’s perfect, right? Not so fast.

Everything is best in moderation. We’ve all heard that. If writing or thinking about writing can destroy my life it would. I find my compulsive writing causes conflicts with my family. My wife doesn’t appreciate the time I spend with my face in my computer. Every night we put our two-year-old daughter to bed together. Then I’m quickly on the computer trying to come up with more words to share with the world. I have deadlines to meet!

We’ve had the discussion around spending time without my face in the computer more than once. It has caused strain in our relationship. But I’d argue it’s caused much less strain than my drinking and drunken behavior had. I’d argue it’s led us to a much better life emotionally and financially. Still, I need the reminder that it isn’t OK to focus solely on one behavior. I need a constant check on my compulsions.

For me, finding sobriety has been about refocusing my compulsive tendencies. I still have these tendencies. Channeling my compulsions is something I’ll be doing the rest of my life. Maintaining a variety of compulsions is something I will struggle with as well.

I advocate filling the void with healthy addictions. I don’t think there is any way to successfully undertake recovery if you haven’t found another way to spend the time you used to spend obsessing over self-destruction. You will need to find a way to fill your time, whether you are on your first for 10,000th day of sobriety. Finding something that doesn’t kill you and makes a positive contribution to the world is the lesser evil of compulsive behavior.

I accept that I will always find something to obsess over. I accept alcohol will be that obsession if I reintroduce it into my life. When I think about drinking, I think about drinking everything. I don’t think about how good one beer would be. I think about how good one of each kind of beer I see at the bottle shop would be. I think about how good it would feel, ever so briefly, to lose control once again. And I realize I need to write something. Something like this.


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