A bird in the hand…

Chestnut-backed chickadee
photo by Glenn Bartley/VIREO

A sudden cessation of the power saw whining away at the back of the lot opens up the auditory world–birdsong, distant voices, a car passing on the street. I am sick of construction noise!  Here we are in this idyllic garden apartment, trees moving gently in the breeze, chickadees darting in an out of the blooming abutilon, and some days there is so damn much noise we can’t sit outside and enjoy it.

Our landlady is converting the garage into a studio apartment, the better to grow her rental income. How she ever got away with closing off the driveway is beyond me, though it’s what gives us peace and privacy when the construction workers go home. She closed off the driveway, then got the city to provide a handicap parking spot for her right in front of the building.  (Well, it doesn’t have her name on it, but she’s the only one who uses it. I have a handicap placard, too, but competing for my landlady’s parking space doesn’t seem politic.) Now, since there’s no driveway, and no way to park a car in the garage, she can convert it to a rental unit.

The construction has been going on intermittently since we moved in last June. First, sewer lines had to be laid to the garage; then a bathroom was built. It has a 10-foot high ceiling, a window overlooking a fern garden (when it’s not covered with boards and gravel), but no connecting door to the garage. It does have a door to the outside. Will the tenant have to go out one door and in another to use the bathroom? It’s a mystery.  Next the shed had to be expanded so some of the junk stored in the garage could be moved there. Now, finally, they are actually working on the conversion of the garage itself–walls to be replaced by windows, a new sheet metal roof to match the one on the bathroom, flooring and wallboards, plaster and paint. It’s actually pretty fascinating, and the noise isn’t every day or even all day. In fact, I have to admit it’s quite tolerable except for right now, when I want to sit outside and listen to chirping chickadees.

Right now seems to be an integral part of my personality. I think about chocolate and must have it right now. A book I want? Quick, order it from Amazon! No wonder I was so pitifully incompetent about controlling my alcohol intake; delayed gratification has been the bane of my existence.

In an article in Psychology Today (July 29, 2012), Alex Lickerman describes an effort to study this phenomenon.  In 1970, a psychologist named Walter Mischel designed an experiment to test children’s ability to delay gratification.  He placed a cookie in front of each child in a group and told them they could eat it right away or, if they waited until he came back, they could have a second cookie. Then he left the room. Most ate the cookie, but a few, whom he labeled “high-delay” children, resisted until he returned.

The high-delay children did better in school, had fewer behavioral problems, and went on to have higher SAT scores, finish college at higher rates, and achieve higher incomes. Never mind that these aren’t everybody’s definition of success in life–certainly not mine, but the ability to delay gratification is considered an important skill by most people, and one it would be useful to learn. So how do we do it?

The answer may lie in the strategies Mischel’s high-delay children used. Rather than resist the urge to eat the cookie, these children distracted themselves from the urge itself. They played with toys in the room, sang songs to themselves, and looked everywhere but at the cookie. In short, they did everything they could to put the cookie out of their minds.

Sound familiar?  It’s like Recovery 101.

I was never one of those high-delay children. I’ve struggled with impulse control my entire life. But recently, I read a 2011 article in AlterNet (reprinted from The Fix) that made me think about it differently:

If you think addiction is all about booze, drugs, sex, gambling, food and other irresistible vices, think again. And if you believe that a person has a choice whether or not to indulge in an addictive behavior, get over it. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) blew the whistle on these deeply held notions with its official release of a new document defining addiction as a chronic neurological disorder involving many brain functions, most notably a devastating imbalance in the so-called reward circuitry. This fundamental impairment in the experience of pleasure literally compels the addict to chase the chemical highs produced by substances like drugs and alcohol and obsessive behaviors like sex, food and gambling.

The definition, a result of a four-year process involving more than 80 leading experts in addiction and neurology, emphasizes that addiction is a primary illness–in other words, it’s not caused by mental health issues such as mood or personality disorders, putting to rest the popular notion that addictive behaviors are a form of “self-medication” to, say, ease the pain of depression or anxiety.

Indeed, the new neurologically focused definition debunks, in whole or in part, a host of common conceptions about addiction. Addiction, the statement declares, is a “bio-psycho-socio-spiritual” illness characterized by (a) damaged decision-making (affecting learning, perception, and judgment) and by (b) persistent risk and/or recurrence of relapse…

Interesting, huh? Maybe these are two separate processes–inability to delay gratification and impairment in the experience of pleasure–but maybe…they’re not. How much does that gimme gimme NOW behavior have to do with feeling subnormal all the time? We know this is true once addiction is in place, that you must have your substance of choice to feel good at all. But I always assumed that was to head off withdrawal. Now, however, almost five years sober, I’m starting to wonder. Because really, most of the time, I don’t feel that great. I’m not weeping, I’m not in crisis, I’m not lost in the darkness, I’m just kind of…blah. And anything that gives me a little jolt, like sugar, chocolate, or coffee,  I want again and again. Right now!

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2 Responses to A bird in the hand…

  1. mishedup says:

    Oh, do I get that…..”anything that gives me a little jolt…”. As I eat a piece of dark chocolate and obsessively read FB while waiting for what i really want, my 5:30 yoga class. The waiting, the delay, makes me anxious and so I fill the time, not always so unproductively but today, yes.

    Now I am completely curious as to where you park? and did you have parking when you moved in and now it’s been taken from you? It’s so weird getting used to an apartment after a home for years, the little things. My apartment has HIGH ceilings and a loft bedroom (it’s very cool)…but i am obsessed with the lights high on the walls, and, in particular, the smoke detector up there. When it starts beeping, what will I do? I don’t have a tall ladder any longer, do I call the handy man to change it out, am I responsible? I have a little balcony too and I enjoy sitting out there, but it’s not private, like my backyard was.Clothes must be donned…..

    odd times

    • sswl says:

      So funny, getting used to apartment living again, isn’t it? We park on the street, wherever we can. We did the same when we had the house, only there was no street-cleaning because the hill was so steep, so I keep forgetting about it here. One ticket so far.
      we had a beeping smoke alarm last week and changed it ourselves because there was a stepladder nearby, but I wouldn’t hesitate to ask your property manager or whoever. One of the joys of renting! Especially if you have a responsive landlady, which we do, thank goodness. I’m pretty happy not to have to worry about all that mIntenance stuff and liking the change despite grumbling in today’s post.
      We’ll get used to it! (Some) change is good!
      xx/s.

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