Monday, September 29, 2014
By Paul Verhaeghe
An economic system that rewards psychopathic personality traits has changed our ethics and our personalities
'We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited.'
We tend to perceive our identities as stable and largely separate from outside forces. But over decades of research and therapeutic practice, I have become convinced that economic change is having a profound effect not only on our values but also on our personalities. Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatisation have taken their toll, as relentless pressure to achieve has become normative. If you’re reading this sceptically, I put this simple statement to you: meritocratic neoliberalism favours certain personality traits and penalises others.
There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.
It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can – you know a lot of people, you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt and you recently completed a major project. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.
On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces. The source of inspiration for this list? The psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today.
This description is, of course, a caricature taken to extremes. Nevertheless, the financial crisis illustrated at a macro-social level (for example, in the conflicts between eurozone countries) what a neoliberal meritocracy does to people. Solidarity becomes an expensive luxury and makes way for temporary alliances, the main preoccupation always being to extract more profit from the situation than your competition. Social ties with colleagues weaken, as does emotional commitment to the enterprise or organisation.
Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other.
Constant evaluations at work cause a decline in autonomy and a growing dependence on external, often shifting, norms. This results in what the sociologist Richard Sennett has aptly described as the “infantilisation of the workers”. Adults display childish outbursts of temper and are jealous about trivialities (“She got a new office chair and I didn’t”), tell white lies, resort to deceit, delight in the downfall of others and cherish petty feelings of revenge. This is the consequence of a system that prevents people from thinking independently and that fails to treat employees as adults.
More important, though, is the serious damage to people’s self-respect. Self-respect largely depends on the recognition that we receive from the other, as thinkers from Hegel to Lacan have shown. Sennett comes to a similar conclusion when he sees the main question for employees these days as being “Who needs me?” For a growing group of people, the answer is: no one.
Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.
A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age.
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman neatly summarised the paradox of our era as: “Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless.” We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticise religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance – freedom of this kind is prompted by indifference. Yet, on the other hand, our daily lives have become a constant battle against a bureaucracy that would make Kafka weak at the knees. There are regulations about everything, from the salt content of bread to urban poultry-keeping.
Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, “make” something of ourselves. You don’t need to look far for examples. A highly skilled individual who puts parenting before their career comes in for criticism. A person with a good job who turns down a promotion to invest more time in other things is seen as crazy – unless those other things ensure success. A young woman who wants to become a primary school teacher is told by her parents that she should start off by getting a master’s degree in economics – a primary school teacher, whatever can she be thinking of?
There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.
Sunday, September 28, 2014
From the American Cancer Society website:
From the Native American perspective, medicine is more about healing the person than curing a disease. Traditional healers aim to “make whole” by restoring well-being and harmonious relationships with the community and the spirit of nature, which is sometimes called God or the Great Mystery. Native American healing is based on the belief that everyone and everything on earth is interconnected, and every person, animal, and plant has a spirit or essence. Even an object, such as a river or rock, and even the earth itself, may be considered to have this kind of spirit.
Native Americans traditionally believe that illness stems from spiritual problems. They also say that diseases are more likely to invade the body of a person who is imbalanced, has negative thinking, or lives an unhealthy lifestyle. Some Native American healers believe that inherited conditions, such as birth defects, are caused by the parents’ immoral lifestyles and are not easily treated. Others believe that such conditions reflect a touch from the Creator and may consider them a kind of gift. Native American healing practices aim to find and restore balance and wholeness in a person to restore one to a healthy and spiritually pure state.
Some people believe Native American medicine can help cure physical diseases, injuries, and emotional problems. Some healers claim to have cured conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, thyroid problems, skin rashes, asthma, and cancer. Available scientific studies do not support these claims.
There are many types of Native American healing practices, and they are promoted to help with a variety of ills. Some of the most common aspects of Native American healing include the use of herbal remedies, purifying rituals, shamanism, and symbolic healing rituals to treat illnesses of both the body and spirit. Herbal remedies are used to treat many physical conditions. Practitioners use purifying rituals to cleanse the body and prepare the person for healing. Shamanism is based on the idea that spirits cause illness, and a Native American healer called a shaman focuses on using spiritual healing powers to treat people. Symbolic healing rituals, which can involve family and friends of the sick person, are used to invoke the spirits to help heal the sick person.
Healers may include shamans, herbalists, spiritual healers, and medicine men or women. Many Native Americans see their healers for spiritual reasons, such as to seek guidance, truth, balance, reassurance, and spiritual well-being, while still using conventional medicine to deal with “white man’s illness.” However, they believe that the spirit is an inseparable element of healing.
|Doctor Strange, Hawk and Dove, The Creeper, Spider-Man, and The Question all spotlight Steve Ditko's genius for comic book hero design.|
|A painted portrait of Steve Ditko by Drew Friedman.|
From yee Wiki:
Stephen J. "Steve" Ditko (born November 2, 1927) is an American comic book artist and writer best known as the artist and co-creator, with Stan Lee, of the Marvel Comics heroes Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.
Ditko studied under Batman artist Jerry Robinson at the Cartoonist and Illustrators School in New York City. He began his professional career in 1953, working in the studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, beginning as an inker and coming under the influence of artist Mort Meskin. During this time, he then began his long association with Charlton Comics, where he did work in the genres of science fiction, horror, and mystery. He also co-created the superhero Captain Atom in 1960.
During the 1950s, Ditko also drew for Atlas Comics, a forerunner of Marvel Comics. He went on to contribute much significant work to Marvel, including co-creating Spider-Man, who would become the company's flagship character. Additionally, he co-created the supernatural hero Doctor Strange and made important contributions to the Hulk and Iron Man. In 1966, after being the exclusive artist on The Amazing Spider-Man and the Doctor Strange feature in Strange Tales, Ditko left Marvel for reasons never specified.
Ditko continued to work for Charlton and also DC Comics, making major contributions, including a revamp of the long-running character Blue Beetle, and creating or co-creating the Question, the Creeper, Shade, the Changing Man, and Hawk and Dove. Ditko also began contributing to small independent publishers, where he created Mr. A, a hero reflecting the influence of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. Since the 1960s, Ditko has declined most interviews, stating that it is his work he offers readers, and not his personality.
Ditko was inducted into the comics industry's Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1990, and into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1994.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about "15 Things Not to Say to Someone With a Chronic Illness." It has been by far the most popular post on my site. I am so glad that it has resonated with people, and hopefully a few people learned how to better relate to people in their lives with chronic illnesses.
A few people have mentioned to me that I should write about what people should say to people with chronic illnesses. So I can’t guarantee this list will apply to everyone, but here are ten things that people with chronic illnesses want to hear:
1. "I believe you."
I already mentioned that this is the most powerful thing you can say to someone with a chronic illness. People who live with chronic illnesses are often met with doubt. Seeing is believing, and when you look outwardly healthy, people have a hard time believing you feel as sick as you say. For a person with a chronic illness, having someone believe them is validating and comforting. It will help them trust you because they are probably worried about whether you and the people in their life believe them or not all the time.
2. "Can I come over and hang out?"
Asking them if they want to come and hang out can be good too, but sometimes just the thought of leaving the house can be overwhelming for someone with a chronic illness. It takes up valuable energy- leaving little to do the fun activities that they were planning to do outside the home. You offering to come over is a huge gesture. It shows that you want to spend time with them, even if they aren’t up for leaving the house or doing something that takes energy.
3. "Can I bring you food? or "Can I come over and help out around the house?"
Obviously these aren’t things you should say or do all the time, because you probably don’t have time to do this every day. But on a day that you have time, or if you are already running errands for yourself, taking the extra few minutes to help your friend with a chronic illness will make a huge difference for them. For me, sometimes just doing the dishes is enough to make me need to take a nap. And on bad days I struggle to find the energy to get food. Offering to do these favors, whether or not they accept, is a wonderful gesture. It will help someone with a chronic illness feel that you understand what they are going through and care about them. Offering something specific is more helpful than just asking, is there anything I can do? (Not that that isn’t good to say as well!)
4. "I know how hard you are trying."
This is the opposite of “why don’t you just push through it?” and it is one of the best things you can say. Everyone likes their hard work acknowledged, but most people don’t see just making it through the day as hard work. For someone with a chronic illness a lot of times it really can be. And when I am working really hard just to make myself exercise for 10 minutes or do my biofeedback for the day, that outside encouragement can be the motivation to help get through it.
5. Any kind of "Hello," or checking-in after not seeing them for a while
Sometimes someone with a chronic illness doesn’t leave the house for a long time, or misses a lot of school or work. And adding to the difficult of their illness is the feeling of being forgotten or left behind. Out of sight, out of mind, right? So just checking in and saying hi and letting them know you’ve been thinking about them when you haven’t seen them around lately will go a really long way. It will probably make their day, and you will feel good for reaching out to them.
6. "You are so strong."
Constantly being in a fight with your own body is hard work. People with chronic illnesses usually feel weak from this fight, either physically, mentally, or both. Hearing that they are strong is validation that all their hard work is not unseen. And it can serve as a reminder that they have the strength to keep fighting day in and out.
7. "I know how hard this was for you - thanks for using your energy to spend time with me."
A friend of mine mentioned that her friend once said this to her after a long phone conversation. I realized how touched I would be if someone said this to me. Saying this helps a person with a chronic illness feel that you understand what they are going through and appreciate having them in your life. It also should make you feel good that someone with a chronic illness chooses to spend their limited energy with you, because it means they care about you!
8. "Don’t feel bad if you have to cancel plans at the last minute, I understand."
One of the constant feelings that comes along with a chronic illness is feeling guilty or like you are a burden to people in your life. I always feel terrible for canceling plans, and I sometimes do it at the latest possible moment because I am hoping I will feel better. And I sometimes beat myself up about it, even though it’s out of my control. I know this is common for people with chronic illnesses. Letting them know you don’t hold it against them will help alleviate that guilt. And it will make them more likely to make plans with you in the future, because they won’t be afraid of losing you as a friend if they cancel on you too often.
9. Sometimes the best thing you can say is nothing - just giving them a hug or lending them an ear.
This is true of all people, right? Not just those with chronic illnesses. Sometimes the best, most supportive thing you can do for a friend or loved one is just show your support through a loving hug or letting them vent to you. Hugs are good for your health, so go hug your friends who have chronic illnesses. Usually just being a good listener is more helpful than trying to give good advice when you haven’t experienced chronic illness first hand.
10. "I know this isn’t your fault."
One of the main themes running through a chronic illness sufferers head is often self-blame. Which is totally unreasonable for most people. But it’s hard not to think, “If I only pushed myself a little harder” or “If I only ate a little healthier” or “If I only exercised for 20 minutes yesterday instead of 10 I would be better.” People with chronic illnesses learn from experience that these “if only’s” are just wishful thinking. Because the illness is not your fault. And so having an external reminder of that fact can really help solidify that idea for people with chronic illnesses, and help them remember that you don’t blame them for it either.
Bonus: When all else fails and you aren’t sure what to say: "I wish I knew what to say, but I care about you and I’m here for you."
You may never understand what it is like to have a chronic illness, and that is okay. That’s actually good, because it’s not usually a fun experience. But when you can’t think of what to say, it’s okay to say you don’t know what to say. And follow it up with a reminder that you care about them and you are there for them if they need you. Because when it comes down to it, it’s not about saying the absolute perfect thing, it’s about showing that you care.
This list is not meant to imply that these are the only things you should say to someone with a chronic illness. All of these things should get through to someone with a chronic illness and be touching for them, depending on who the person is. Having a good support system is important no matter what situation you are in, and so these kinds of things let the person in your life with a chronic illness know you are on their team.
It’s difficult to know how to deal with a friend or loved one who has a chronic or invisible illness. We learn that when you are sick you treat it and it goes away. Chronic conditions don’t go away. They are hard to understand.
Invisible illnesses are illnesses that you can’t see just by looking at someone. Things like Chronic Migraines, Lupus, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, etc. don’t affect your appearance, but they affect how your body functions and feels. Every day. Probably for the rest of your life.
When you say these things to someone with a chronic illness, you probably don’t mean to hurt their feelings. A lot of the time you are just trying to understand or sympathize. Well, from the perspective of a chronic illness sufferer, here are 15 things you should never say to someone with a chronic illness:
1. "You don’t look sick."
Not everyone “looks like” what is happening to them. You would never say “you don’t look like someone who is going through a terrible divorce” if your stressed out friend still manages to put on a brave face and pull themselves together. Not all illnesses are manifested outwardly. And chances are, on the days that you are seeing someone with a chronic illness, it is one of their better days because they are out at all. Everyone is going through some kind of struggle in their lives, and chances are, you can’t see it on the surface.
2. "You’re too young to be sick."
I get this one more than #1. We expect teens and 20-somethings to be the picture of great health. And a lot of people get illnesses as their bodies age. But no one is “too young” to be anything. You can get any kind of illness no matter your age. You can go through any kind of stressful or positive situation no matter your age. Age is completely irrelevant here. Young does not always equal healthy. When you say this to someone who is young it just makes them feel even more guilty or embarrassed for having an illness they have no control over when society expects them to be healthy.
3. "Everyone gets tired."
That may be true. And most people are not getting enough sleep and rest. But the difference between someone with a chronic illness associated with fatigue and an otherwise healthy person is the level of fatigue. If I go out drinking with friends and stay up late, it could take me a week to recover. I have to carefully plan every activity of the day so that I can save energy to do all of them. My favorite line I’ve heard for this one is: you don’t know what fatigue is until you’ve had to rest after taking a shower. Unless you literally think to yourself “how much energy will that take?” for every single action you take during the day (including brushing teeth, combing hair, standing to do dishes, putting on makeup, cleaning, driving, etc.) then you experience a completely different kind of tired than people with chronic illnesses. I’m not saying you aren’t tired. Everyone does get tired. But my kind of tired is not the same as a healthy person’s kind of tired. If I push myself past the amount of energy I have in a given day, the consequences are pretty bad. See the spoon theory for more about this one.
4. "You’re just having a bad day."
I know you are trying to motivate someone and make them feel better when you say this, but it doesn’t come off like that. Personally, only about 10 people in my life see me on my bad days. If I am outside, dressed, and active, that is a good day. So instead of making someone with a chronic illness feel supported and motivated when you say this, it feels like you are brushing off their symptoms. Chronic illnesses are with you for life. You can change your lifestyle and find treatments to help them, and some of them can be “cured,” but for the most part, that person will have to deal with a lot of bad days for a lot more years. Hearing this can be discouraging.
5. "It must be nice not having to go to work/school."
This one. Oh man. If you only knew. Sure, it can feel that way when you take a day to play hooky or a long vacation. But when you are forced not to go to work or school, even when you want to be there, it is a whole different story. People with chronic illnesses don’t want to fall behind in school and fight with the school district to get accommodations they need. People with chronic illnesses don’t want to miss work and not be able to generate an income. Everyone wants independence. Personally, I loved school and hated every day I wasn’t there. It is way more stressful not being in school and knowing all the work you will have to do to make up for it than being there on any given day. And I have loved the jobs I’ve had and been sad about every day I have missed. Believe me, it is not nice having to stay home instead of being productive, just trying to find ways to distract yourself from pain or exhaustion. It’s fun to watch TV for a day or two- but after that- you feel trapped. I guarantee anyone with a chronic illness would gladly trade in their symptoms for a full time job. Some people just aren’t physically capable of that.
6. "You need to get more exercise."
Exercise is really important and no one is denying that. It helps pretty much any health condition. But it isn’t a cure-all. For someone like me, whose heart rate regularly reaches 120 bpm just from standing still, exercise isn’t always doable. I do “exercise” but it is more like physical therapy exercises than what most people would consider a good work out. But remember, everyone has limitations. For people with chronic illnesses, their physical limitations may make it harder for them to do traditional exercises. And even if they do, it will probably not be a cure for a condition that is caused by something totally different like an immune system that attacks itself or a nervous system that doesn’t regulate itself correctly.
7. "I wish I had time to take a nap."
See numbers 3 and 5, which relate to this one. To someone with a chronic illness, to whom napping is not a luxury but in fact a necessity, hearing someone say this is as much a slap in the face as hearing someone say they wish they could take a break from work or school too. Hearing anyone “wish” they could have a part of a chronic illness just shows how misinformed they are when they say this. Wishing you had more time is pretty much a universal wish. But wishing you had the time that a person with a chronic illness has is not the same. If your wish is granted, you can get more time, but you also have to get the pain, the exhaustion, and the difficulty figuring out how to be productive in society. Remember that next time you have the desire to say this.
8. The power of positive thinking
Positivity is really important and having a negative outlook can negatively affect an illness. But having a positive outlook will probably not cure it. I’ve gone through all the stages of positive thinking and denying my illness. I have thought, if I just put my mind to it, I can do that. And then I suffer the consequences of pushing myself beyond my limits. Positive thinking that is productive for chronic illness sufferers is not telling someone that thinking positively will help them with their symptoms. Instead, productive positive thinking is finding the positivity that comes with their illness. For me, if I hadn’t had POTS, I wouldn’t have gone to Lake Forest College to stay close to home and my doctors where I learned and discovered my passion for environmental studies and met the love of my life. I wouldn’t have found an inner strength in myself and learned to value the time I have in the same way I do. That is productive positive thinking. But it’s not a cure.
9. "Just push through it."
Hearing this makes me want to hit my head against a wall. This goes along with #3 “Everyone gets tired/ headaches/ back pain/ insert symptom, just push through it.” The problem with this statement is the underlying assumption that a person with a chronic illness is not already pushing themselves. Every day I push myself. I push through my symptoms all the time. If I didn’t on my bad days I would literally not eat, walk, or shower. And the same is true of anyone with a chronic illness. Remember: there is a difference between pushing and pushing past your limits. Pushing yourself is good and necessary. But pushing past your limits can set someone with a chronic illness back for a while while they recover from overextending themselves. Suggesting to someone to just push through it may not feel insulting, but it is like telling a marathon runner to just go faster on their last mile.
10. "It will get better, just be patient."
I’m sure everyone who says this truly means well. And it is true of a lot of things that patience is important. But not all chronic illnesses will get better. Patience is a virtue, and an important one. But please don’t say this to someone who has an illness that they will have for their entire life. It could get better, but it also may not. So figuring out how to live within the confines of your illness and make the most of it is more productive than expecting to get better. This is not to say that you shouldn’t hope to get better- just that you shouldn’t count on it. That’s denial.
11. "Have you tried ____?"
… the paleo diet, acupuncture, super magic moon crystals, this weird new therapy that I heard about one time but know nothing about? Unless you are a medical professional and/or a person with a chronic illness has asked for your advice, please keep it to yourself. I haven’t tried super magic moon crystals and I will admit that I made those up, but I have tried just about everything else including alternative and new treatments. I’m actually trying a new one now. And I probably won’t stop trying because science makes advances. But someone with a chronic illness doesn’t want to defend themselves to you on how they have already tried or don’t trust the efficacy of a certain treatment, especially if your evidence is only anecdotal. I know you probably mean well and are trying to help, but just assume that someone with a chronic illness has tried every option available to them. Everyone wants to feel good.
12. "You should stop ____."
See number 11. I know you mean well and you want to help. Everyone has bad habits they should probably stop. Did you know that one of the parts of my treatment is to increase sodium in my diet? So if you want to tell me how you or someone you know of feels so good because they cut out salt, it will go in one ear and out the other. What works for one person does not always work for another. Please keep your unsolicited unprofessional anecdotal medical advice to yourself, because you are wasting your time and possibly insulting or discouraging someone with a chronic illness.
13. "It’s all in your head/ you’re just stressed/ depressed/ anxious."
If I had a nickel for every person (including doctors) who told me this before I was diagnosed with POTS (and some afterwards) I would have really heavy pockets. I guess when we don’t understand something and don’t look physically sick we assume it is mental. It must be cultural or part of human nature based on how often this is said to people with chronic illnesses. Stress, depression, and anxiety can all make symptoms of chronic illnesses worse. But they do not usually cause them. Physical evidence is being found in illnesses that were thought to be “in patients’ heads” all the time. Recent research has found: structural differences in the brains of migraine sufferers and non-migraine sufferers, an autoimmune antibody in POTS patients, and increased sensory nerve fibers in the blood vessels of the hands of fibromyalgia sufferers, to name a few. I’m a huge proponent of therapy and I think it is a good idea for anyone with a chronic illness to get therapy because chronic illnesses can increase stress, anxiety, and depression. But chances are when you say this to someone you are only contributing to their stress, not helping them see something they never saw before. Just because someone suffers from a mental illness in addition to a physical illness does not always mean that one caused the other.
14. "You need to get out more."
A change of scenery can do some good. And I believe that spending time outdoors is good for your health. But when you say this to someone with a chronic illness, it doesn’t sound encouraging. Someone with a chronic illness wants to get out more (see number 5). All it does is make them feel guilty for not being able to do something they already want to and are probably trying to do. So before you say this, remember that they probably agree with you and they don’t need the guilt on top of it.
15. "You take too many medications."
People differ on their opinions of whether medications help or are bad for you. In some cases they are medically necessary. This is one of those things where you should probably keep your judgement to yourself. If I take a medication, I have researched the side effects and I have tried every other lifestyle change and vitamin that I can before I get to that point. Not everyone wants to just pop a pill to solve a problem. If someone is having a symptom that is controlling their life medication is sometimes the best way to manage it. People with chronic illnesses do many things to try to live as normal life as possible, and medication is one small piece of that puzzle. It is part of a lifetime of adaptations, treatments, and figuring out how to live with a chronic illness. Remember- it is not the medication that is making someone sick. Sometimes they have bad side effects- but people only put up with side effects if the medicine makes enough of a difference that the side effects are negligible.
So now that you know better than to say these things, you can relate better to the people in your life with chronic or invisible illnesses.
And remember: the absolute best and most powerful thing you can ever say to someone with a chronic or invisible illness:
"I believe you."
You would be surprised just how much that will mean to them.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
By Maria Hart
Sometimes it’s the little things that get you. My little thing was diet soda. It was a small, daily habit, but as Annie Dillard said, “How you spend your days is how you spend your life.” And following that logic, I was spending my life swimming in chemical soup.
Portrait of the Diet Cola Fiend: The Early Years
Here’s an easy test to determine whether you’re addicted to a substance: Do you have specific criteria for your preferred “high?” If so, you might have a problem.
I had a brand of choice, and I always wanted to drink from a can for maximum coldness. Never with a straw, I wanted to plant my lips on the can like an extended kiss. And I lived for that kkk-shhhew sound of the can popping open. (Years after kicking the habit, hearing that sound will kick off a reaction. Dr. Pavlov, you knew your stuff.)
My love went deep. Diet soda was wonderful! Every can was a mini celebration. The jubilant bubbles! The hit o’ sweet! That pick-me-up perk of caffeine. A can alone was enough to turn a crummy moment around.
And when I didn’t have soda… well, I was no fun at all. Headaches from the lack of caffeine and sluggishness were my standard physical symptoms of withdrawal. But worse was that dull, gray feeling like my day had flatlined into a treat-free zone with no pick-me-ups on the horizon. So very sad.
What started as an occasional trip to the vending machine became a four-to-five-can-a-day habit at my first post-college job. The work, answering phones and doing filing, was dead boring, but I had a vending machine just steps away from my desk. And it had my cola of choice. Dangerfood, enter stage left. I had one with every meal—including breakfast—and one or two with snacks. It got to the point that I’d filled an entire filing cabinet with cans. Taking them home to recycle was my soda walk of shame: these discarded silver husks clattering around in an oversized bag were a reminder that I was out of control.
99 Reasons to Quit, but Flavor Wasn’t One
I justified my addiction in many ways; my primary rationale being that diet soda seemed so innocent. I didn’t do drugs or smoke, and I hardly ever drank alcohol. Soda was my one and only vice, and didn’t everyone deserve to have one of those?
As far as bad habits went, my diet soda dependency certainly didn’t make me special. Around, oh, 63 million Americans drink diet soda on any given day. And I can tell you, no one ever wrote a compelling character for a prime-time drama with the description, “Hard living and years of diet soda had colored her past.” Basically the monkey on my back was neither interesting nor cool. (Picture Don Draper hitting a supersized fountain soda instead of his bourbon. Bye-bye sex appeal.)
Plus, there were plenty of compelling reasons to quit. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to many serious diseases: metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease. The caramel coloring has even been linked to cancer. What if I let vanity be my guide and decide a little chemo was worth a little waist? Bad news, cola lovers, studies show diet soda actually adds several notches to your belt loop. And new research proves diet cola can prompt you to go gaga on sweets, negating those “no calorie” claims.
So I finally decided to quit. And failed. And failed two more times. And then failed again. Finally, on my fifth go, I cracked the code on my addiction. And that’s where I am now, living free from the cola cuffs that once bound me.
If you’re struggling with quitting this saccharine brown stuff, learn from my attempts, both the repeated failures, and my final triumph.
My Four Failed Attempts, in Brief
Attempt No. 1: Moderation
"Moderation" is a nice word, right? It’s warm and inclusive, where “quit” is so harsh. For me, the trouble with moderation is that the boundaries are so fuzzy. What does it look like? What are the rules? When I’m guzzling down four to five cans a day, is moderation one can? Or three? And which cans do I sacrifice? Surely not breakfast—it’s the most important meal of the day! And not lunch. I need my lunchtime boost! And not my snack time. (You can see why this didn’t work.)
Attempt No. 2: Cold Turkey
OK, moderation was a bust, so I needed to get tough. And the tough go cold turkey. Tap water became my new diet soda. The only hitch was that I hate tap water. Every sip felt like a punishment. And was I really going to have an afternoon cookie with a glass of tap water? That just seemed so, so sad. Where was the celebratory sparkle? The fun? The party in a can?
Cold turkey didn’t last.
Attempt No. 3: Change of Environment
By now, I’d figured out my environment had a lot to do with my addiction. I needed a diet soda rehab center away from my corner store and my vending machine. And I had the perfect moment to bust out of my routine: I was going to remote Alaska for two weeks. There, I could measure the distance between me and diet soda in nautical miles. I could go through my caffeine withdrawal in my little cabin far away from diet soda’s siren song of sweet relief. Sure enough, after a week, I was off the stuff. Here’s the problem: I hadn’t laid any groundwork that would help me navigate the difficulties of my soda abstinence once I was back in my day-to-day life. I assumed I’d breeze by any shelves and coolers of diet soda I came across. But as soon as I had my first stressful day at work, I was back in the warm glow of the vending machine.
Attempt No. 4: Back to Cold Turkey
Obviously the problem was my lack of willpower. But I really wanted to change! I would redouble my efforts. I would avoid… oh who am I kidding? It didn’t work the first time, and it didn’t work this time either.
Seeing the Light: My Fifth and Final Attempt
What was different this time? I turned to science. I started studying the pattern of habits. Habits are largely unconscious, which is why they’re so hard to break. Your brain is so used to treading the same path that it’s hard to forge new ones. That goes double for something that’s a daily habit, which has worn deep grooves into your brain’s carpet. The trouble with stopping that behavior is you’ve already conditioned your unconscious mind, which is almost impossible to undo.
I read Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, and I started to understand something he calls “the habit loop.” In the book, Duhigg breaks down the unconscious cycle of habit into three steps: cue, routine, and reward. Subtle cues we read during the day will trigger our behavior and that in turn will give us a reward. The reward cements the behavior loop. That means once we see the cue, our brain has already hit fast-forward, and it’s reaching for that treat. Often you’re not even aware of these cues, you just find yourself surrounded by empty husks of diet soda all over your desk (to use an entirely random example).
The bad news is once the habit loop is in place, it’s incredibly difficult to dismantle. But there’s hope. You can hack the habit loop. The key is to keep the same behavior and reward, but change the routine.
Hacking the Habit Loop
Duhigg uses the example of Alcoholics Anonymous. Here’s what an alcoholic’s habit loop looks like according to Dunhigg:
Cue: Tough day at the office.
Routine: Hit the bar HARD. Shots! Sing-a-longs! The bartender so gets me.
Reward: Feeling good, supported, and stress-free.
Now the alcoholic joins AA:
Cue: Tough day at the office.
Routine: Hit AA. Stories! Donuts! My sponsor so gets me.
Reward: Feeling good, supported, and stress-free.
Now my habit isn’t as damaging as alcoholism, but it’s easy to apply the same principles. Here’s my typical diet soda run:
Cue: Tough day at work, I look up from my inbox to see it’s 4 p.m., diet soda o’clock. Time for a treat!
Routine: Walk away from my desk to the vending machine. Crack open a cold can.
Reward: Ahh! Sweet, sweet soda. Pleasure centers in the brain light up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
My mission was to keep the same habit, but replace the outcome. Afternoon “treat time” could not be undone. But it could be another routine.
My problem: the reward needed to be the same. That’s when I took a hard look at diet soda itself.
Breaking Down the Formula: Bubbles and Sugar and Caffeine, Oh My!
What could give me that same kick in the prefrontal cortex? I examined the formula and tried to replace those components. In diet soda, I get three things: bubbles, a sweet treat, and caffeine. Finding all three in a natural beverage was tricky. But I could find a substitute for each. Seltzer could give me my festive bubbles, iced tea or coffee my caffeine, and milky-sugary additions to that would be my sweet treat.
Real talk: That last one wasn’t exactly healthy. When I first started hacking my habit loop, I was basically swapping diet soda for cake-in-a-cup: I drank coffee or tea with a giant splash of milk and heaps of sugar. But, it was all natural, and that was my starting point. Step by step, I pulled back on the sugar, swapped in almond milk, and my treat became a bit more healthy.
This took time. My brain was wired for a big wallop of sweet, and yanking that away wouldn’t give me the reward I expected. The game plan was to shift my palate slowly so I’d still “read” the beverage as my treat and my brain would be fully fooled.
Meet My New Habit Loop
My reward in place, I subbed in my new routine into my habit loop. It unfolded like this:
Cue: Tough day at work, I look up from my inbox to see it’s 4 p.m., iced tea o’clock. Time for a treat!
Routine: Walk away from my desk to the coffee shop. Grab an iced tea with a splash of almond milk and some Stevia.
Reward: Ahh! Sweet, sweet iced tea. Pleasure centers in the brain light up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
Yes, my fellow diet soda fiends, the system works. Miraculously my brain picked up this new flight pattern knowing the reward would be waiting, and I managed to dupe myself into my new MacGruber-ed faux diet soda. The happy ending is that years later I can confidently say I’m in diet soda remission. I can walk past the vending machine with my head held high.
To all the other diet soda fiends out there I can say, it gets better.