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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Confront your addiction

border=0Some of us know our limits. Others don't. But even fewer know why addiction happens in the first place. The seeds of the disease-happy hours, one-night stands, risky wagers-define masculinity itself. Are you man enough to look at your worst habits?

It's a simple story. My friend turned into a cat. He turned a corner and disappeared. The white colonnade multiplied manifold, the crows spread their menacing wings. And I found myself waiting for the bus that would take me. Somewhere.

I had just found my freedom, the sprawling campus was full of possibilities. The grass was always greener on this side. Literally. It was love at first puff. It made the days bearable and my nights fantastic. Everything was larger than life. We utilised lecture time. I tried writing.

Ravi made crazy sketches. Vishal penned lyrics, which he later hummed along with his guitar, as we sat on the pavement in front of our favourite dhaba. Sunny wasn't particularly good at anything, but he always thought of the craziest things to do, and sponsored our most expensive adventures.

The music throbbed in my temples, and lights blinded me. I was thrilled to be liberated from the mundane, there was so much to do. Even going to the movies became a mind-blowing experience. And this was way before 3-D. Parties started at sundown, and never ended. I resented the restrictions at the hostel, and moved out to live with one of my girlfriends. But that's a love story.

Short, dim days

At some point, I started running out of breath, as though I was on a treadmill that was too fast for me. I was surprised at myself. Tired of having fun? Back-to-back marijuana joints didn't give me even half as much fun as that first joint had. On some days, attending the party was more like a social commitment. On some days, I wanted to close my eyes and rewind, to slow down.

But after a day of trying to focus on lectures, a comrade would leisurely lay out the cigarette paper, fill it with the good stuff, and seal my fate. Meanwhile, I was struggling to attain passing marks. I received a stern warning from my folks, who were financing my bohemian lifestyle. The message was clear: if I didn't shape up, I would have to come home. That shook me up a little. I wanted to write.

The struggle
I made a compromise: study during the week, party only on the weekends. The week was a real drag, but I managed to squeeze in few drags too. The weekend was screaming out to spill over into Thursday and Monday! I was just getting by. But some of my friends weren't.

Lost friends

Ravi eventually dropped out of the graduation course and went on to do graphic design. We got together now and then, and he always made the best reefers. His job was way too cool. His timings were flexible, and he could get by with his great concepts. I wasn't so lucky. I had to actually work for a living, which, I realised was expensive, even without the ganja. And writing didn't pay. But a few years down the line, things changed. Ravi dropped in at odd hours. Sometimes he needed money. Mostly, he was between jobs. He was talented, but somewhere he had lost it.

Too much fun
It seems there is actually no such a thing as too much fun. Studies reveal that the survival mechanism in the human brain involves a very delicate neurochemical equilibrium. Normally, our system is first motivated to do something, like hunt or have sex, and then we are rewarded with a feeling of pleasure. This feeling is very well-achieved artificially by means of alcohol, gambling and a whole range of psychotropic drugs. First you want it, then you get it. The space between wanting and getting is crucial for this system. Once overtaxed by excessive pleasure, it starts becoming a torture.

Men who pause
But it doesn't just end here. Like I said, there were many girls who smoked up almost as much. But most of them are well-settled into their careers today, and two of them got married and had babies. As it turns out, we have been dealt bad card here. We are physically better equipped to absorb the impact of alcohol and most drugs, and that should be an advantage, right? Wrong.

Findings show that the aggregate impact from alcohol and other addictions is much higher in men. According to a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the brain's frontal lobes, responsible for decision-making, is active in female drug users who are trying to quit, but the opposite happens to the male brain. In short, when we are tempted, our decision-making system shuts down, and we follow the impulse.

A clean-up act
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that an addicted man becomes a lonely man. His social support system dwindles rapidly. I bowed out of Ravi's invitations more than once, feeling guilty for letting a friend down. It takes a lot to tell yourself that you need help.

I have known people that have cleaned up overnight. But more than that, I have known people who have taken the support of friends and family. One push from the system can set the right triggers in place, and before you know it, you might be getting your kicks from lifting iron instead of a bottle.

-John Sarkar

The first hit

All it took for me was an adventurous girlfriend to begin my 20-year love affair with nicotine.

Last time I was sober, man I felt bad/ Worst hangover that I ever had/ It took six hamburgers and scotch all night/Nicotine for breakfast just to put me right/ 'Cause if you wanna run cool/... you got to run/ On heavy, heavy fuel... Dire Straits.

Heavy fuel it's been for me. Call me a Knopfler fan or his victim, I went 22 years before my first cigarette. Since that first time when this concoction of carcinogens wafted into my unsuspecting lungs, it's been more than a decade spent huffing, living with a perpetually sore throat… and yes, I still cannot perfect those loops.

A heady rush

This is not about quitting. This is about that first time I got hooked. I knew I was messing around, but every time my lungs took the hit, the ground seemed to rush up at me in compensation…it felt much better than all the highs I had known till then. Smoking, at that age, didn't seem like a big risk. Like every boy my age who didn't like commitments, I too fooled myself into thinking I will keep it short. Or so I thought.

The tutor
"Let the smoke flow smoothly into your lungs…inhale deeply to avoid coughing." She had recently broken off with my best friend and was with me on rebound. I didn't want her to say I too was a loser. It tasted like hell; I couldn't stop coughing. "Don't worry," she reassured me. "The first few drags are never pleasant. Take smaller puff s." And then it happened: The rush, that heady, euphoric tingling feeling… and I was hooked. "Be careful," my tutor warned, "don't let the smoke get into your nose. You are not ready for it yet." My friends say I am a quick learner and I didn't disappoint her on this one either.

Late but not never
Why did I start at all? I don't know. Perhaps to look cool. Yeah right! I am only 20 years too late to ask myself "What if". I was impetuous, no doubt, but the nicotine seemed to help me reorder my priorities more easily than anything else. Why did I do it? Blame it on youthful precociousness and the profundity with which it paints even the mundane with a brilliant future. Like Mark Twain said, since then, I have realised quitting smoking is the easiest thing I ever did…I ought to know because I have only done it a thousand times!

-Bobby John Varkey


As a food addict, There's only one thing I found difficult to swallow: The truth.

You think, Surely that's not . . . And, Yes, it is. And, Oh, God! And, What time is it, anyway? Your denial skills allow you to respond to the moment of horror, make the necessary mental readjustment, block out the horror, and carry right on walking. As a fat guy, you become adept at denial on many levels. You always carry in your head at least two versions of what you look like, ranging from trim to slightly overweight. The real you-the engorged belly, the treble chin, the moon face-gets buried.

The moment

I was in denial about something else, too- the very fact that I was a compulsive overeater. There I'd be, at my fattest, cruising along the sidewalk toward the golden arches of a McDonald's. Still, there I'd go, walking toward the arches, fully intending not to walk under the arches. Smelling the oil, the meat, the buns. Fully intending not to wait in line and order some fries. And then, click. Something would happen. I'd turn. I'd duck under the arches. I'd stand in line. This is the exact moment of denial. The moment you tend to ignore.

Food for thought
As you gaze at the golden arches, you may believe you're still in possession of judicial powers. But you're not. At this stage, you have only executive powers. Your status as the master of your own destiny is entirely ceremonial. And then you step inside the binge, and, for a brief moment, it's a wonderful place to be. Inside the binge, you are outside of yourself. Here, objects are sharper, more clearly defined. Your hunger is bigger; the objects of your hunger look smaller. Inside the binge, you are pure appetite-pure aspiration. Nothing else. You have created a time zone more present than the present.

Blocking out reality
Meanwhile, where's the real world-the world of being fat, the world of lumbering, of ugliness? You've banished it. It doesn't exist. It has been denied. Can there be yet another level of denial? Of course. Eventually, I went into therapy to talk about why I liked to overeat, or rather to talk about why I overate despite hating myself for doing it. This emerged: I was overeating in order to deny difficult emotions. I'd been doing this since I was a kid. I realised that the compulsive cycle- stepping into a binge, having a binge, feeling guilty about the binge, embarking on another binge-was a technique my mind had dreamed up to distract me from my darker thoughts.

Big, fat truth
What I learned about my addictions was that it wasn't exactly burgers, or booze, or marijuana, or, during the periods when I lost weight, random sexual encounters that I craved, so much as craving itself. Addiction is about wanting to be hungry, about the need to be unsatisfied. This, it turned out, was the truth that, for the longest time, I sought to deny.

-William Leith

Hitting bottom

At what point does sex become a drug? The day it tears your life apart.

When he hit rock bottom it was shoulder-first. Someone was yanking his arm and dragging him towards a dark blue van waiting nearby. He didn't try to resist.

From Kolkata's famous red light district Sonagachi, Anand was taken to the nearest police station, and locked up for the night. Unaware, his mother fell asleep while waiting for him at the dinner table.

Strange but true
He was 18, all set to get into Kolkata's best college. Snehe Shmita, the hottest girl in his class, was his. They'd gone out for a date, and after dropping her home, he felt a familiar obsession stirring. He stopped a rickshaw and got in. The cheap neon lights in the dingy North Kolkata bylanes hit him like fireflies. The women were waiting.

Dangerous pastime
Anand couldn't stop thinking about women. As a kid he had wet dreams about his teachers. He tried his luck with the maids in his house and was thrashed by his mother, more than once. It didn't work. At his friends' parties, he would try to hit on any woman, regardless of consequences and physical attractiveness. Slowly, he earned a reputation. Despite a loving and attractive girlfriend, Anand would drool at the mere thought of visiting brothels. His friends knew by then that Anand was a sex addict.

Living on a prayer
After every escapade, Anand would be so relieved about getting away with it that he would punish himself. He'd go to a temple. "I won't smoke anymore. I will never cheat on Snehe Shmita again," he would pray.

Dying hard
Today, Anand is a happy man. He is a VP at a well-known KPO, is married to Snehe Shmita, and the two of them have an apartment at a swanky Kolkata neighbourhood. He even manages to go to the gym. But once in a while, Anand will take a detour on his way back home from work, and drive towards where the old neon lights still burn bright-like fireflies.

-John Sarkar


I wanted to get clean, but smart money gagged me and made my life hell.

First try and I struck gold. All the spoils came my way too quick and easy. After three consecutive victories and neatly stacked `1000 bills stashed in my big fat wallet, I was up for a fantastic ego massage and a good night's sleep. This was the first time I ever played 'Teen Patti' and boy oh boy, dead chuffed I was. What's the term for this? Beginners luck, eh?

Riding on hope

From that day on, this addiction lasted another three years. Days and nights were devoured practising cards with family, friends and whosoever was even remotely interested in gambling (even the night watchman wasn't spared). I was happy, my friends were hospitable, professional life was booming, I was paying my monthly bills on time, father was comfortable and the morning tea tasted as crisp as a newly-wed wife.

Life was perfect. Though in due course I won and lost a great deal, it was never as perennially stressful as it became in the years to come. I realised, it's not the game that grabs you by the collar but the sheer kick of hope it creates. That explains why I kept coming back for more. After a brief hiatus, I was back on the table hustling with my hard-earned money.

Sledge hammered

When the bets were placed, Rs 20,000 for a blind, I became extremely nervous and edgy. Riding on luck I hoped to put up a good show. I was wrong. I lost five games in a row. Gambling is tricky business and you end up losing more than you win. The ratio is often skewed 3:1. Three times you lose, one time you win. I was bleeding heavy.

Soon, my Breitling, my imported Scotch whiskies and for god's sake, even my car, went on the line. Debts piled up and tension was on an all time high. Coming back home or meeting friends wasn't a pleasant feeling any more. The morning tea tasted like left-over wine, professional life took a beating, taunts from relatives and friends became commonplace and all this coupled with social ostracisation and the imminent possibility of losing my job due to non-performance turned me into a nervous wreck.

Turning point
The turning point in my life was when one day an epiphany struck me on my way back home from office. I decided to seek professional help. Slowly, this made my life more manageable and stress-free. Though I've still not given up gambling, (I play with a group of close friends on special occasions), I've resisted the temptation of wantonly betting away a fortune, and my life. And all this taught me one important lesson. Hope is good, but restraint is better.

-Abhimanyu Chakravorty


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