By Hearting THE DAY YOU STOP by Lauren Camp

[Read Lauren Camp’s “The Day You Stop” HERE]

One day will be tomorrow. The day of truce 
and socket and beaten. The day 
you shrink into stopping, the day threadbare and pain-
shamed and limit. Until then, 
you might be continuing
because that is what you do until the last moment 
when you must stop. 

Of course it is like this. Always. The Planning Self, the Conscientious Self, the Fantasy-Stopping Self: all too often separate from the one required to carry out the behavioral change. Let’s call her The Stopping Self: that walking-the-talk part of us intent on carrying all our good intentions to fruition, or in this case, termination.

This poem also alludes to the mind games that we play with those other parts of ourselves, our cognitive biases, which get in the way of the simple causal reasoning of “This is really not good for my well-being, so why don’t I just stop doing it?”

Take my/our ongoing struggle to regulate our consumption of food and drink. Writing this piece on a Saturday morning, somewhat foggy-headed from a bit too much of a Friday night treat-yourself tipple, I am sipping my second cup of Assam tea with soy milk, and I have no inclination at this moment whatsoever to drink wine or beer for the rest of the weekend. Maybe not for the rest of my life. Certainly not this evening. Nor to eat processed food or sugary snacks like biscuits or cake. Assam tea, Lauren’s poem, and my thoughts after learning it by heart this week, are all I require of the moment to make it good enough to exist in and for. And yet this is not a Friday Night or Saturday Evening Self thinking and writing.

This is the self that in Schema Therapy is known as The Healthy Adult, which some might say is a Core Self, but others might recognise it as just another entity from the Carousel of Selves: The Stopping Self, The Impulsive Self, The Woebegone Self, all the visitors to Rumi’s Being-Human Guest House.

You will stop 
for some weeks, 
your body taking body 
from your blood 
and the back of the throat,
and those weeks will be thank-you-God acres 
of erasure and resurrection and the clabber of other small prayers 
you stoop to collect. You will be diligent 
because you have paid good money 
to be taught how to stop, slanting off 
from queasy transgressions, those 
clutches and source.

Welcome to the Hot-Cold Empathy Gap where we disremember the fact that pretty much everything we do, feel, or think is state dependent. My current slightly-hungover mode is good for “cold” conscientious note-taking and unprofaned, clean-living forecasts for the day. As soon as I have written about learning this poem, I will go and work in the garden, and maybe do some yoga, and tidy and declutter, and plough through the rest of that Sapolsky tome I’ve been trying to read for the last week, struggling to concentrate long enough to stay with it for more than a few chapters.

Our Carousel of Selves, can also, broadly speaking, be mapped onto neural networks. The hero of the piece, the Healthy Adult /Stopping Self is a probably a more metaphorical way of talking about the Frontal Cortex. Sapolsky gives us a handy job description for this member of our inner team:

“Its list of expertise includes working memory, executive function (organizing knowledge strategically, and then initiating an action based on an executive decision), gratification postponement, long-term planning, regulation of emotions, and reining in impulsivity.”

And here’s Camp on Impulsivity, that moment when we give way to our desires:

the unwashed swell of rapture
taking your face through teeth to heartbeat, 
every beaten moment on the couch.
Every relief: have hereafter and clamor. 
Have nothing worse. 
You’ll follow the mumble through 
that ache that is tincture. Is rule 
and bundle. Is famished inside you 
and thrumming.

The Stopping Part, the frontal cortex, to return to Sapolsky for a moment “makes you do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do.” The Stopping Self finds resourceful ways to override, dodge, or ride out the wave of desire that seems to come out of nowhere, building at times, to tsunami-proportions: “the unwashed swell of rapture / taking your face through teeth to heartbeat”.

The Stopping Self is a right old party-pooper. But also perhaps it is this age-old tussle between those Platonic horses of desire and reason, with us feeling quite often like the poor old Charioteer trying to keep these conflicted nags on the same course.

The Frontal Cortex/Stopping Self turns out to be the most recently evolved brain region, “not approaching full splendor until the emergence of primates; a disproportionate percentage of genes unique to primates are active in the frontal cortex. Moreover, such gene expression patterns are highly individuated, with greater interindividual variability than average levels of whole-brain differences between humans and chimps.” (Sapolsky)

I remember some years ago, going to see Jonathan Safran Foer talk about his book Eating Animals and him saying in response to a question suggesting that it is in our nature as omnivores to eat meat that in fact we are most human when we’re struggling with our impulse to chew down on a nice juicy beefburger as opposed to going for the ethically more sound lentil alternative.  I think this poem makes these questions particularly alive for us, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to learn it by heart.

If you had to choose
between settle and suture, you know what you’re after.
You’d pour yourself hitches
and battery. Pour yourself each subsequent time.

I still have no idea what behaviour is being targeted in this poem for cessation. As I spend the week learning it by heart, taking it into my lungs and belly, I sometimes think we’re discussing an eating disorder, or maybe it’s smoking, perhaps even narcotics. Or is it alcohol?

In many ways, all our addictions are interchangeable. In the Brahmajāla Sutta, Siddhārtha Gautama (aka the Buddha) gives us a role call of his society’s addictions, big and small, which still reads today, for all its elephants, buffaloes, bulls, and rams, as thoroughly contemporary listicle:

“Some ascetics and Brahmins…remain addicted to attending such shows as dancing, singing, music, displays, recitations, hand-music, cymbals and drums, fairy shows;…combats of elephants, buffaloes, bulls, rams;…manoeuvres, military parades;…disputation and debate, rubbing the body with shampoos and cosmetics, bracelets, headbands, fancy sticks…unedifying conversation about kings, robbers, ministers, armies, dangers, wars, food, drink, clothes…heroes, speculation about land and sea, talk of being and non-being.”

I think of alcohol more often than not as I learn the poem, but perhaps that’s my projection of choice. But there are some indicators in the language of the poem, in its talk of “liquefying” resolve, and “pouring”, perhaps in the sense of both losing control as well as in the enactment of the compulsion. Or maybe it is some other addiction altogether. I like the fact that I don’t really know either way, and nor do I need to know because it is the process and function here of our compulsions that are being explored, and we readers will read ourselves and our own struggles with these unruly selves into the poem. This is why we read poetry, isn’t it? This is why I read poetry: to inhabit that perimeter where parts of “me” intermingle and amalgamate with parts of you.

Still everywhere the shiver
is slow on the tongue, insistent. You will stop 
for some weeks, 
your body taking body 
from your blood 
and the back of the throat,
and those weeks will be thank-you-God acres 
of erasure and resurrection and the clabber of other small prayers 
you stoop to collect

This is certainly how my Monday-Friday often works. Sometimes only Monday to Wednesday. And even on a Friday night, because I cannot trust The Addict, I will stand in the liquor aisle of the supermarket and wrangle with compulsive Steve.

“Now you know the deal, you cannot be trusted with a bottle of wine, as you will drink the whole thing, so we allow you two small 187ml single-serves”
“But I don’t like the wine in the single-serves.”
“Too bad, it’s that or nothing.”
“Harumph. OK, two single-serves. And what about getting two more for tomorrow while they’re on special offer?”
“Are you sure you won’t drink all four tonight. Because that would defeat the whole thing.”
“Of course.”

Even so, 
we shouldn’t fool ourselves; 
resolve cannot liquefy need. 

Of course. We shouldn’t fool ourselves, even though The Addict manages to do just that. One. More. Time.

What is it to be addicted? I think we can all recognise those moments in our life that adhere to this channnel of desire:

You’ll follow the mumble through 
that ache that is tincture. Is rule 
and bundle. Is famished inside you 
and thrumming. 

Having read a good amount of the addiction literature for my dayjob, as well as having talked this through with hundreds of patients and myself, I think I’ve now got a better understanding what the need is. It’s not particularly arcane. It’s a need to shift from some state of discomfort or suffering into a less aversive one. We might be talking Big D&S (Discomfort & Suffering), or one of the small itchy varieties we may all experience at the end of a working week: a tiredness, an emptiness, some low-grade discontent which spurs the yearning to be soothed, satisfied, liberated from these feelings of not-feeling-ok, not-being-ok. Which is why, unless we officially class ourselves as Alcoholics, or Sex, or Food Addicts, Big and commit ourselves to a Twelve-Step program in line with our falling off, we will probably find ourselves living the hot-cold see-saw described in Camp’s poem over and over and over again.

It will become impossible to believe 
you will ever stop for good. 
Stopping is not counter or suspect,
but easing back is all that is left,
the impulse has got you, it’s all that survives.

The wisdom of the poem seems to suggest that maybe one can find through an act of self-acceptance some peace with whatever addictive swing or see-saw we happen to be playing with.

Or is there a more explicit moral stance being played out here, suggesting that unless we find a way to get on top of our impulses, we lose some intrinsic part of our humanity: “the impulse has got you, it’s all that survives”. The Addict, as she’s quite happy to do, takes over and runs the whole show.

Threaded through my thoughts I’ve included some pictures from one of my favourite photographers, Claire Martin, taken from her Downtown East Side photo essay. Even if you have never seen these pictures of destitution and addiction before, I’m sure they are painfully familiar to us as a type. And here lies a certain comfort, but also another kind of nefarious “fooling ourselves”. Most likely our socioeconomic privileges keep us on the “right” side of social respectability, and yet the machinery of addiction is exactly the same, whether your compulsive behaviour is checking your Twitter and Facebook updates in ways that disrupt the flow of your day, or shopping for classical music in a compulsive manner, as Gabor Maté admits in another classic of addiction literature In The Realm of The Hungry Ghosts:

“Addictions are often interchangeable—a fact that further buttresses the unitary theory that there’s a common addiction process. Although my addictive tendencies are most obvious in my compact-disc-buying habit, I can shift seamlessly into other obsessive activities….I have thrown myself equally blindly and avidly into political work and other pursuits. I’ve even had several of my addictions up and running at the same time. That is, the addiction process was active and looking for more and more external trophies to capture. For all that, the anxiety, ennui and fear of the void driving the whole operation rarely abated.”

I love this book by Maté because at a certain point in the book, he takes off the distanced, expert MD jacket in which he starts the book, the doctor’s coat he wears each day as he carries out his work in harm reduction clinics in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, assisting many of the people Claire Martin photographs in her essay, and becomes one of us flawed mortals. Maté, the wounded healer, identifies very strongly with his patients who struggle with mental and physical health issues alongside their addictions. What separates them he realises is more a case of systematic racial and economic inequality as opposed to the willpower myth, that if you try hard enough, you can overcome anything — abuse, poverty, hardship, and the most destructive of our addictions. Camp’s poem doesn’t buy into this willpower idea either, and neither should we.

Even so, 
we shouldn’t fool ourselves…

Or if we do, at least let’s do it with some of the kindness and understanding midst the frustration and struggle that this poem embodies.

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