Wednesday, July 16, 2014

This Addictive Life

I suppose at some point or another, we're afraid to turn into our parents.

And at some point, we realize we already have.

As much as I have always recoiled from my mother – according to her, since birth – I have often identified her traits in me. I hear her in my own words; I see her in my actions. I catch glimpses of her in the mirror and in photographs. I identify with her in ways I find disturbing and inevitable.

I knew that my mother called herself a recovered alcoholic, but I never knew her to drink. The story goes that she was a party girl at age 19 when she met my father, sitting at bars alone, kibitzing with bartenders while she snacked on maraschino cherries and drank fruity cocktails. My parents both tell of a time when the drinking became too much while they were together, and my father offered my mother an ultimatum: "It's the drinks or it's me."

Of course, this came from the same man who couldn't admit he loved my mother until the day he proposed marriage.

But still.

According to the tale, my mother skipped any 12-step program and successfully stopped drinking by simply going "cold turkey." Whether she was ever addicted to the actual alcohol or not is debatable, because her addictive inclinations quickly transferred over to sweets and sugary snacks, a pattern I witnessed over and over again throughout my childhood and adolescence.

"Who ate all the Twinkies?"

"Well, it wasn't me, that's for sure!" my mother would protest too much, clearly implicating herself. If not that, her weight problem – over 200 pounds at a mere five-foot-one – gave her away.

And it wasn't just food – the secret eating, the overeating, the obsessions with sugar-free candies and Tofutti and other "diet" foods that offered no nutritional value but took over her daily caloric intake. My mother always seemed to be addicted to anything that brought her any amount of pleasure.

In the mid-1980s, our mother became obsessed with Bruce Springsteen, as many Americans did in the advent of the success of Born in the USA. But how many other Americans bought two copies each of it on vinyl and cassette, just to have a spare copy when playing the record over and over and over and over again would surely wear it out?

At the time, it seemed somewhat understandable. Our mother grew up with nothing, so when she got something as an adult – thanks to our father working two jobs to support our family – she was terrified of losing it.

But these addictive tendencies turned her into a collector as well. One music box brought her joy, so she collected dozens of them, buying cabinets to house them and accepting no birthday or Christmas gifts other than that which would add to her collection.

The same happened later with porcelain dolls, which eventually took over the dining room, rendering it unusable for dining.

The same happened with the mushroom theme in the kitchen, and the potholders that were hung in every blank space on the walls and appliances.

My parents claimed to not be able to contribute anything to pay for my college education, but we managed to have a television set of some sort in every single room in the house: the living room, the basement, the bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen, and even the pantry. At some point, a VCR accompanied each of those TVs.

My mother's compulsive shopping reached full-tilt later in life, when she went on a long-term QVC bender, buying too much for herself, my sister and me, the nurses at her doctors offices, her doctors, and everyone else she knew. She bought cases of gifts and distributed them to people she barely knew, making them uncomfortable, unable to reciprocate the gesture.

Most of all, my sister and I realized early on that our mother was addicted to our father. She quite simply could not get enough. Then again, none of us could. Dad was working two jobs to try to support us, was barely awake long enough in the morning before taking us to school – not even eating breakfast at home, just shaving and dressing for work –, and came home for a mere 45 minutes for dinner before departing for his second job. We all cherished the Saturdays and Sunday nights off, and dreaded the Mondays. We fought and clamored for his attention. Mom treated me and my sister much like "the other woman," hiding her jealousy so badly that we wrote a runaway note (though we never ran away) that read, "You can finally have Dad all to yourself."

We watched our mother crawl all over our father, begging for his attention, never getting enough, every moment of pleasure driving the desire for more more more. A little taste was almost worse than nothing at all. Sometimes I think it might be better to not know what you're missing out on.

I can't blame my mother for her pleasure-seeking. How am I any different? I'd rather eat a whole bag of cheese curls or an entire jar of peanut butter rather than just a taste. If I can't have the whole thing, I'd rather not have it at all. When I hear a song I like, I want to listen to it over and over again. I want to nap forever. I want to hike every mountain and drive every road and taste every pancake that every Southern California coffee shop has to offer.

When I won a game show in 2011, the producers came up to me and asked me what I thought. The first thing I said was, "Can I play it again?"

I am an addict every day. I may not shop uncontrollably for shoes and handbags, but I get high off planning my adventures, and even just one adventure is never enough. I have to plan a full day's worth of activities, and when I do, I crash horribly afterwards.

Recently I was advised to find "weekly pleasurable activities" to help me cope with the depression and anxiety associated with work and financial stress. I had to laugh. All I do is fill my time with pleasurable activities. I can't get enough. I have a hard time working in an office, because I just gaze out of the window, wondering what's happening out there that might bring me pleasure, that I'm missing out on.

I have overdone it with food, alcohol, sleep, and sex, and yet I feel like I'm always holding myself back. I've never had a taste for drugs, but I have an unquenchable desire for men who think I'm beautiful. Too often they're drunks. I guess addicts attract one another. But when I meet someone I like, I want to spend every day with them; I want to invite them to everything. And if I let myself do that, I inevitably scare them off. (To be fair, if they do that to me, they scare me off too.) And if I don't, I don't tell them how I really feel, and either way, I usually lose them.

Having grown up so closely to an addict, I'm not sure I can tell the difference between "normal" behavior and addictive behavior. What's not normal about pleasure-seeking? Aren't pleasures what make life worth living? Aren't they the driving force of nearly everything we do? When we volunteer or give back or donate to charity, don't we do it because it feels good?

My addiction to stimulation has kept me living this long. I'm not sure what else could. I'm not satisfied just plodding along, and I don't understand how others are.

But I've got this terrible hole inside of me, and it takes a lot of work to fill it. I need attention and affection and adventure and discovery and beauty and love and excitement and newness and comfort. And I need a lot of it.

I just never seem to be able to get enough.

So, either the pursuit of it is what will keep me going, or I'm destined for disappointment.

Related Posts:
This Censored Life, Or, I Will Not Go Quietly