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Wednesday, 15 February 2012 13:37

Earning the right to indulge myself

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I was recently among a group of friends who were discussing habits — what they are and why we have them. Something I noticed pretty quickly is how those of us participating in the conversation, me included, tended to justify those habits we want to keep no matter how destructive they are for our health or emotional wellbeing.

“I don’t do this, so I should be able to do this,” the line of reasoning generally went. Or, to bring the thought from the abstract to the concrete, the logic seemed to follow this pattern: I gave up smoking (substitute your favorite addiction) so I don’t worry about eating five gallons of ice cream a night. If that’s what it takes not to smoke, oh well, I earned that right.”

The problem with this sort of reasoning is that there’s no great scorekeeper in the sky keeping tabs on our giving-ups with our substitutings. Just because I quit smoking the two packs of cigarettes a day I once smoked doesn’t mean that devouring bowls of ice cream or eating entire packs of cookies won’t kill me, too.

I have what’s commonly referred to as an addictive personality, mixed with an attractive sprinkle of obsessiveness. Anything I like a little, I soon find myself overdoing and wallowing about in excess. This extends to the obvious habits: smoking, drinking, food. But I have to be wary of over-exercising when I’m exercising, or reading one book by an author only to find myself trapped in having to read every book ever written by that author.

Which brings me to a digression: If you have a personality similar to mine, do not, I warn you, make the mistake of  “sampling” Henry James. I fell into this trap because I long felt a certain need, an itch that needed to be scratched, of filling a James gap in my education. I’d read and enjoyed James’ The Portrait of a Lady in college, but that was about my only exposure to this great writer. That being the case, last summer I decided to read “a bit” of James. Four or five months later, and I’m trapped: James was horrendously long-lived and prolific, with three distinct writing periods that included some 20 novels and what seems an endless number of shorter works.

It took me — and I’m a fast reader — about eight weeks to wade through The Wings of the Dove. I’m still not sure I even liked the damned thing. I’ve been eyeballing The Golden Bowl, but haven’t yet been able to make the mental commitment to read it. But given my personality, this isn’t as much about choice as one might think and hope. This last James novel must, at some point, be read — and I might as well admit it and start.

Recent scientific studies show that some people literally might be hardwired for addiction.

The BBC last week reported on a study of addiction that recently finished up in the United Kingdom. The news service noted it long had been established that the brains of drug addicts have some differences to those of other people. But experts were unsure whether drugs changed the wiring of the brain or if drug addicts’ brains were wired differently in the first place. Researchers studied the brains of cocaine or crack addicts with brains of  “clean” brothers or sisters. They found abnormalities in both, suggesting, they said, that addiction is in part a “disorder of the brain.”

But the study, by revealing identical abnormalities in both the addicts and their “clean” siblings, indicates more than just hopeless acceptance in the face of addictions: self control plays a role, too. The non-addicted siblings had very different lives despite sharing the same susceptibilities.

Cocaine and crack use aside, where the application of these findings are obviously of the greatest import, the study I think contains hints about behavior for the rest of us.

It’s easy for a person like myself to simply give in to my wants. But like it or not, there is an element of self-control at play. I might want to eat a pound bag of gingersnaps, yes — but do I have to? Do I need to? Of course not. And nor have I “earned” the right to eat a pound bag of gingersnaps by not having done something else. Something to perhaps chew on the next time I get a late-night eating urge.

(Now if only I could reason my way to not reading that final, very long, James novel ... of course, maybe if I do read and finish it, I’ve earned the right to eat those gingersnaps after all …)

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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