Coming Clean

Since today is the start of the new year, I should come clean. I am an addict. I use coke, just about every day. Diet Coke to be precise. For years, I was able to control my habit. I could go for days without a coke. Things changed when I was teaching nights and working days. Coke helped keep me alert and gave me that little jolt of energy I needed after a long day. I didn’t have an office where I was teaching, so I often moved around the building with one can of Diet Coke after another. I often left my empty or partially full cans in various places as I worked in the computer lab, made mimeographs (copies), or talked with other employees. My friend, Carl, the Chair of the Business Department, said that the cans he sometimes found throughout the building were May-spoor. He could tell where I had been. Since that time, I found some substitutes. I drank coffee, tea, ice tea, Diet Dr. Pepper, and even Diet Pepsi–it was the caffeine that counted, although I do enjoy the taste of Diet Coke.

Yesterday on NPR, I listened to the story of a fellow addict. She worked as a receptionist and was apparently overworked and underappreciated. She smiled through it all. One day, the partners in the firm announced they had saved money by eliminating the employee who booked the company’s travel. She was now going to do it for the executives. This task, however, did not suit her well because she stressed out over finding the lowest fares and getting all the bosses’ travel preferences correct. Nonetheless, she decided to stay with the firm, but liked her job far less. One day some time later, she was called in to talk with one of the partners. The partner stated that one of the firm’s biggest clients was a competitor of Coke. The receptionist-travel agent always had a diet coke on her desk, which due to the nature of her job, was always visible to incoming guests. She admitted that the Coke looked bad. She, however, had a love for Diet Coke deeper than my own. It wasn’t just the caffeine for her. She loved it; Coke was a part of her identity. She couldn’t stop drinking it, and being asked to do so was the last humiliation she could endure. So, to appease her employer while she looked for another job, she put a sticky note on her Diet Coke can with the word, “awful” on it.

She found another less stressful job soon thereafter. On her last day at work, she brought in an extra six-pack of Diet Coke. She had the keys to the soda machine which was stocked with the competitor’s product. She inserted the cans of coke in various random spots in the dispenser. Just a little something to remember her by. One of her friends told her after she had gone that there was a high level meeting with the Pepsi clients where assorted sodas from the machine were placed in the center of the table. All the cans of soda were taken except one, the Diet Coke. The lone can became the centerpiece and remained throughout the meeting. That’s a bit of poetic justice.

I’ve managed to stop drinking caffeine products for a few months at a time. I felt better when I did so. Caffeine affects my sleep. It probably affects my blood pressure as well. I generally stop drinking coke by 5pm, but I would be better off if I stopped by noon and only drank one or two cans. You may be thinking that pledging to stop this bad habit would make a good New Year’s resolution. It would. But, I am not going to tackle that problem now. Some day.

But my bad habit has made me think. Why do we do things we know are bad for us? It’s easier to figure out why we don’t attain all that we aspire to. We’d like to be better organized, kinder, more sympathetic, and less negative. We’d like to stop gossiping, work out more, stop putting off chores, lose weight, and volunteer more. Its easier to figure out, I think, why we don’t do things that would be good for ourselves or others. If we set our goals high enough, we may not meet them because life gets in the way or our will power fades. At least we are trying. But why do we choose to do things that make our lives more difficult or are harmful to ourselves?

Diet Coke is not the worst addiction on the planet. Maybe a bit of the bad is good for us. It may keep us from doing far worse. Diet Coke is a “better” vice than alcohol, heroin, and cigarettes. It could be worse, as they say. Why do we knowingly act in ways that will damage our reputations in the workplace? Why do we do things in our relationships that our partners hate? Why do we skip our annual check-ups? Drive without seatbelts? Drink and drive? Eat fatty, sugary foods? Take unnecessary risks?

Freud, who had a bad experience touting cocaine (before he realized how addictive it was) thought people had both a life wish and a death wish. The life wish was a biological, largely sexual drive to procreate. The death wish was a fundamental drive to return to nothingness. The death wish was a force aimed at aggression toward the outside world. It provided, however, a means of self-destruction. Have you ever had an impulse to steer your car into oncoming traffic? It’s an aggression toward innocents that would destroy yourself. While Freud’s views can be understood, most of Freud’s followers did not accept the concept of a death wish.

I don’t believe there is a drive towards death. If you have ever been in a situation where you thought you may die, you can probably appreciate how hard we strive in those moments to stay alive. Freud may have provided, however, an insight into why we can be self-destructive. One cause for the tendency to do what’s known to be harmful to ourselves may be channeling our negative perceptions and frustrations with the external world to ourselves, where we can be in control and accept punishment we believe we deserve. This can create that cycle that makes escaping self-destructive behaviors difficult. We eat too much, for example, because we have low self-esteem which we got from comparing ourselves to others; then when we gain weight, we receive negative feedback from others, which lowers our self-esteem and makes us more willing to practice harmful eating habits on ourselves. There are many other causes, for sure, but the role we play in our own demise may somehow be rewarding because we think we are getting the punishment we deserve for not living up to other people’s expectations.

So, if you are making a new year’s resolution, try to set a realistic, clearly define goal. If you are acting self-destructively, think about the psychological reasons behind why you have made these harmful choices in the past. Are you channeling any frustrations from negative interactions with others? If so, break the cycle. Change your attitude. Praise yourself as you make progress toward your goal. Tell people about your resolution. Get help from others if you need it.

Giving up Diet Coke isn’t one of my New Year’s resolutions. I am going to cut down on the amount I drink, and drink it at better times. But I do have a few resolutions. I’ll share one. I am going to do my best to run all the races in the Greater Atlantic Athlete series (6) and the Atlanta Track Club series (11) this year. I ran my first Atlanta Track Club Race today in the drizzle. I hope it gets me off on the right foot towards good health. If I miss a race, I’ll still do my best to do the rest. I wish you success in your resolutions.

Happy New Year! Welcome 2017.

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