Friday, April 17, 2015

Hello, My Name is Kevin, and I'm an Addict

In one of my earliest memories, my father holds me in his lap. I might be three years old, possibly younger. He reads to me from a Little Golden Books version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. However, the illustrations depict the MGM movie adaptation, all bright colors and Judy Garland cutting a rug with Ray Bolger. I’m already able to read; have been for a year; but Dad still reads to me.

Years later, my mother would recount other parents watching me, reading raptly, and wonder aloud: how do you get your son to read so much? She responded, forcing a laugh to make things sound lighthearted: the real trick is getting him to do anything other than read. Very true. Books became my singular dedication. I bought them faster than I could read them. Whenever we relocated, moving men entered my room and saw dollar signs.

Fast forward. I’m forty years old. I live alone with two cats and a bookshelf in literally every room but my bathroom. My living room has an entire wall dedicated to bookshelves, extending into the dining area and butting against my kitchen. I own few valuables, and don’t fear burglary, since there’s nothing robbers would consider worth taking. Yet I fear fire. My entire apartment is highly combustible, and my out-of-print books are virtually irreplaceable.

By any reasonable standard, I’m an addict. I’d rather read books than interact with friends, cook dinner, or find better-paying work. I resent interruptions to my reading time, like boring old jobs or bathroom breaks. I read while eating. I fall asleep reading, and when I awaken, I spend thirty minutes reading before brushing my teeth. If anyone, even my dearest friend, phones while I’m reading, I’ve been known to lash out with childlike rage.

It’s taken me years to recognize myself as addicted. We generally associate addiction with substances, especially illegal drugs, or socially reviled substances like booze or nicotine. But I’ve been reading on addiction processes lately. Chief has been Canadian physician Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, the most thoroughgoing explanation I’ve ever seen of the addicted mind. This involves all addictions, including addictive behaviors, like gambling, philandering, overeating, and Internet or social media addiction.

Addictions arise from some unmet need. Beyond physical requirements like food and shelter, humans share three fundamental needs: human contact, creative activity, and meaningful work. In greater or lesser ways, post-industrial society denies all three. We spend unprecedented time alone, engage passive activities like TV watching, and do meaningless work to make others rich. These aren’t mere philosophical precepts. Neuroscience has demonstrated that need-starved brains become physically miswired. Trapped people cannot meet their own needs.

Addictions, in the short term, close these gaps. Dr. Maté aptly quotes one patient noting that the first heroin rush feels like a warm hug. Most substance addicts were abused, neglected, or ignored at key childhood moments. The same applies, in less visible ways, for behavior addicts. Gamblers chase the need to not lose. Overeaters plug their psychological emptiness by striving to feel physically full. And a book addict… remembers that moment in Daddy’s lap.

When I was six, I won a fishing pole in a youth league competition. I begged Dad to take me fishing; he wasn’t interested. Two years later, we donated that pole somewhere, still in the package. Many times, I begged Dad to play catch. I hate sports, but wanted to play with Dad, my hero. He spent twenty-five minutes constantly critiquing my stance, until I fled in tears. I never begged to play catch again.

Don’t mistake me: I love my father, and believe he loves me. But we’re incompatible people. I wanted to share experiences with him; he expressed his love by working. If he wasn’t working for pay, he was doing home repairs, yard work, something. I’ll avoid lay psychoanalysis of Dad’s workaholism, but its effects on me linger. The older I got, the further away he stayed. But a boy never stops needing to feel Daddy’s love.

So I began escaping into reading. I intellectually know my father’s love, but I last directly felt it when he held me and read to me. Books became a manifestation of love. When I read, I’m not alone. Daddy loves me when I read. When I vanish into a book, any book, I’m three years old again. Daddy’s arms surround me, his lap supports me, his voice soothes me. When I read, I feel loved.

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