Carly Keyes: Learning to unplug

By Carly Keyes, Daily Health and Fitness Columnist
Published March 11, 2014

I didn’t have your typical Spring Break this year. While thousands of people my age flocked to the South to sip on margaritas, bask in the sun and play hard, I was sipping on bottled water, basking in fluorescent lights and working hard … on myself.

While it would’ve been far less emotionally and financially stressful — and arguably a whole lot more fun — to go to the South by Southwest festival while in Austin, I was there to attend a four-day workshop called “The Inner Journey.”

When I shared my plans with people close to me, a few of them inquired with concern: “Are you thinking about drinking?”

I’m not thinking about drinking. I don’t need to drink too much in order to be miserable. All I need to do is think too much. Thinking can be a dangerous pastime for someone who has a mental disease.

Addiction is baffling enough to those who haven’t experienced it for themselves, but I’m going to go ahead and toss in another integral yet confusing facet about the illness: Abstinence is merely a pre-requisite for the healing process. I’m an alcoholic, but my problem isn’t alcohol; my problem is me.

The only reason I don’t also identify as a “drug addict” when I talk about my addiction is because I never used drugs. But had I snorted a line of cocaine, injected heroin, or taken pills during one of my booze-driven benders, I’d have been addicted. Guaranteed. I know I dodged a bullet there.

Because I can’t have just one of anything, this is where that concept of abstinence gets confusing. There’s no such thing for me as one cookie, one piece of gum, one episode of House of Cards. Instead, I consume a bag of cookies, I chew a pack of gum, and I plow through Season Two in one sitting.

These behaviors only worsened after getting sober because — without alcohol — they morphed into compensatory crutches. My life has been a lot like that arcade game “Whac-A-Mole.” I hit one addiction on the head, it recedes into its hole, and then another one pops up in its place. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I used this metaphor when I was asked to share my story recently at a recovery meeting in downtown Detroit, and I received a wonderful piece of feedback from a wise, seasoned man who’d been sober for years.

“In the beginning, I played that game, too,” he said. “But I had to quit putting in the quarters, trying to win. I just had to unplug the game.”

This notion pierced my thoughts, challenged my resolve, and it frightened me.

“How free do you want to be?” The man asked me, rhetorically.

I don’t want to just be substance-free. I’ll never rise above human, I realize, but I don’t want to justify my other harmful addictive tendencies with the excuse that I’m sober, and so, that’s enough, and I’m entitled to this and that … because I’m sober.

And so, down to Austin I went, and I spent four days learning how to unplug the game — how to unlearn what I have learned. Yoda would be proud.

One of the copious tools I gained from this experience centers on the work of Dr. Joe Dispenza and a book he’s written called, “Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One.”

While it sounds like your typical self-help read, it couldn’t be further from. In his book, Dispenza discusses quantum physics, neuroscience, brain chemistry, biology and genetics, and he combines these concepts with spiritual practices to illuminate the possibility for human beings to change their realities and alter their life trajectories.

“Nerve cells that fire together, wire together,” Dispenza writes, citing the Hebbian theory that explains the brain’s neuroplastic capability. Essentially, we have the ability to rewire our brains through spiritual practice.

Let me clarify what I mean when I say spiritual practice, because I don’t want to scare you away. I’m talking about meditation.

I’m terrible at sitting still. I probably rearrange my position in my chair during a 90-minute class fifty times on average. I despise silence. I’m most comfortable jaunting about campus with my headphones on. But I’ve learned that life begins at the end of my comfort zone, so here I venture bravely into the land of discomfort … the land of change.

I’m only three days into this meditation program that accompanies Dispenza’s book, which utilizes soothing, whimsical background music and his soft, encouraging voice — training wheels for those of you who also can’t stand silence. In the first week, the meditation lasts 24 minutes, and it climbs to 35 minutes in the second week, 48 minutes in the third week, and 70 minutes in the fourth week.

Forget about 70 minutes. I can’t even comprehend that, yet. Twenty-four?! I have to sit still, to do nothing, for 24 minutes? I never realized how hard it is for me to shut down, to turn off my brain and to just be, surrender and trust in something. And I never could have anticipated the feeling that follows.

Is this feeling peace? Is it serenity? Is it truth? I’m not sure what you’d call the product of meditation, but for me, it’s best defined by what it’s not. It’s the absence of what’s typically echoing throughout my mind. It’s the absence of anger. It’s the absence of fear. It’s the absence of pain, shame and guilt.

And so I’ve realized that, for 24 minutes, I’ve unplugged the game. And next week, it’ll be 35.