There was a moment in time a couple of weeks ago when I was binge-watching episodes of Leverage while playing Freecell, eating, checking my email and text messages, and rage-reading Twitter feeds. I had a brief insight, a moment standing outside of myself, seeing a kind of desperate escapism at play. I was numb, distracted, and when I stopped all activity and sat still – utterly, utterly depressed.
It was time to wake myself up, to stop sleepwalking through my emotions, and to take some responsibility for the quality of my life. Compassion allows for the fact that this last year was the worst of my life, but when does self-care lurch into self-medication and then stagger into self-destruction? For me, it’s when I can’t remember my days. What did I do yesterday? I have no idea.
It’s a hard road back from the Land of Numb. I take preventative measures – delete the games from my computer. Log out of everything so I’m forced to log in – one step in mindfulness. I make myself get back into an exercise routine – the pain and muscle aches end the detachment from my body. I force myself to do one activity, one step at a time. I do it initially, resentfully, repeating the mantra it doesn’t matter if you feel like it, just do it.
I started to think about distraction and escapism and self-care and how it all gets conflated and confused. There’s a whole economy built around the idea of self-care with few definitions on what that truly entails. The Venn Diagram that includes self-care, distraction, consumerism, entertainment, and addiction is a giant black circle with slivers of light at the edges.
Our brains are so overwhelmed not just by our own human predicaments, but by the constant influx of information and messaging. Maybe the paralysis of mindlessly entertaining ourselves is all we can manage. I think about Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. We have so many diversions to choose from, so many choices to make in our lives, that paralysis comes rather easily. As Schwartz explains, even when we make choices, our satisfaction is less because if our choice is not great, we think about all the other ones we could have made.
I’ve taken to asking myself a lot of questions about what I do with my time. Does this support my intentions for myself? Do I feel energized or drained after this activity? Is there something better I could do? What am I avoiding? There are times when taking downtime is a necessary part of life, to let your mind zone out or wander, to be purely entertained or engaged. But how much time? When does comfort become a coma?
I had the pleasure last week of reading David Puretz’s The Escapist, which was sent to me by JKS Communications. The protagonist/anti-hero is self-medicating, incapable of dealing with the reality of his life and sets off to find his father, a veteran of the Iraq War. The protagonist is alternately self-destructive and introspective, but learns and experiences enough to make this a satisfying read.
Debut novels can be hit or miss and I was wary of reading another drug-fueled odyssey, which is usually the purview of male writers – especially those of the David Foster Wallace era. In The Escapist, the anti-hero is just sympathetic enough, the writing is strong, and the story is engaging. Bonus points for lack of misogyny and rare masturbatory or bodily effluvia references (not a prude, but how much does one need to know about sputum and semen?).
Self-medication as escape is nothing new. I come from a long line of self-medicators – booze, smoking, drugs, more booze. I sobered up in my mid-20s, gave up smoking when I was 30, but there was always food and an addiction to running shoes and books. And for this writer – the productivity-killing need to research. For some people, it’s sports or religion or patriotism or political ideology or fashion, whatever makes the answers easier, life more palatable, something to subvert our fears and anxieties and any other untenable emotions.
Some of these things are perfectly healthy, but anything can be a way of detaching from emotion or reality. I’ve become intensely curious about life with all of those things stripped away. Our addictions, distractions, comfort blankets, the groups we identify with, and the cozy philosophies – who are we without them?
Writing is an escape of sorts, but these days I don’t know if I’m running away from or toward it. I guess it only matters that I’m doing it, anchored in a moment, neither here nor there. I keep thinking about the path and how a writer lives two lives, moving in the world and then living on the page. And that my fears have often allowed one to supercede the other.
I’ve started reading The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free from Complacency and Fear by Ezra Bayda. The first chapter was all about facing fears head-on and he ends it with a prescient quote from Chinese Zen Master Wu-Men: When the mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best moment of your life.
18 thoughts on “Escaping Reality: Variations on a Theme”
May every moment be a best moment
Same to you!
Are you familiar with Nir Eyal’s work? I wonder if the MEA technique would be helpful to you. I can send a link if you’re interested.
Thank you for sharing your personal experiences here. It makes special reading when people open up and are real.
I actually have read some of his articles and MEA is similar to mini-habits or resolutions programs. I have, in the past, had success using these techniques, but went pretty far off the rails this last year. I have to learn to maintain good habits while under duress, as life is still pretty stressful at the moment. Trying to do that while practicing compassion is a challenge, especially if all these navel-gazing posts I’ve been writing are any indicator!
Thought-provoking and entertaining — a difficult combination that you manage, repeatedly, with ease. I’ve lately been numbing but intervening only gently, seeing how it evolves, and trusting it will in its way, in its time. This being human is certainly interesting.
I like the phrase “intervening only gently”. And that made me think of what would be considered a rather boring reality TV show called “Gentle Interventions”. It wouldn’t make for high drama, but it would model kindness!
The only way to approach humans (ourselves or others) is with curiosity, because we are so inconsistent and strange and complicated.
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I’ve been on an escapist reading binge lately. I emerged for a couple of days, then dove back in. I’ve done this often enough that I trust it’ll end without me taking extreme measures. Mercifully, computer games do nothing for me–or maybe they would but they’ve never had the chance–and somehow actual books are more considerate and don’t take over every minute of my life.
I always envy people who don’t have compulsive personality traits. I do and computer card games can hook me pretty easily. When I lived solo, I’d spend an entire weekend buried in books, emerging on Monday morning blurry-eyed into a world that seemed alien. It’s harder to do that now – if it’s not somebody wanting to know where a stapler or sock is, it’s our demented feline yowling nonstop. The stop and start distractions are what get me now, but I’m trying to eliminate them.
What a brave post. I’ve decided to stop wasting precious time on social media, picking up more reading time that fulfills rather than merely amuses.
I think that’s really the trick to all of this – making decisions and being deliberate in how one’s time is spent. It’s harder to do under duress – those good habits go out the door. I just have to keep working at it.
Sometimes we need distractions. It’s when we can’t or won’t recognize that we are using them to escape our present difficult realities that they become problematic. I can’t picture you doing that Michelle. You are too self aware for that. The push and pull of life under stress is an ever changing dynamic. Sometimes just being aware that we are stressed and not judging ourselves too harshly is a necessary adjustment, at least for a time.
Apparently, you’ve never seen me spend the entire day in my pajamas binge-watching The Office while eating the entire house. Self-awareness only carries one so far! I’m at the point where I do need to take some deliberate action to pull myself back into the world. Sometimes I get to this point and can’t remember how I got here – definitely a walking coma. I understand why it happens so frequently now, with the life being what it is, but self-compassion deems I pull myself back from the edge and wake up.
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arm in sling so going lower case must say I like the land of numb the phrase I mean tho I also freewheel to keep sane still not finished the magnum opus ok to be honest not even started it but I like to tell myself I am taking notes great that you feedback so usefully on what you are reading etc impossible to waste time and be reading and reporting on good stuff all grist to the mill I would say but then I would say that being addicted to banal sayings and the thing about writing like this is you kid yourself you are jack Kerouac whoops it did a capital letter time to go best wishes and thanks for your insightful posts written against the odds
Sorry to read that your arm is in a sling. There’s some writing against the odds on your side as well. Thanks for reading and pecking out a comment!
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I love your last question here. It’s important to allow ourselves to do soothing things and relax, but there is a transition to the other side when we are just detached and shutdown. I’m sure we do that when things are overwhelming, and it may be a good choice, rather than other more self-destructive things. Yet, as you point out, we have to come back to the world and face the challenges. Thanks for this post!
I have been meaning to respond to your post, but felt I had little to add, in terms of your path. You already know where you are going. My mind, though, has plenty to say to me and so to quiet it, I have at last sat down here, to let it move on.
Perhaps the most telling phrase you used was “a moment standing outside of myself”. This is often a way of describing the opening into enlightenment. In Zen, it is ‘the small backward step’. Adyashanti describes it as a ‘change of perspective’, and many say it is simply allowing what you have always known was there to come forward. Your use made me smile and feel happy for you.
I suspect that I told you how much I resonate with much of your story (I feel I told you, anyway). Certainly this causes me to want to reach out with a comforting touch or word, and I remind myself that you really don’t need my gifts, certainly not my teachings.
At last I remembered that I had the book ‘The Authentic Life’ waiting to be read. I will start it this week and at least feel I am with you in some way.
My whole life is an escape from reality. I am well aware; like a drug addict who knows it’s bad for them, but perhaps they don’t care at that point. The benefit outweighs consequences. I started doing it as a very small child (as long as I have any memories). I am still alive, but I wouldn’t have been if I didn’t adapt this fabulous skill. From point A to point B it buys some time, and then some more. I may make it to the natural end eventually. Trust me, i have no such goal. I am obligated spiritually to those who don’t give a damn about any obligations to me.
Just another prospective at reality that is rarely understood.