Could You Give Most of It Away?

I just started reading Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.

 

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Maria Kondo struck a nerve in America with her runaway hit The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  I, however, need to do more than just tidy up.  I need to purge.  Do you know what I mean?

I’ve lived in my house for 19 years.  That’s a long time to live in a singular space, and, while I make it a point to donate gently used items quarterly (or we would have nowhere to hang our hats), it’s nowhere near enough.  I have four daughters.  Children seem to amass large quantities of things.  People give them things.  They collect things.  They want to keep them forever.  I understand that.  I feel sentimental about certain things.  Children, however, seem to feel sentimental about almost everything–even that used napkin from last Tuesday when their friend came over and used it to wipe dirt off the floor.  It’s actually a testament to their wonder, I think, and capacity to be 100% present.

And if you have a basement?! God have mercy on you.

Another round of donating is not what I’m about to embark on.  In ten months, I am moving house.  Three years ago, I announced on this blog that my marriage was ending after years of back-and-forthing and writing about domestic violence and emotional abuse and, “Is it really that bad?” A year-and-half ago, I went back to graduate school, and next summer three of my daughters and I are headed West–to the Bay Area.  To live in a very small space no doubt.  It’s the beginning of another new adventure.

So, I have to examine every single thing I own and decide: Do I need this or not? And, I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that.  That’s why I picked up Sasaki’s book.  I figured, hey, there must be some good advice in here.  At a minimum, maybe I’ll feel inspired or  mentored.  Sasaki, thusly, defines minimalism as:

“Minimalism is a lifestyle in which you reduce your possessions to the absolute minimum you need. Living as a minimalist with the bare essentials has not only provided superficial benefits like the pleasure of a tidy room or the simple ease of cleaning, it has also led to a more fundamental shift. It’s given me a chance to think about what it really means to be happy.” (pp. 20-25).

Here is an example of a minimalist bedroom:

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I actually like the clean lines and flow, but it feels sterile–like a room in a high-end treatment facility.

A minimalist kitchen:

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This looks more attainable than some of the other online examples.

A minimalist bathroom:

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I see this and think, “Where is the trash bin?! Does an immortal live here?”

A minimalist living room:

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This has that lovely aesthetic appeal that one sees in catalogs, but it also looks remarkably un-comfortable.  

I have noticed that all of these images are super posh, and, in my opinion, this should be more accessible.  What does a middle-of-the-road minimalistic apartment or house look like? You know, where ordinary people reside.  Of note, this is not a movement aimed at people living in poverty.  First-world countries are heavily affected by consumerism and capitalistic expenditures, and the USA tops that list with China and Japan featuring second and third.  Americans are awash in stuff:

The USA features the highest levels of per household disposable income and expenditure. High income levels boost the capacity for discretionary spending of US households, although the country’s income gap remains large and continues to rise. (Euromonitor International)

I wonder what sort of impact those of us with too much stuff would have on our communities if we donated the items we truly don’t need and seldom if ever used and stopped using our income to acquire more goods, thusly, changing how we “consume”? Furthermore, what sort of impact would this have on our time–an invaluable resource? I imagine that owning less means having more time, too, because we have to dedicate time to caring for our stuff.  How might we spend our resources if we moved in a minimalistic direction with intention? Over the next 10 months, I intend to find this out.  I can tell you right now what my two biggest problems are going to be–whittling down the book collection, my kitchen implements because I am a cook, and tea accoutrements.  I have an unusually large number of really beautiful teacups most of which were gifted to me, and I can’t take them all with me.

Perhaps I ought to do a giveaway! One teacup a week…

Anyone like teacups? English teacups? And then there are the Yixing teapots

Oy vey…

God have mercy indeed (I’m actually sort of excited to see how this experiment turns out).

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“I’m doing it for a good reason, I’m doing it for a good reason, I’m doing it for a really good reason…”

 

Further Reading:

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Annual Rituals

We celebrated Passover last night with the customary Seder–the ceremonial dinner for the first night or first two nights of Passover.  My house is usually the gathering place.  It is a big job.  Traditionally, the preparation that goes into preparing one’s home, kitchen, dishes, and even inner self for Passover is daunting.  In many observant homes, there is separate dishware that must be used during Passover.  One’s house must be cleaned thoroughly (“kashered”) in order to rid the house of “chametz”, or any kind of leavened bread or leavening.  All uneaten and unopened leavened food products must be donated while opened and partially eaten leavened food products must be disposed of.  The kitchen must be thoroughly cleaned, and there are detailed instructions on how to do this.  I learned just last week that the Israeli army just replaces all their metal kitchen shelving with Passover shelving.  When Passover is over, out comes the non-festival shelving.

I have kashered my house a few times.  The result? My house was clean.  It felt clean, but I was exhausted.  It helped me, however, experience the spectrum of Jewish observance.  Today, I can’t be that observant although there is something about going through all your kitchen shelves and drawers and thoroughly cleaning them that scratches a particular itch. It cannot be about what is “good enough” though.  It is about preparing my mind and heart for what this particular Seder will speak forth.  What does that mean?

Every year, the Seder is different.  For those of you who are still mystified by what I’m saying when I say “seder”, the Seder is essentially a meal directed by a liturgical ritual.   The word “seder” itself means “order”, and we follow the order of this customary Passover meal from a text called the Haggadah.

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Every guest at a Seder usually gets a Haggadah from which to read.

It is the same order every year because the Haggadah tells the same story–the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery.  I like a very meaningful, thoughtful Seder because one of the key elements of the Seder is to read this story as if it were happening to you.  In fact, the Haggadah that we used stated: “In each generation, everyone must think of himself or herself as having personally left Egypt.”  The texts are supposed to be read as if you are living them out.  This is why they remain relevant.  What could be analogous to your life experience in the present? Who are you in the text? Who is your personal Pharaoh? Are you experiencing a metaphorical plague? Do you feel enslaved to something and require help or intervention? Do you feel hopeless?  As our Haggadah said, “Our Seder goal is to relate personally to the Passover story.”

I remember going to a Seder at synagogue a few months before my marriage ended.  I felt on edge, scared, and almost hopelessly uncertain about my future.  My oldest daughter was about to graduate from high school, and I had three other daughters to think about.  I needed surgery for an injury I sustained from my now ex-husband, and I had no idea how I was going to keep going forward.  What did that Seder speak forth at that time? I looked around the table I was sitting at and saw people around me who would help me.  I saw a community.  I slowly began to realize that I would not leave “slavery” alone.  I would go out with a group.  I could try, and I did.  Only two months later.  My life, three years later, has changed dramatically–for the better.

What did last night’s Seder speak forth? At the end of the Haggadah, we read this:

“Redemption requires our participation.  The Midrash says that God did not split the sea until one person, Nachson Ben Aminadav, took the first step into the water.  If we take the first step, God will help us the rest of the way.” (A Family Haggadah)

Whether or not people believe in God’s intervention (or even a Divine) need not detract from the greater meaning of the experience.  There are Jews who do not believe that God intervenes into the affairs of mankind.  What I want to emphasize here is that action is required in order to obtain any sort of freedom from that which creates personal inertia and bondage.  It can be almost terrifying to take first steps particularly when a big life choice is at hand.  Divorce? Marriage? Career change? A confrontation that might drastically change a relationship? Moving to another part of the world? Going to therapy for the first time? Choosing colleges? Dating again after a long-term relationship? You name it.  If it feels daunting and freezes you up in your life, then you’ve got a personal Egypt.  In my experience, taking first steps often creates momentum and opens doors.  I am experiencing this phenomenon right now in my life, but so often we don’t experience a fulfilling or meaningful life because we are stuck.  We feel paralyzed or too fearful to take a first step.  Or, we don’t know what the first step even is.

Engaging in the annual Seder ritual can prepare our hearts and minds for self-examination.  If we have a relationship with God, then the Seder sets aside time for conversations about very specific situations in which we can listen to what God might say to us about our very personal Exodus story.  If we are not theists, the Seder is still of value because the ritual itself provides time to reflect, look back, and then look forward.  Because the Seder is an annual celebration, we experience an opportunity to track the trajectory of our lives, and this is what I find so interesting.  I can look back a few years ago and recall what I took from that particular Seder–what I internalized as a much needed truth and encouragement.  Yesterday, I contemplated where I had been and where I was going in the context of my present circumstances.  I hope everyone who attended our Seder was able to enjoy some contemplation even though a Seder at our house is a little more like a festival celebration at the Goldbergs.

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We are a house full of women who are a little too down to clown most of the time. 

We try to be solemn and honor the sacred, but, in the end, it just ends up like that.  My daughter’s boyfriend joined us.  One man in a room full of loud, opinionated women.  He said very little.  I’ll crochet him a Pokemon yarmulke for next year.  He’ll fit right in.

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Making time–even if it is once a year–to contemplate your path and examine your state of freedom is a part of the Seder experience.  You do not have to be Jewish to make this idea a part of your life.  It is rewarding, useful, mindful, and helpful in terms of crafting a life that not only fulfills you but contributes to the betterment of the world around you.

It is another way to enjoy life so that you can keep going.

Being Julius Caesar

Did everyone make it through the Ides of March intact? When I was in high school, I was the only student in the history of my school to study Latin 3 or 4.  Nowadays, schools would delete the offering, but I guess the school administration just forgot about the classes.  I signed up for it and was promptly put in the corner of the Latin 2 class.  There was no curriculum to speak of forcing Ms. Jennings, my Latin teacher, to make it up.  She decided that translation was the way to go.  So, for two years I translated Ovid, Catullus, Cicero, and, my nemesis, Virgil–author of The Aeneid.  I was that kid who sat in the back of the classroom and talked to no one.

In the middle of all this classical, academic conviviality (I do not include Virgil here), we Latin students were forced to re-enact ancient Roman practices from time to time.  During December, for example, we had to run around the halls yelling, “Io Saturnalia!”  You can imagine that this might have caused a ruckus.  Ms. Jennings liked the juxtaposition of ancient life and modern, and she really liked to insert ancient traditions into our modern ones.  I won’t even discuss what she did with Easter.  But, the Ides of March was like giving her center stage.  The Ides of March was a date on the ancient Roman calendar that corresponded to March 15th.  In the ancient Roman imagination, the Ides of March was roughly equivocal to the American April 15th in terms of emotional weight.  You know, tax day.  Except to the Romans, March 15th was the day that you must settle your debts.  It bears a similar weight, doesn’t it? On April 15th, all Americans must settle their debts with Uncle Sam.  The Ides of March then became the perfect day to assassinate Julius Caesar in the Senate.  Sixty senators were seeing to it that Caesar settled his debts with Rome.

Every March 15th, the entirety of the Latin classes had to run around the school pretending to be the sixty senators conspiring to find and assassinate Julius Caesar.  No one wanted to be Julius Caesar.  Where was the fun in being murdered by a pack of overzealous high schoolers while muttering, “Et tu, Brute?” during feigned death throes?  I, of course, had to be Caesar.  I didn’t exactly participate.  I tried to evade capture.  I was scolded by Ms. Jennings for eluding the assassination: “The Ides of March was not an assassination attempt! Now, go out into the halls and die gloriously!” It felt personal.  Being a placeholder for Julius Caesar.  I didn’t want to be assassinated particularly by a bunch of underclassmen who were still figuring out how to conjugate sum (I was a total Latin snob in high school I admit with shame).  Alas, I had to die, and I resented it.  I resented it because the two people playing Brutus and Cassius, the assassins, lorded it over me for weeks in typical teenage fashion.  Their account of how they found me, how I died, and their ultimate victory over high school Rome became bigger, badder, and more ridiculous with each taunt and retelling.

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This is exactly how I felt.

I’m annoyed even now as I retell this story.  What’s even funnier is that when I am presently forced to participate in group activities, I immediately remember being Julius Caesar.  I remember how much I hated it.  I remember how it felt to be stalked in the halls.  I remember how embarrassed I felt to have to wear those ridiculous togas made of bedsheets (yes, we had to do that) to every class.  I went to an urban Texan high school! No one lets you live that down! I didn’t sign up for that nonsense, but we were graded on our participation; and I was Julius Caesar destined to die on the Ides of March–in the hallways during passing time. O the mockery!

Why do we do this? Remember the past when we experience life now or even try to plan an upcoming event? What does a past event like the Ides of March Latin Class Extravaganza have to do with my future participation in a group presentation on ovarian cancer? This has something to do with it:

“Professor of Psychological and Brain Science Kathleen McDermott, of Washington University, cites results of brain scans demonstrating that when subjects imagine potential future events it is the memory processing centers in the brain that light up.

Further, subjects with amnesia are unable to imagine the future. We have to look back in order to look forward. Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter asserts: Memory is set up to use the past to imagine the future.” (Re-story Your Life)

I love this explanation.  When we plan, imagine, and attempt to engage in anything, our brain relies on past events and experiences to support us in terms of expectations and potential futures in order to, in a way, help us erase uncertainties.  Humans don’t do well with uncertainty.  So, our brains, whether we know it or not, do a lot of the heavy lifting for us by connecting past stories together to weave a narrative flow that will help us predict an outcome.

But, what if we don’t have good stories? Or, in a specific case, what if I’ve only had bad experiences with group projects, and I’m now being assigned a group project? What do you suppose my new narrative will be? What feelings will become intertwined within the potential futures my brain brings forth? Realistically, I know that I will not literally be assassinated, but the entire high school endeavor was one of awkward disempowerment and feeling singled-out.  That defines “high school” for many people.  I know people who still struggle with the emotional impact of their high school experiences due to the narrative mark it left upon them.  If their past narratives are never re-examined, then how do you suppose they approach new life experiences when their past narrative identity is still partially rooted in such negative events? If I never re-examined my Julius Caesar experience, would you want to partner with me in a group? For real, would you? I wouldn’t.

This idea is applicable to so many life experiences.  One single event can change our narrative–the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and our place in the world, in our personal relationships, and even our relationship with ourselves.

So, how do we incorporate this idea and make it work for us?

“Our stories are always shifting, moving and incorporating this moment and the next possible moment. Our stories are fluid.

Psychologist and storytelling researcher Dan McAdams explains that our stories make up our narrative identity. But we don’t live one story or one identity. Instead, this narrative of self is ongoing, always integrating the latest information and developing into something new.

McAdams:

The stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are, and might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social contexts of family, community, the workplaceethnicityreligiongender, social class, and culture writ large.

So how exactly do we take on the challenge of rewriting our story? We can start by seeing ourselves “in the middle.”

Like all good plots, the middle of our story includes themes that form a coherent narrative. But the unsettling secret is that each of us is both the protagonist and the narrator of a story in which we have no idea what will happen next.” (Re-story Your Life)

There it is again.  That dreaded uncertainty.  What is going to happen to us next? Recall the research.  We can only imagine what will happen to us next by relying on our past memories–that’s the part of your brain being used when you imagine your future.  So, for crying out loud, what then?

I’m going to rely on Willy Wonka for guidance:

“You can’t get out backwards.  You have to go forward to go back.”

“For many of us, the uncertainty that comes with middle age brings an inclination to solidify the story. In the effort to control our anxiety about change, we form a kind of crust over the current. In time the crust hardens. We set the past: this is what happened, these are my regrets and these are my triumphs, no need to look back any further. What’s done is done.

Next we fix the future with our expectations and demands: this is what will happen. We expect to live without further twists or evolutions. While this may calm our anxiety of the moment, we deprive ourselves of creative involvement with our becoming.

Since plot twists are the secret to a great story, we need to get creative with ours.” (Re-story Your Life)

If you want to go back and look at what is hindering you, then you have to begin to move forward.  You can’t go back to go forward.  You have to go forward to go back.  You will only know what you are afraid of, what is paralyzing you, what your greatest struggle is, and from whence they originate when you begin to try to leave your residence.  Looking forward gives us a reason to look back–to gauge our starting point.  Looking back continually is futility because we gauge nothing except where we once were.  It provides us with no present perspective or even trajectory.  It only provides distortion.  You don’t even gain new information.  No one makes a plan with old information.

It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But, what is left? I could remain Julius Caesar in my mind whenever I’m called upon to do a group project dragging my past into my present effectively demoting myself perpetually.  That is very un-Caesar-like.  Or, I could create a better narrative for myself in which I engage the uncertainty while also feeling certain that no one I work with will ever try to hunt me down in a high school hallway again while wearing a bedsheet toga in order to mock stab me.  This I actually can feel certain about.

The idea is absurd, and I deliberately chose an absurd example to better elucidate the idea.  What we so often fear will overtake us will not, or, if it could, it will not affect us in the same way because we are not the same person now developmentally, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  We are very different people in the present than we were in the past, but we recall the past with the perspective of our past selves rather than with our more developed present perspectives.  So, while what we fear could, for the sake of argument, happen again, we would respond very differently because we are far more resilient and capable because we have lived life and matured–we have gained skills.  It is in this exercise that we discover our deficiencies.  If we find that in going forward we truly are hindered by a lack of skills or an inability to recall the past from the present due to pain or trauma, then we have new information.  From here, we can create a new plan of action and implement it.  And, this new plan of action is actually moving forward.

This is a very big idea to be sure.  I sit with it a lot.  It is, however, such a powerful idea.  We have immense say over our potential futures, and our influence comes from choosing to move forward even when it’s hard and scary.

Go forward to go back.  This is a very effective way to keep going.

Resources:

Re-Story Your Life: The ongoingness of being

The Buffer and Rat Park

I went to therapy on Tuesday with a migraine.

I have to pause for a moment and talk about migraines, pain, and trauma.  Whenever I have mentioned the nightmare known as The Migraine on any blog, well-meaning people have offered helpful comments.  I certainly want more good information particularly if I don’t have it, but it must be explained first that a migraine is not a headache (please bear with me as I will make a point).  It’s a neurological event that, if left untreated, can leave lesions on the brain, thusly, leaving the brain vulnerable to a future ischemic attack.  Who knew? I certainly didn’t.  You can’t fool around if you have “chronic migraine” (15 or more attacks in a month).  I am one of those people.  A dark room, a few Excedrin for Migraine, and lavender oil don’t help me.  Regretfully…

I began experiencing migraines after an auto collision, and these pain-mongering menaces arrived days later and never left.

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They are the bane of my existence.  I have tried everything known to, well, anyone for 13 years now and continue to pursue every avenue of treatment and prevention available from PT, diet therapy, pharmaceutical interventions to yoga, breathwork, chiropractic, aromatherapy, massage, acupuncture, myofascial release work, European herbal remedies…you name it.  They don’t stop.  Ever.  They might abate for a while, but they always return.  I was in the ER on Tuesday night for an infusion of the magic cocktail due to a migraine that lasted around 16 days.  It sucked, and I felt very discouraged.

Once again, I was in therapy during this round in the ring with Mega Migraine, and my therapist, who has experience counseling people with chronic pain, tried to coach me through the pain suggesting different strategies.  He also asked me carefully if past trauma played a role in the frequency of my migraines–a legitimate but admittedly tiresome question.  At times, however, one starts to feel patronized.  I did my best to answer his questions while I massaged stabbed myself as if I had an ice pick trigger points and squinted at him possibly slurring my words.

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MJ in therapy…

This is where, I observe, that people with PTSD or past trauma might experience a defensive response (looking catatonic can be defensive in nature, I suppose).  I do, at times, feel emotionally defended when people suggest that migraines or any other illness are psychosomatic if you’ve experienced trauma; that is an oversimplification as humans are far too complex.  I didn’t, however, defend myself at all on Tuesday because I was in too much pain, and, for what it’s worth, I know the emotional stressors that trigger a migraine attack.  I also know that a car crash has damaged the nerves in my neck (neuropathic pain), and I also have vasculitis in my CNS thanks to SLE (Lupus) not to mention genetics.  These are three “quantitative” etiologies for these migraines that have nothing to do with PTSD or past trauma; so, I felt safe enough to address the more qualitative reasons.

For example, the sound of my mother’s voice will trigger a migraine in a certain part of my head–around the trigeminal nerve to be exact–in about five minutes.  This is a primary reason I’m pursing EMDR.  That is a classic trauma-based somatic response.  I want that outta here! If one of my daughters becomes labile and needs to go to the Behavioral Health ER for something like suicidal ideation or a sudden onset of a mixed state, I will most likely experience a migraine within 12 hours after that.  That is a classic stress trigger for me.  My ex-husband’s antics will trigger a stress-related migraine particularly if it hurts one of my daughters in a meaningful way, but this does not mean that a migraine emerges out of the ether and descends upon me, the migraineur, in some sort of psychosomatic fog.  Blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol most likely play a huge role in affecting the blood vessels in the brain thanks to the stress experienced from these events, thusly, causing a migraine.  We are not machines even though Descartes would like to attribute such a description to humans.

Westerners can be quick to banish anything stress-related and almost act as if the resultant symptoms are not real.  Stress causes heart attacks.  That’s as real as it gets.

Look at the rise of hypertension and diabetes or even cancer.  One can point at diet first, but what fuels the poor diet choices (leaving out low income and class issues)? Stress.  Why, for example, won’t people give up their favorite foods loaded with salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats? Stress.   People are often trying to mitigate stress using the closest thing at hand to do that–food products i.e. substances.  The Big Three make us feel better for a time, and that’s real and measurable.  Reduce stress and one observes a subsequent reduction in illness and its damaging effects on the body and mind.  This is a known principle.  Once stress is reduced, the automatic habits that go along with that stress tend to reduce as well i.e. emotional and/or stress eating, increased alcohol intake, increased caffeine intake, increased substance use for stress and emotional management.  It’s tough, however, if the very things used for stress mitigation are themselves addictive which, alcohol and opiates aside, dairy and gluten are as their proteins occupy the opiate receptors in the human brain.  That’s why it is such a pain in the ass to give them up.  What’s more, the very things that ultimately exacerbate our stress levels and level our health surround us namely industrialized food products.  Our biology works against us here.

What if then one has done everything one can, but the stress cannot be reduced?

Isn’t that the magic question though? I can’t control my children or my ex-husband.  You can’t make an infant sleep through the night nor can you control another person’s behaviors or driving habits, and it’s these very things that potentially exacerbate myriad illnesses in us if we are already under internal pressure–how other people’s choices affect our lives.

Enter The Buffer.

What is The Buffer?

Well, we are supposed to have natural buffers in our lives that help support us in ways that our proxy support systems– Fat, Sugar, Salt, Caffeine, Entertainment, Substances, and other things–do.  The emotional soothing and regulation that we get from these sources are supposed to be provided to us from something else.  Like what?

Let me introduce you to Rat Park.  What is Rat Park?

“The Rat Park Experiment aimed to prove that psychology – a person’s mental, emotional, and psychosocial states – was the greatest cause of addiction, not the drug itself. Prior to Alexander’s experiment, addiction studies using lab rats did not alter the rat’s environment. Scientists placed rats in tiny, isolated cages and starved them for hours on end. The “Skinner Boxes” the rats lived in 24/7 allowed no room for movement and no interaction with other rats.

Using the Skinner Boxes, scientists hooked rats up to various drugs using intravenous needles implanted in their jugular veins. The rats could choose to inject themselves with the drug by pushing a lever in the cage. Scientists studied drug addiction this way, using heroin, amphetamine, morphine, and cocaine. Typically, the rats would press the lever often enough to consume large doses of the drugs. The studies thus concluded that the drugs were irresistibly addicting by their specific properties.

However, rats by nature are social, industrious creatures that thrive on contact and communication with other rats. Putting a rat in solitary confinement does the same thing as to a human, it drives them insane. If prisoners in solitary confinement had the option to take mind-numbing narcotics, they likely would. The Skinner Box studies also made it incredibly easy for rats to take the drugs, and it offered no alternatives. The need for a different type of study was clear, and Alexander and his colleagues stepped up to the plate.”

Are you curious yet?

“The goal of Bruce Alexander’s Experiment was to prove that drugs do not cause addiction, but that a person’s living condition does. He wanted to refute other studies that connected opiate addiction in laboratory rats to addictive properties within the drug itself. Alexander constructed Rat Park with wheels and balls for play, plenty of food and mating space, and 16-20 rats of both sexes mingling with one another. He tested a variety of theories using different experiments with Rat Park to show that the rat’s environment played the largest part in whether a rat became addicted to opiates or not.

In the experiment, the social rats had the choice to drink fluids from one of two dispensers. One had plain tap water, and the other had a morphine solution. The scientists ran a variety of experiments to test the rats’ willingness to consume the morphine solution compared to rats in solitary confinement. They found that:

  • The caged rats ingested much larger doses of the morphine solution – about 19 times more than Rat Park rats in one of the experiments.
  • The Rat Park rats consistently resisted the morphine water, preferring plain water.
  • Even rats in cages that were fed nothing but morphine water for 57 days chose plain water when moved to Rat Park, voluntarily going through withdrawal.
  • No matter what they tried, Alexander and his team produced nothing that resembled addiction in rats that were housed in Rat Park.

Based on the study, the team concluded that drugs themselves do not cause addictions. Rather, a person’s environment feeds an addiction. Feelings of isolation, loneliness, hopelessness, and lack of control based on unsatisfactory living conditions make a person dependent on substances. Under normal living conditions, people can resist drug and alcohol addiction…

Today, psychologists and substance abuse experts acknowledge the fact that drug and alcohol addiction involves transmitters within the brain. Certain chemicals latch on to different receptors in the brain, altering the way users think and feel. The user becomes addicted to the high he or she experiences while on the substance, and soon has to use it all the time to cope with other feelings. The more neuroscience discovers about addictions and the brain, the more physicians can find solutions to treat addictions.

What scientists today realize is that addiction is as mental as it is physical. Humans do not have to be physically isolated, like the rats in the Skinner Boxes, to become addicted to substances. Emotional isolation is enough to produce the same affects. Humans cope with their feelings of dislocation with drugs and alcohol, finding an “escape” or a way to smother the pain. A human’s cage may be invisible, but it is no less there.” (online source)

Many people have written about Rat Park.  My takeaway is this: In order to heal and progress in a meaningful way we must build a buffer.  We must emerge from our human cages with as much dedicated effort as possible and do something different than we’ve been doing.

Why do I call it a buffer? That’s what my neurologist called it, and it struck a chord.  She had prescribed five medications for me to take in order to prevent constant migraine pain.  Five.  It’s ridiculous.  When I asked her why so many she said, “These medications are your buffer.  Your life is so stressful.  You have nothing in your life properly supporting you right now.  Until you have real buffers in place like people you can count on consistently to alleviate some of your intense stress like your sick kids and abusive husband, you need the medication.  Otherwise, you won’t be functional because your brain is just too irritable.  Your circumstances have to change, and the meds are bridging the gap for you until they do.”  Well, that’s a lousy answer, but is that not a true answer for so many of us? Who is absorbing the stresses and inequities of our situations? Us.  Our bodies.  Our minds.  Our spirits.  We are caged in circumstances that we did not entirely choose.

Psychologist Adi Jaffe states:

“To make matters more complicated, we know that biological influences related to genetic differences, neonatal (birth-related) circumstances and early nutrition can alter brain mechanisms and make people more, or less, susceptible to the effects of trauma. For instance, we now know that early life trauma alters the function of the Hypothelamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, making individuals who have been exposed to trauma at an early age far more susceptible to stress, anxiety and substance use; or that hypoxia during delivery (certainly a form of trauma) can increase the chances of mental health defects later in life. Like the Rat Heaven experiment, it should be somewhat obvious that without these early traumas, the individuals in question (those who struggle with addiction) would experience less “need” for heavy-duty coping strategies like, let’s say, opiates. So biology is important here at least in this regard.

So trauma and stress are not at all objective truths but rather individually determined patterns of influence. I am fully on board with making sure that the treatment system we use does not exacerbate the problems that stress and trauma bring about (so no shaming, breaking-down, or expulsion of clients for their struggles), but I think that the picture this TED talk and the related book presents is far too simplified to be as helpful as we want it to be. I believe that more focus should be given to improved prevention efforts in order to reduce the likelihood of these early traumas and therefore of later drug seeking experience in the first place. I also know that significant efforts are already being put into this sort of work through a multitude of social-services organizations and government agencies. Needless to say, the demand for drug use has not abated despite these efforts.  It’s been happening for at least 8000 years already and I’m thinking it’s here to stay.” (Adi Jaffe)

Where does this leave me? What is my point? It’s not as if we can suddenly jump from our circumstantial cages and swan dive into a metaphorical Rat Park as lovely as that would be, but can we migrate to such a place given the chance to make small, meaningful changes consistently? Is that possible? I think so.

How? 

Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past 13 years.  The reason that I know it’s been 13 years is that the very auto accident that resulted in my now ever-present migraines occurred two weeks after I ended my relationship with my father–my primary abuser.  That was a monumental choice in my life, and, while I did not know it at the time, it set me on a course of recovery.  The trajectory of my life changed in that moment.  A few years later, I ended my relationship with my mother, my secondary abuser.  And, a year and half ago, I ended my marriage.  I finally climbed out of that cage.  No more abuse.  From anyone.  

Was it hard? Excruciating.  It is hard for me to describe the emotional suffering and turmoil I experienced last year.  The pain and grief were nothing if not backbreaking.  I think I wept more last year than I have in my entire life, and it wasn’t because I missed my ex-husband.  It was simply an overflow of pain, grief, loneliness, fear, and existential alienation that I was forced to set aside in order to survive.  I had pretended to be fine for so long that when it came time to be truthful with myself, it became a reckoning.  I spent many sleepless nights sobbing.  I can barely write about it even now.  I felt like I was somehow vomiting forth my viscera through my tears, but, I think, it all had to go.  Years and years of absorbing the inequities, the emotional and physical abuse, and believing that in order for others to be happy I had to diminish had to be sucked from me as a poison.  And do you know what has happened? Unbelievably, my Lupus blood panel is now normal.  For the first time since my diagnosis, I am in remission.

My neurologist also wants to look at reducing those medications.  I am getting better.

I enrolled in grad school.

And…ahem…I met someone, y’all.

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It’s true. Aaaaaanyway….

Yes.  This is hard.  I have never lied on this blog about the inordinate difficulty involved in turning your life around.  BUT…it is possible.  And that is what I have always wanted to know.  I never cared if creating a life worth living was hard.  I only wanted to know if it was a possibility for me.

Is it possible? Yes, it is.

So, excuse my language, but fuck hard.  Do what is possible because, while it might seem impossible, it’s not.

You can do this.  Keep going.