Addicted to Escaping Reality

The t-shirt said, “Life isn’t easy. Life isn’t perfect. Life is good.” I enthusiastically bought it for my daughter who is studying to be a mental health counselor and wished they also had one in my size.

Life isn’t easy, and we may struggle with the belief that life can be hard, imperfect, and good at the same time. Reality is often painful, and it’s natural to want to escape for a while. Life is full of difficult issues and when those issues get extremely difficult, we may want to escape for a good long while.

A break is sometimes just what we need to recharge our batteries and embrace the “life is good” philosophy. Complications occur when our break turns into a vacation so extended our passport expires – when it turns into an addiction. Our reality deteriorates and our need for an escape escalates.

When we talk about addiction, our minds generally picture alcoholics, illegal drug users, and gamblers. But we can become addicted to many things such as comfort foods, video games, pornography, social media, and even cleaning. We may try to get rid of the object of the addiction – the alcohol, the meth, the casinos – and assume the problems will then go away. But cutting off the supply won’t be effective if the demand remains. If one type of addiction goes away, what will stop us from simply seeking another way to escape a reality we find too complicated and unbearable to face?

If our need to evade our pain has become destructive to ourselves and those around us, making the object of our addiction illegal won’t be the cure. The cure will revolve around two components: making our reality less frightening and more hopeful; and finding healthy, short-term escape outlets.

Making Our Reality Less Frightening and More Hopeful

When life overwhelms us and we’ve lost hope in our ability to manage it, we need to know we’re not alone and we’re not doomed. We need to know we’re loved and have purpose. Help may come from people who care and provide support. It may come from spiritual sources that assure us we are forgiven and valuable.

As a society, we can look at what there is in the environment and culture we’ve created that is causing despair. Happiness researchers tell us that the amount of money we have is not related to our satisfaction with life once we have the resources to meet our basic living expenses. We don’t need fancy cars or huge houses, but we do need enough money for food, clothes, and shelter plus a little extra so we can fix the car when it breaks down and get medical help when we need it. Most importantly, we need to belong to a community that respects and cares about us.

Healthy Short-Term Escape Outlets

Life will never be a worry-free, gleeful path forward. There will be bumps and detours. We need to find positive ways to deal with hurt and shame. If we want to say “no” to an unhealthy addiction, we need to find healthy choices to say “yes” to.

I’m a big fan of reading myself and love any form of fiction that allows me to jump into the lives of characters I can care about on a pain-free level. Watching a thought-provoking movie or silly comedy takes me out of myself and into another world without worries of a hangover or gaining weight. Exercise, music, gardening, art, prayer, meditation, service to others, or whatever form of flow we enjoy can take us to a happy place and give us a needed respite from whatever concerns may be haunting us. 

We need to be wary of trying to escape our own difficult reality by gossiping about our neighbor’s shortcomings and displacing our personal angst onto others. Conspiracy theories and fake news may consume us because they are easier for us to digest than inconvenient truths concerning ourselves. Instead of being curious and open-minded, we become close-minded and addicted to passing judgment on others.

Communities can create healthy environments that reduce the demand for harmful substances and activities. Envision economic development plans that truly value making a community healthier, not just wealthier. Where progress is measured not just in quantity of dollars, but also in quality of life.

Loneliness can be deadly, and caring communities provide opportunities for connection so people can enjoy time together. Parks, gardens, and trails encourage time with nature, and the arts beautify our environment and educate us, inspiring positivity.

Health and medical writer Anne Fletcher stated, “Nobody stays recovered unless the life they have created is more rewarding and satisfying than the one they left behind.”We can create a more rewarding and satisfying reality on both a personal and community level.

On a personal level, we can lift ourselves up by finding moments that deliver us from our gloomy thoughts and feelings in a beneficial way. We become addicts because our lives are filled with pain and we don’t know how to stop spiraling out of control.  It’s hard to see the good in life when we feel good for nothing. We can, however, follow Maya Angelou’s advice “Do your best until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

On a community level, we can make reality less frightening by being more compassionate and accepting. By looking beyond a harmful addiction to what has harmed the soul and spirit of the person suffering with the addiction. We all need care at some time and we all can experience the joy of making a difference in the life of someone who needs care. Physician and poet William Carlos Williams advised, “The only way to be truly happy is to make others happy.”

As the t-shirt reminded me, life doesn’t have to be easy or perfect to be good.

Forgiving 2020

The year 2020 has been the most maligned year I have experienced in my many decades here on earth. People were cheering on December 31, 2020, because they could finally be rid of the horrible, terrible, no good year 2020. Good riddance!

Last year certainly wasn’t what any of us expected. We knew viruses could cause pandemics, but microscopic organisms weren’t supposed to outwit modern science and cause such hardship, grief, and uncertainty. We knew politics was becoming more divisive, but our dreadful manners and unfounded conspiracy theories weren’t supposed to result in organized efforts to overturn the democratic process.  We knew natural disasters were possible, but they weren’t supposed to become as ferocious and deadly as they demonstrated they could be in 2020.

Life in 2020 wasn’t predictable and stable for any of us. Change happened rapidly and severe suffering and death occurred that no one knew how to prevent. And that naturally made many of us anxious, confused, and distressed. Those twelve months contained a lot of pain that we won’t soon forget.

I don’t think we should forget 2020, but I do think we should forgive it. Forgiveness means letting go of the desire for a different past and accepting whatever happened that wasn’t supposed to happen. It means having the courage to talk honestly about why we’re justifiably upset with 2020, but also being mature enough to take responsibility for our hurt and pain instead of spreading blame and spending useless hours feeling sorry for ourselves. We have every right to be unhappy with 2020, but if we want to pave a heroic path forward in 2021, we need to learn from our disappointments.      

The Buddha used two words together to describe forgiveness: forbearance and compassion. Forbearance means patient self-control, restraint, and tolerance. When we don’t choose forgiveness, we give in to our default setting – our instincts – and forbearance exits while anger and bitterness rush in. If we’re not careful, schemers and tyrants will use our fear, confusion, and victim mentality to manipulate us because they seem to have the power and control we crave. They appear strong and certain and provide simple solutions we can easily buy into. Unfounded conspiracy theories take root, creating what the World Health Organization calls “infodemics.”

Forbearance is needed so we can calmly and rationally find a positive path forward, but we also need compassion if we want to create a year of healing, not hurting. Sometimes compassion is thought of as pity, but that is not the definition that helps us beneficially forgive. The compassion we need to make 2021 better than 2020 is an active process. A compassionate 2021 means a year in which we are energetically working to understand different perspectives and alleviate pain. Author Glennon Doyle Melton described compassion as, “a choice we make that love is more important than comfort or convenience.”

If we’re not careful, we can be persuaded to restrict our compassion to those who think and look like us – who are part of the “good” group. The “bad” group is deserving of blame and derision, not compassion. However, compassion means caring about others – all others. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” He didn’t make exceptions.

The year 2020 was disappointing and sometimes tragic. People lost jobs, lost elections, and worst of all lost loved ones. I help facilitate a grief group and one of the women in the group commented. “In 2020, people have been grieving so many things and not everyone knows how to grieve. We are so fortunate to be in a supportive group that allows us to express our genuine feelings and learn how to deal with loss.”

We need time to grieve when life deals us painful situations, and there is no timetable for grieving that works for everyone. When we suffer loss, we have to enter what is sometimes called “The House of Sorrows,” but at some point in time we want to leave that house so we can feel joy again.  

Losses make us sad and they may also make us angry. The good news about anger is that, if we do it right, we can channel the energy it provides into productive behaviors.

Angry feelings are like alarm bells that tell us there’s something wrong in our lives. Our instincts may tell us to fight or flee when angry energy surges through us, but we can upshift our thinking to our cerebral cortex and problem solve instead. We can practice forbearance and convert our fury into creativity, discovering ways to advocate for our causes peacefully – sharing solutions and responsibility, not hurt. We can surf the internet for verified facts and heart-warming stories of people helping people, not fear mongering. We can control our anger, so our anger doesn’t control us.         

We are naturally yearning for normalcy, but I agree with the cartoon that says, “Normal is only the setting on a washing machine.” When I’m struggling to adjust to change and find some vestige of stability, I like to think of myself as a turtle. Turtles have been around for millions of years and are notoriously slow paced. I watched mother sea turtles giving birth on a beach in Florida last year. They had to dig holes for their eggs before birthing them, but they rested in between surges of energy. The work was exhausting but they didn’t give up as they covered their eggs with sand and then made their way slowly back to the ocean, ready to start anew.

I also like to remember that what makes life exhilarating, as well as challenging, is lifelong learning. Singer Nia Peeples said, “Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is, in fact, constant transformation.” Forgiveness is all about learning from our past struggles so that we have the courage and capability to move forward with hope, not fear.

If we can journey through 2021 like a turtle, keeping calm and resilient, pursuing admirable goals but letting ourselves rest and recover when needed, then we’ll be able to keep moving forward. If we truly are all in this together, we’ll strive to be compassionate and will give just as much attention to our responsibilities to others as to our own personal rights. We will forgive 2020 for the pain it caused and be grateful for the lessons we learned as well as the many acts of courage and generosity that occurred. The year 2021 will bring us new challenges, but we can resolve to greet them with a spirit of optimism, innovation, and fortitude.

 (Photo by Nagatoshi Shimamura  on Unsplash)