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Creatures of Habit - Page 5

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And what’s happened during these several months since I gave up the alcohol habit? When I first reentered everyday life in the environment I’d habituated myself to drink in and nonetheless continued to abstain, I was amazed. How thrilling to possess the ability to change and actually exercise it—as I did when, after years of smoking (voraciously, as well) I finally stopped. Unlike how I felt when I altered the order in which I brushed my teeth, the sense of achievement was immense. Without much effort, I’d somehow willed myself onto the unknown terrain of a brave new world.

Then what? The new world soon became old. Over time (a few weeks, at most) not drinking had itself become automatic, and a new kind of thoughtlessness had taken hold. If not yet a new prison, I’d constructed a new habit—the habit of not drinking.

But then, a surprise. Another habit/prison took shape—desserts. And then still another—Diet Coke. Who’da thunk it? Diet Cokes and desserts! Things I at first started sampling with the delicacy and curiosity with which I’d once sampled a glass of wine on my return to everyday life, things I’d rarely, if ever, put into my mouth would find themselves in there with ever-greater frequency, as if the urgency that had formerly compelled me to overdo alcohol had now been affixed to them.

These new sugar and sweet-based habits have over the last few months become so ingrained, I begin to wonder, did I ever drink? That very real lifelong habitual behavior now seems almost like a dream, as if it never happened. The former triggers—meals, other people—that used to say, “Drink!” still bear an associative charge, but one so weak it’s not too difficult to resist. Avoiding the negative consequences of drinking have been unarguably beneficial. Fewer headaches, yes, though there are still some (what the hell is in Coke Zero, anyway?) and less bloat, fewer embarrassing moments, and not a single fall or physical injury to speak of. But the positive payoff of not drinking is, in fact, so thin—I don’t feel that much lighter, and not at all more alert—that I sometimes feel, hey, fuck it, why not get that buzz again, the biting tingle on the tongue and palate, the light emptiness in the head, the macho posturing of holding a glass? But so far I haven’t.

Right now, the old habit of drinking seems no more fulfilling than the new one of abstaining, so it doesn’t feel like I’ll be forsaking sugar-free soft drinks for the cozy familiarity of Chardonnay any time soon, but who knows? The liberation of kicking a habit is so fleeting that before you know it, you’re back to your old tricks—in trance—so the time may come again when this new habit needs a kick or two. What’s clear, though, is that there’s no resting place, no Free Parking square on the board where you’re immune from the threat of letting life go by unmindfully.

All you can do is stay as awake as you can and question every damn habit you wake up to.

Except one: the habit, if you’re lucky enough to find it, that so sustains and transports you, so feeds you, that no matter how long you find yourself in thrall to it, the emotional payoff, or the creative one, or both, stays fresh and alive. Art. Serving Others. Love. Religion? Maybe there’s even another. I’m still looking.

What the story’s going to be next week or next month I can’t say, but as of this writing, I pee leaning to the left.

Fred Wistow lives in New York City. Contact: fredwistow@aol.com.

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