Learning From Freud: Addiction, Distraction, Schedules

In An Anatomy of an Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted and The Miracle Drug CocaineHoward Markel writes:

At some point in every addict’s life comes the moment when what started as a recreational escape devolves into an endless reserve of negative physical, emotional, and social consequences. Those seeking recovery today call this drug-induced nadir a “bottom.”…The bottom that Sigmund experienced featured far more than the physical and mental ravages of consuming too much cocaine….Most recovering addicts insist that two touchstones of a successful recovery are daily routines and rigorous accountability.

As Sherwin Nuland noted in his review of Markel:

Around 1896, Freud began to follow a constant pattern of awakening before 7 each morning and filling every moment until the very late evening hours with the demands of his ever enlarging practice…writing, lecturing, meeting with colleagues and ruminating over the theories he enunciated in such articulate literary style.

Markel goes on:

It appears unlikely that Sigmund used cocaine after 1896, during the years when he mapped out and composed his best-known and most influential works, significantly enriched and revised the techniques of psychoanalysis and…attempted to ‘explain some of the great riddles of human existence.’

Because I consider myself an excessively and easily distracted person, one who finds that his distraction makes him miserable, I was struck by the description of the ‘drug-induced nadir’ that Markel refers to. In noting my own state of distraction, I wrote:

Like many users of the Internet I suffer terribly from net-induced attention deficit disorder, that terrible affliction that causes one to ceaselessly click on ‘Check Mail’ buttons, switch between a dozen tabs, log-in-log-out, reload, and perhaps worst of all, seek my machine immediately upon waking in the mornings.

The effect of this distraction on me is not dissimilar to that experienced by other sufferers: I sometimes feel a beehive has taken up residence in my cranium; my attention span is limited to ludicrously short periods; my reading skills have suffered; writing, always a painful and onerous task, has become even more so. Because of the failure to attend to tasks at hand, my to-do, to-read, to-write, to-attend-to lists grow longer and cast ever more accusing glances my way. Worse, their steadily increasing stature ensures that picking a starting point from any of them becomes a task fraught with ever-greater anxiety: as I begin one task, I become aware that several others are crying out for my attention, causing me to either hurry through the one I have started, or worse, to abandon it, and take up something else.


I experience distraction as a fraying at the edges, a coming apart at the seams, a sundering of the center–whichever description you want to use, it’s all that in my feverish imaginings and experiencing of it.

Since my primary mode of distraction is ‘Net distraction, I’d like to offer another description it. I sometimes use ‘screeching’ or ‘scratching’ in trying to describe the activity in the inside of my cranium that makes me want to stand up and run away–and check mail or reload a page–from reading or writing. All too quickly, when working on a computer, I need ‘release’ and the act of moving the mouse so that something else appears on my screen promises relief. A change of screens, that’s all it is. And ironically, I can never take in whatever it is that I switch to. My mind is too blank at that moment, still perhaps processing residual irritation. Then, seething with rapidly accumulating anxiety about my still-on-the-burner work, I switch back. A little later, the ‘scratching’ begins again. I jump in response. Repeat ad nauseam.

And then, I thought about some of the techniques I’ve used to try to combat these these states of mind and being:

In the spring of 2009, as I sought to make a book deadline, I first tried to impose internet fasts on myself; I was only intermittently successful. I pulled off a few eight-hour abstentions, starting at 10AM and going till 6PM. I found them tremendously productive: I got long stretches of writing accomplished, and on my breaks, for diversion, read through a stack of unread periodicals. But I found it too hard; and soon, my resolve faltered, and I returned to the bad old days.

This past spring and summer, in an effort to inject some discipline into my writing habits, I began working in forty-five minute blocks; I would set a timer on my phone and resolve to work for that period without interruption. For a few weeks, this method worked astonishingly well. And then, again, my resolve decayed, and I slowly began to drift back to the constantly interrupted writing session, a nightmare of multiple tabs open at once, each monitored for update and interruption.


I have tried many strategies for partial or total withdrawal: timed writing periods (ranging from 30 minutes to an hour); eight-hour fasts (I pulled off several of these in 2009…to date, this remains my most successful, if not repeated since, intervention; since then, somehow, it has been all too easy to convince myself that when I work, I should stay online because, you know, I might need to ‘look something up’); weekend sabbaths (only accomplished once, when I logged off on a Friday night, and logged back on on Sunday morning); evening abstentions (i.e., logging off at the end of a workday and not logging back on when I reached home). None of these strategies has survived, despite each one of them bringing succor of a sort.

And I went on to conclude:

I do realize, as many others have, that all of this sounds most like an incurable, pernicious addiction.

I take some solace in the fact that the strategies I have adopted–even if unsuccessful–at least put me in some very good company.

Then, The Eagerly Awaited Letter; Now, The Notification

Every weekday of my two years in boarding school bore witness to the implacable ritual of the mail from home: run to the teacher’s staff-room, ask for the day’s letters and postcards–sorted into piles corresponding to your ‘house‘–and then, surrounded by eager supplicants, call out the names of the lucky ones. At the end of it all, some schoolboys would walk away beaming, a letter from home eagerly to be torn open and read; yet others walked away crestfallen, left to look on longingly on those who had been lucky enough to have been the recipients of those postal missives. Perhaps our family had forgotten about us; perhaps we were ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps we did not matter; we were not important enough to be written to.

After I left boarding school, I continued to correspond with some friends by mail; I waited for their letters too, with some of that old eagerness. I would run down, time and again, to our building’s post-box, looking to see if the postman had brought goodies. This search was suffused with an irrational longing; I would check even the day after I had received a letter from my most frequent correspondent, somehow hoping he might have written two letters in a row. Sometimes I would check multiple times in a day when the the post-box remained empty; perhaps the postman had been late on his rounds, perhaps there would be two deliveries that day.

When I moved to the US, my mother wrote me letters regularly. The nightly check in the post-box, or, if my roommates had returned home before I did, on the table in the kitchen, quickly became another persistent ritual. I wanted to read her words, see her handwriting, establish contact with someone I had left behind, who I knew longed for me, and who I longed for in turn.

I never quite got over that craving for that touch, that contact, that reminder that someone had reached out.

The years rolled by. I discovered email. And the checking, the search for confirmation, grew and grew. Now, I check email–on all four of my accounts–constantly. There is a work account, a personal account, a blogging/social media/Twitter account, and lastly, an old work account, that for some inexplicable reason, I have not shut down. And there are Facebook notifications, Likes, comments, link shares, mentions, replies; there are Twitter mentions, retweets, favorites, replies. I check and check and check. On and on and on. It’s the first thing I do in the morning; it’s the last thing I do before I turn in to sleep; it’s what I do in the middle of the night if I cannot fall back to sleep after being disturbed–perhaps because of a bathroom break or my wailing toddler. (Like last night.)

I look at my inbox and see the count is at zero; my heart sinks. I see there are only spam or administrative emails; I am enraged. I post a link to a blog post and see no ‘likes’, a minuscule number of views; I am crestfallen.  I see no replies to my tweets, no mentions; I feel anonymous and ignored.

But when people do reply, and I reply, and they reply, and on it goes, I’m exhausted and seek to withdraw. Words spring to my lips but I feel too weary to transmit them through my keyboard back ‘out there.’ I crave attention and then shrink from it when it arrives. I want to ride this train, but I want to get off too.

I’m neurotic.

On A Minor Fast

I went on a little fast today. It lasted seven hours. But before you snicker at my pompous announcement of insignificant renunciation, do consider that I did not give up food or drink for that length of time. (Indeed, I made myself a four-egg omelette in that period and ate it with gusto.) Rather, I gave up the Internet for that duration; I did not check email; I did not look at Facebook or Twitter. And I did not do this while being confined to a Zone of No Wi-Fi. Rather, I did it at home, with a broadband internet connection in working order.

Ready to dispense accolades now?

In the spring of 2009, as I sought to make a book deadline, I first tried to impose internet fasts on myself; I was only intermittently successful. I pulled off a few eight-hour abstentions, starting at 10AM and going till 6PM. I found them tremendously productive: I got long stretches of writing accomplished, and on my breaks, for diversion, read through a stack of unread periodicals. But I found it too hard; and soon, my resolve faltered, and I returned to the bad old days.

Since then, I have never managed to internet fast voluntarily. When I have, it’s been because I did not have a working connection–perhaps I was flying across, or to, continents, perhaps I was in a national park. When I got connectivity, I checked back in. In 2012, I bought a smartphone, and put myself further along the road to perdition. For on the  phone, I installed Facebook and Twitter apps–and the GMail client. Now, there was no getting away from the constant check-in: waiting for a bus, a doctor’s appointment, on a subway above ground. I had willingly, deliberately brought home, much closer to me, that which I had already sensed often made me come undone.

These complaints about digital distraction are not new; many, like me, write similar plaintive notes. But we cannot seem to do without it all: the email, the constant monitoring of a timeline or a newsfeed. I certainly rely upon Facebook and Twitter to post links to my blog posts, and remain infected by an unshakable anxiety about utter and total anonymity were I to stop doing so.

This past spring and summer, in an effort to inject some discipline into my writing habits, I began working in forty-five minute blocks; I would set a timer on my phone and resolve to work for that period without interruption. For a few weeks, this method worked astonishingly well. And then, again, my resolve decayed, and I slowly began to drift back to the constantly interrupted writing session, a nightmare of multiple tabs open at once, each monitored for update and interruption.

My sabbatical is over; a full-time teaching load is upon me again; my daughter wants, and deserves, more attention; time for writing is ever more precious.

What did I get done today? Some writing; some reading. Nothing more could be asked for.

Now, to do it again.

Cutting Some Umbilical Cords (The Virtual Kind)

The day after the World Cup ended, I called my cable company and cancelled my cable and land-line subscriptions. (My phone call with my internet service provider’s customer service representative was long-winded, perhaps inevitably so given the number of inducements sent my way suggesting I only change the offerings in my subscription packages, but it was nowhere near as unpleasant as that nightmare Comcast call that went viral a few weeks ago.) And then, two weeks ago, I uninstalled the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone.

As far as attempts to roll back the tide of digital distraction go, these gestures give me a Canute-like air; they are minor in conception, execution, and probability of success.  Still, I suppose, they are not entirely insignificant either; they are gestures of a resistance of sorts, and that, even if quixotic, or perhaps because, can be suitably energizing. (The annual monetary savings on the canceled subscriptions promise a couple of airfares to domestic destinations.)

The desperation that provoked them has been alluded to by me here, in these pages, on many a previous occasion. Writing and reading, in these days of being ‘predisposed to interruption’ is harder than it always is; its still a privileged, leisurely activity, most assuredly, but it requires just a little more commitment when easy beguilement is only a tab or so away. This summer, like the others before it, seemed long and endless before it began, week after week stretching away, unoccupied, promising long hours of scholarship and rewarding dilettantism. And then, mysteriously, heat induced lassitude, the World Cup showed up in town, schedules decayed, and as the end of the summer beckoned, as did teaching with its new syllabi and bulging class rosters, so did postponements of publishers’ deadlines. In the panicky mood induced by this sense of a summer slipped out sight, the phone call to the cable company and uninstalled phone apps were no-brainers. I had little time left now for live sport; and I was growing a little nauseated by my mindless scrolling through News Feeds and Timelines while waiting for trains and buses.

Next week, I will travel–to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state–and plan to stay off the grid as often as possible; the relief promised by such abstinence is fast becoming a much-praised reward for the virtuous withdrawal. I look forward then, to not just the auto-back-pat but also the social approval sure to be sent my way. (I have often wondered, ever since I bought my smartphone two years ago, whether I would be able to resist the temptation to post photos to my blog while I was traveling; the answer, as I found after two days of struggling with blogging apps and poor cellphone service in Oklaholma and New Mexico, was that it was very easy to not want to be bothered once I was on the road.)

These little corners that I keep cutting, in an effort to clear some space in which to do work, to quell the monkey-brain, require little effort to identify; the hardest work is acting, and then, staying on the straight and narrow.

On Reading the Unreadable (or Persisting)

Michael Greenberg writes of Jorge Luis Borges:

He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame.

Good advice, but not easily followed.

Borges’ advice isn’t easy to follow because the decision to continue reading is just another instance of that most insuperable of dilemmas: Should I stay or should I go? Should I press on to the summit, risking life and limb, or should I turn back, foregoing glory and the chance to prove myself against the unforgiving elements? I was warned, after all, that I would experience many, many, moments of utter exhaustion, that I would have to dig deep into reserves that I didn’t know existed. Should I persist in this floundering relationship and attempt to rescue it from the doldrums in which it finds itself, thus investigating the depths of my emotional and romantic commitment, or should I cut my losses and run, seeking a better partner elsewhere? The romantic was always supposed to be our sternest test, wasn’t it?

The reading of a book poses this question in particularly vexed form. We have been urged to show a little backbone in our intellectual endeavors; we have been warned pleasures of the mind are not so easily earned; we accuse ourselves, relentlessly, of indolence in matters of edification. We are convinced we are distracted and flighty, flitting from one easily earned pleasure to the next; we are well aware the classics are often ‘difficult’ and require ‘sustained attention’. If a book ‘bores’ us, surely it is our fault, not the author’s, and we should press on regardless, trusting the difficulty journey ahead will bring its own rewards soon enough. Glory, we well know, comes only to those who persist; those who take the first exit on the highway to greatness are destined to only enjoy minor pleasures. So, this boredom that afflicts us, surely it is a reflection of our intellectual infirmity, an entirely ersatz disease. Can its reports really be trusted?

Matters, of course, are made worse in this day and age, as we suffer the ever-growing deluge of the written word, online and offline. We learn every day, with growing dismay, of the decay of the reading mind, the growth of the 140-character missive. Boredom by book seems like an exceedingly common disease, possibly even over-diagnosed.

If we could only trust our own inclinations, our own expressed desires, Borges’ advice would be far more tractable. But we do not. They have gotten us into trouble many times in the past; we know they will continue to torment us so in the future.

Fears of premature abandonment aren’t going away any time soon.

Note: In the past year, I have abandoned classics by Stendhal and Balzac; my guilt lasted for several days, and it was not assuaged when, on reporting these surrenders to a friend, he responded, “Really? I’m surprised. Those are great reads!” Borges can at least rest content his writing will never bore me.

The Curious Irony of Procrastination

Do writers procrastinate more than other people? I wouldn’t know for sure just because I have no idea how much procrastination counts as the norm and what depths practitioners of other trades sink to. But I procrastinate a great deal. (Thank you for indulging me in my description of myself as a ‘writer'; if you prefer, I could just use ‘blogger.’) At any given moment, there are many, many tasks I can think of–not all of them writerly–that I intend to get around to any hour, day, week, month, year or life now. (I procrastinate on this blog too; I’ve promised to write follow-ups to many posts and almost never get around to doing so.) This endless postponement is a source of much anxiety and dread. Which, of course, is procrastination’s central–and justifiably famous–irony.

You procrastinate because you seek relief from anxiety, because you dread encounters with the uncertainty, frustration, and intractability you sense in the tasks that remain undone. But the deferment you seek relief in becomes a source of those very sensations you sought to avoid. The affliction feared and the putative relief provider are one and the same. It is a miserable existence to suffer so.

One of my longest running procrastinations is close to the two-year mark now; this period has been particularly memorable–in all the wrong ways–because it has been marked by a daily ritual that consists of me saying ‘Tomorrow, I’ll start.’ (I normally go through this in the evening or late at night.) And on the day after, I wake up, decide to procrastinate again, and reassure myself that tomorrow is the day it will happen. As has been noted in the context of quitting vices, one of the reasons we persist in our habits is because we are able to convince ourselves that quitting, getting rid of the old habit,  is easy. So we persist, indulging ourselves once more and reassuring ourselves of our imagined success in breaking out of the habit whenever we finally decide we are ready to do so. (But habits are habits for a reason; because they are deeply ingrained, because we practice them so, because we have made them near instinctual parts of ourselves. And that is why, of course, new habits are hard to form, and old habits are hard to break.)

Similarly for procrastination; we continue to put off for the morrow because we imagine that when the morrow rolls around, we will be able to easily not put off, to get down to the business at hand. All that lets us do, of course, is continue to procrastinate today. The only thing put off till the morrow is the repetition of the same decision as made today–the decision to defer yet again.

Now, if as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do, I’m a procrastinator; I’m an irrational wallower in anxiety, condemning myself to long-term suffering for fear of being afflicted by a short-lived one. That is not a flattering description to entertain of oneself but it is an apt one given my history and my actions.

The Never-To-Be-Returned-To Perennial Draft

My email client shows eighty-two drafts resident in its capacious folders; my WordPress dashboard shows thirty-seven; and a quick search through various document folders on my desktop machine shows several dozen others. They are monuments and gravestones and white flags of surrender; they are signposts of intention, evidence of procrastination run amok; they are bitter evidence of an old truism, that you don’t know what you think till you see it in writing (and some of these show that I wasn’t thinking very much); they are caustic reminders of how imagination all too often outstrips effort and completion, how writerly ambition outruns ability.

Unfinished emails, some of them intemperate rejoinders to online commentary, personally critical emails, offensive or presumptive correspondence, some of them idle thoughts left half-formed, yet others overtaken by the turn of events; embarrassing reminders of what might have gone wrong had I ever, hastily and recklessly, hit the ‘send’ button; these sit in my mail folders. Very frequently, I sigh with relief at a bullet dodged, and wince at how I might have irreparably damaged a relationship. Here, there are many a drawn and then subsequently holstered gun, put away with its chambers still cold.

On this blog, my unfinished draft count had run as high as eighty; it needed some persistent cleaning up–deletions–to bring the number down. Some are mere notes to myself, with a pointer to something I felt needed response and commentary; yet others bear the mark of an incompletely worked out thought, simply run aground for lack of inspiration or perspiration. And my document folders show that I have started many more academic projects than I have finished. Like the blog posts, I have set out and then given up; the inspirational thought of the evening all too quickly turned into the laughable conceit of the morn; and sometimes, awed and intimidated by the dimensions of the presumptive task, I have let my shoulders droop, battened the hatches, and retreated. 

I have deleted many drafts over the years. Some were too ludicrous to tolerate any longer; why had I ever thought that line of thought was worth pursuing? And some too, were so incomplete, so grotesquely misshapen, that I could not even recognize the thought that had initially germinated it – let alone proceed with it any further.

And so there are the ones that remain. I humor myself, often, with the thought that I will return to them, to move them on, to push them on beyond the proverbial finishing ribbon, to bring them to conclusion and pat myself on the back for having shown persistence and gumption. But some of them will never be completed; I have moved on; I leave them around to tell me where I had gone wrong in the past and where I might again; and for all the various edificatory reasons listed above.

There is uncertainty here aplenty and certainty too, that their count will increase. But that thought is reassuring; for perhaps they will only increase as the completions do. That much is enough for now.