My New Year’s resolutions go a lot like an episode of Pinky and the Brain. This is how mine goes:
Pinky: What are you going to do this year?
Brain: Same thing we do every year. Stop television from taking over my life!

I am a television addict. I think TV addiction must be fairly commonplace these days. Almost everyone has a TV, sometimes in every room, sometimes in their bedroom, and can also watch TV on their computer, phone, and more. I imagine that some people would hear me say TV addict and scoff, because it isn’t like a real addiction. It isn’t like drugs and alcohol where it ruins a person inside and out.
But I know all about addiction, having watched my parents’ slow decay. I agree my addiction doesn’t cause the same level of harm that drug addiction does, but it has ruined my life, and that is what addiction is about.
Addiction is the great enemy of freedom, because addiction decides what you will do, how you will spend your time and money. Television may not be physically harmful like substance abuse (though it does correlate with a sedentary lifestyle) but it is the great waster of time. I spend hours every single day watching television. Sometimes, I try to multitask, to exercise, to groom my dog, to do my nails, to wash the dishes, so that I am not “wasting” my time, but even after those things are done, I still crave television. I yearn for it. I seek desperately through the channels for something to watch, and then relax, satisfied, and let the time fleet away.
And it has ruined my life. My house is a mess, I have only a part-time job when I need to find a full-time job, I’m overweight, I have few close connections with people, and don’t spend enough time with my family members. I act like I don’t have enough time, but I would! I would, if I didn’t give up hours a day to a box that gives me nothing in return.
This is an addiction. I know it is harmful, and yet, the behavior repeats. I try to change the behavior, but it makes my anxious and upset.
If anyone out there is calling me out, that this addiction is really just weakness, and that I need to take personal responsibility for my choices, YES! Absolutely. It is weakness. It is my own fault. It is I that have ruined my life, and for what? It couldn’t be come clichéd fear of success could it? Some nonsense that I am clinging to what I know, to what is easy, rather than a chance at something better?
I am responsible for the state of my life. But I use this bold language, the language of addiction, to help me to deal with the problem. I want to take this problem as seriously as I want my parents to take their problem. I want to demand from myself no addiction, not even one as stupid as television.
Because no addiction is harmless. It costs. I don’t want it to cost me anymore.


How to Tell If You’re Free

As Americans, our lives revolve around the concept of freedom. It is the basis for our government, our holidays, our over the top news anchors and their scary breaking news. Many people believe the United States is the freest country in the world, and many believe freedom is what makes the United States the greatest country in the world. For all that we talk about it, live in it, exercise it, how many people really understand what freedom is?
The definition isn’t very helpful. According to Webster’s dictionary, freedom means being able to act freely. As Americans, this is a definition we must take for granted. From the time we wake till we go back to sleep, even how and when and where we sleep, is totally up to us. People are so accustomed to acting as they will that any encounter with force or control can meet with resentment, suspicion, and scorn. Children will complain about how parents or teachers ignore their rights because they have to follow a dress code or aren’t allowed to watch a certain movie. Are adults whose lives revolve around a job and whose behavior is determined by their means of income less free than adults who are unemployed and can do whatever they want whenever they want? Of course not, but these are the difficulties that arise when we try to understand freedom.
Another definition of freedom is the escape from imprisonment or slavery. Indeed, I think that this definition becomes the most important definition for our society today. Only by losing freedom can we begin to understand what it meant in the first place. Slavery is alive and well. From the Thai fishing boats that abduct men for years at a time to human trafficking, even today people lose their freedoms and become property of others. People in abusive relationships lose their freedom to controlling spouses. People lose their freedom to incarceration for a number of reasons; some are falsely accused, some are political prisoners, many poor people are convicted of crimes they do as they fight to survive. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, which is a confusing fact for the freest nation in the world. Do we just have more bad people, or is it possible we have more laws to break?
To be owned or incarcerated are terrible ways to learn what freedom really means. For us in this moment, imagining what slavery would be like is as much an abstract challenge as understanding what freedom is. But we can listen to survivors, hear their stories of courage, and know true gratitude for that elusive thing that we have but do not understand.
Addiction is another word for slavery. If we were to listen to the media or the government sponsored anti-drug propaganda, we might believe that all drug addicts die of overdoses soon after they start using whatever poison they’ve gotten themselves into. That of course, is terrible and sad, but it is not the usual outcome for drug addicts. The worst thing about drug addiction is that it forces people to give up their freedoms and become slaves to the drug. A drug addict is not able to act freely, but is always under the control of some desire, a deep, dark need that is never satisfied for long.
My parents have been drug addicts for as long as I can remember. If freedom is defined as the ability to leave the house, to go where one pleases, to say whatever one feels like, then my parents are free. Honestly, they have spent very little time incarcerated in light of the “crimes” they have commit-ted, keeping in mind that many drugs are illegal, and many drug addicts do illegal things to get those drugs. But I define freedom as the ability to make choices, the opportunity to pursue happiness, the capability of protecting and providing for loved ones. Drug addicts like my parents lose all of these things, slowly, as the addiction builds and get stronger. I remember days before my mom was a liar. I remember days when my mom cared about her children. Now my mom is in a prison of her own making. The prison will be with her for the rest of her life, and the only goal she will ever have is getting that one more fix.
There are people who have no sympathy for drug addicts, who want them locked away in a prison, who want to blame the addicts because they chose to use drugs in the first place. My parents have four children. Two of those children got involved with drugs at an early age; one of them had serious struggles with addiction. My parents didn’t have the freedom to teach us right from wrong. They were wholly consumed by their own needs and we had only their actions as our model. How many imprisoned drug addicts only did what they learned from their parents? Is that really a choice?
I know what freedom is because I witnessed my parents lose their freedom, first to drug addiction, then to jail cells and mental hospitals. I watched my sister lose herself the same way. I know what freedom is because I can choose to spend my money on all sorts of things, some wise, some not, but I am not compelled to fork it all over to some creep in a rundown parking lot. I know what freedom is because when I make a mistake, when I tell a lie, when I let someone down, it is because I had the ability to choose things, and I made a wrong choice when I am capable of making a better one. I know what freedom is because my goals change, because my future can hold anything, because I have so much to look forward to; there are limitless possibilities.

Never wait for New Year’s to make and keep resolutions.

I am sure everyone is aware that most New Year’s resolutions don’t survive the first week let alone the whole year. I made about four resolutions last year, and I am pleased to report that one of them has been very successful. I resolved to quit drinking soda. I had been drinking 1-2 sodas (mostly diet) every day. Now it is the end of October, and I think I have had a dozen or less sodas all together. I am going to call that a win, because my behavior has been hugely altered to my benefit.

Today, on the unauspicious day of October 27th, I am going to make two new official resolutions. (I see changes I need to make in my life, why on earth should I wait to make them?)

These resolutions have very little to do with grad school, but have to do with changing my life for the better.
First, I resolve to stop eating food in front of the TV (popcorn excluded).
Second, I resolve to bring food to my grandmother when I go to visit her. I visit my grandmother twice a week, usually, so I am going to start by saying I resolve to bring her food once a week, with an eye on doing it both times I go to her house. I live pretty far from my grandmother so my visits are planned out ahead of time to save gas money.

These two goals are important to me. One will help me lose weight, be healthy, and pay more attention to the important things in my life. The other is something I should be doing to show my love for my grandmother, who is having a harder and harder time.

Crying out loud; bad behavior begs for help

I consider myself successful because I avoided the pitfalls my parents dug all around me. I have never been arrested, I am not addicted to any drugs, and I don’t have children with men I can’t stand. I can take a lot of the credit for this, but I can’t take all the credit. Luck was definitely involved. When I was young and hurting in a house of drugs and violence, I acted out. Maybe it was for attention, maybe it was a cry for help, and maybe I couldn’t help but do the things my parents taught me to do.

When I was eleven or twelve, I was a thief. For some reason, the boundary between mine and not mine was blurry and unconvincing. I took things off the shelf and put them in my pocket. Sometimes it was just one little thing, like a packet of gum. Sometimes it was a lot of little things, and I packed me pockets full of jewelry or trinkets.

Twice I was caught.

The second time I was at the mall with some friends. Another customer tracked me down and I was so terrified I went with him. It turns out, he had no authority and I could have kept going. I handed over all the merchandise. The assistant manager at the store took down my name and number, said she would call my dad, and the store would decide if they were going to press charges. I saw my life crumbling before me.

When I got home, I was so terrified I told my parents right away. There was some yelling and screaming. I was sent to my room while they thought about my punishment. A little while later, two of my parents’ friends came over drunk, their kids in tow. I remember it being chaotic. I remember screaming through the front door and trying to get the kids down to my bedroom. In the maelstrom, my parents forgot all about my transgressions, and the store never called.

Was this a lesson learned? I guess. I’ve been on the straight and narrow ever since. But I have to recognize how lucky I was. That store didn’t press charges, and I never got a record. I think we as a society often look at children, especially teenagers, with records and we scoff at them, turn our hearts, hunch our shoulders, blame them for their criminality, hold them accountable like they’re adults. But how many of them were crying out for help the way I was? How many of them only got detention centers and probation when they needed someone to intervene in their lives, to get their parents help, to clean up their whole family? How many of them were only acting out the terrible life lessons their terrible parents bestowed upon them? How many of them fell into the pits and traps left for them by the cycles of abuse, violence and drug addiction? Once they got that record, their lives change drastically. Doors close. I was never labeled as a criminal and was able to walk away from my mistake. If one person in that store had made a different decision, who knows how far I would have made it, if I could have avoided the other traps set for me? Would I have still avoided drugs like the plague? Would I still have protected myself from pregnancy?

I have to wonder. Did I get off easy because I am white?

Money and Love, Love and Money

Men need to listen and sympathize with their partners, instead of just fixing everything for them. This is the advice handed down to us through the media. I remember it as a big part of the plot in White Men Can’t Jump. Modern Family did a similar episode regarding Claire and Phil a few years ago. The moral of the story is that women are adults who can handle their own problems; they just want to vent once in a while.

The media advice is good, I’m sure, but I’m stricken by my exception. When I tell my husband about something I need from the store, he buys it for me. Let’s be clear; not something I want, something I would like, or something that would be convenient. Something I need. Having him step in and take care of it means a lot to me.

As a child, I was neglected, lied to, and burgled. I never valued myself. I grew so accustomed to ill-fitting old clothes that I believed I belonged in them. I would never dream of buying new things for myself. I had no concept of money belonging to myself for my needs.

I came to be quite a cheapskate. At the grocery store, I got the cheapest item on the shelf, carefully comparing per ounce prices from the little stickers. I bought the cheapest cuts of meat, marked down produce, and every dinged up can I could find.

My husband put an end to the cheap food right away. “We don’t live long enough not to eat well,” he says. He hates spending money, especially since we went back to school and have much less income, but “we’re not that poor,” he insists. I have to splurge on extra lean hamburger and chicken breast. A lot of that was for him. He had to show me that I was worth spending money on too.

It gets dark so early now. I ride my bicycle home from classes by myself. I told him it made me nervous. He didn’t commiserate or sympathize. He acted. He bought me a helmet, a head light and a tail light, an expensive one that flashes. He hadn’t thought twice about it. “Feeling safe is priceless,” he said to me. Can you hear my heart fluttering?

When we first moved in together he had been sleeping on the same mattress for at least fifteen years. It was terribly lumpy and there was a hole where a spring poked through. He didn’t mind sleeping on it apparently, but when I complained, he took me to shop for a new one the next day.

Money is certainly no way to buy love and affection, and I hope I don’t sound like some princess who requires monetary devotion. But my self-image made it impossible for me to spend money on myself and seeing my man do it because he believes I deserve it is amazing. It’s refreshing. It’s beautiful.

It’s really what I needed.

Don’t Drive Me Crazy: Doctors, Labels and Why Didn’t Anyone Give A Damn!

In my last post, I described how I periodically found myself at the psychiatrist’s office, where I was promptly given a diagnosis and some prescription pills. I also described how I didn’t take the pills like I was supposed to (because I was a suicidal twelve year old) and how I sometimes even used the prescription pills to try to end my life. Those diagnoses were really meaningful to me at the time. I was already getting messages from my parents, from bullies at school, from all over, that there was something very wrong with me. Then a doctor actually gave it a name, first depression, then bi-polar manic depression. I should also say that I have a sister with serious mental illnesses who was forcibly hospitalized several times growing up. So I absolutely believed I was mentally ill, I was unwell, I had those illnesses. I believed I was just messed up.

Looking back, I find it interesting that the doctors prescribing me pills and throwing around labels didn’t ask me about my home life, didn’t investigate my situation, didn’t probe the kinds of relationships I was having with my parents or friends. So of course, their answers to fixing me resulted in pills instead of rescuing me from a bad home life. These doctors and psychiatrists had me believing I was crazy when I was really just living with crazy people. Moving away from my parents, living on my own and taking care of myself (and actually being taken care of for the first time) made an incredible difference to me, my mindset, my confidence, and my happiness. It wasn’t easy, but I got over it. Now I know that I do not have a biological cause for symptoms. I am not bi-polar. I do not have depression or manic depression. Did I ever or were my responses perfectly normal given the abuse and neglect I went through?

This actually reflects a debate within psychology that is ongoing. Are mental illnesses defined by symptoms or by a medical or biological cause for those symptoms? As a twelve year old hearing “bi-polar manic depression,” I had no idea I could ever recover. I thought it was permanent, incurable, only manageable. That label hung from my neck like an albatross. I was so afraid of being hospitalized like my sister, of losing total control over my mind. I know that mental illnesses are real. After all, if we look just at symptoms, I did have those symptoms. But before throwing around artificial solutions, we should try helping a person live a better life. If someone had done that for me, they might have helped save me from real suffering, as well as the suffering my depression caused me.

The commercials for Abilify drive me crazy. If the first anti-depressant doesn’t work, try a twofer. I find myself wondering how many doctors advise these patients to exercise, journal, go to therapy, or get a new job before whipping out their pad of paper and scribbling their problems away. Given my experience, I bet it’s not many. Of course, some people need medicine to combat their symptoms and the causes, but I believe healthy minds and bodies come from having a healthy life. Do lots of things to make yourself feel better. If it doesn’t work, do some more. Don’t give up.