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.

And:

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.

Or:

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.

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.

Social Networks and Loneliness

As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I discovered, in quick succession, email, computerized conferencing, and Usenet newsgroups.  My usage of the last two especially–and later, the Internet Relay Chat–would often prompt me to say, facetiously, that I would have finished my graduate studies quicker had I stayed off the ‘Net more. That lame attempt at humor masked what was a considerably more depressing reality: staying online in the ‘social spaces’ the early ‘Net provided was often the only way to deal with the loneliness that is an inevitable part of the graduate student’s life. The emailing quite quickly generated frantic, incessant checking for the latest dispatches from my far-flung partners in correspondence; the conferencing–on the pioneering EIES–led to a full immersion in the world of conference discussions, messaging, live chatting; Usenet newsgroup interactions developed into engagement with, and entanglement in, long-running, fantastically convoluted disputes of many different shadings; IRC sessions generated a cluster of online ‘friends’ who could be relied upon to engage in long conversations at any time of the day or night.

All of this meant you could be distracted from classes and reading assignments. But that wasn’t all of it obviously; an often denuded offline social life was given heft by the online variant. There is something curiously ironic about the need for ‘filling up’ that is implicit in that statement: my daily life felt hectic at the best of times. Classes, assignments, campus employment, all seemed to occupy my time quite adequately; I fell all too easily into that classic all-American habit of talking loudly about how busy I was.

And yet, tucked away in the hustle and bustle were little singularities of emptiness, moments when the crowded campus would appear deserted, when every human being visible seemed surrounded by an invisible protective sheen that repelled all approaches. Into these gaps, thoughts of lands and peoples left behind all too easily intruded; into those interstices flooded in an awareness of a very peculiar distance–not easily characterized–from all that seemed so physically proximal. (That mention of ‘lands and peoples’ notes, of course, what was significantly different about my experience; I was voluntarily displaced, an international student.) These turned what could, and should, have been solitude, into just plain loneliness.

Those early days of refuge-seeking in the electronic and virtual spaces made available by the social networking tools of the time left their mark on me. They turned an already easily-distracted person into an often decohered mess of  competing impulses and emotions: a low-grade anxiety and impatience being among the most prominent of these. (I have often waxed plaintive on these pages about the distraction I suffer from; no cure seems forthcoming.)

As is perhaps evident, I don’t remember those days with any great fondness: to this day, bizarrely enough for a professor, I am made uneasy, not ecstatic, by the sight of students working late in libraries or laboratories, peering at computer terminals (as opposed to books, I suppose). And every Facebook or Twitter status that is an all-too poorly disguised plea for companionship generates an acute sympathetic response.

The times, I am told, are a-changin. But some things remain just the same.

The Distraction of Distraction

I’ve written on distraction on this blog before (several times: detailing my ‘Net distraction; comparing the distraction attendant when trying to write with a pen as opposed to a word processor or blog editor; describing the effect of changing locales of work on distraction and of persistent online activity on the ‘offline’ world; noting how constraint might be essential to creativity.) This would indicate distraction is often on my mind, that I’m distracted enough by distraction to write about it–again and again. I’d like to think writing on distraction might be curative, that describing my strategies for dealing with it, appraising and evaluating them, might enable me to, as it were, ‘see through them’ to understand what goes wrong. Perhaps writing on distraction will also enable some reckoning with the internal monologues that lead to the breakdown of my ever-weakening resolve to not be distracted; perhaps coming to grips with its phenomenology–the release of tension experienced by responding to a distracting stimulus, the breakdown of my inner resolve to not look away, to not procrastinate–all might help. (It is impossible to write about distraction without writing about anxiety so that little demon will presumably make an appearance.)

At the outset, I should say I find my distraction incapacitating to the extent that–without exaggeration–I can say I am terrified and made unhappy by it. I am prone to thinking I am the most distracted person in the world. (I pen these words in the hope someone will make the effort to try to convince me I’m not so, for  misery needs company.) 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.

The resultant composite sensation resembles nothing as much as it does a kind of emptiness, a vacuity. Nothing has been taken in, nothing emitted. I feel merely depleted. This depletion calls out for replenishment, and thus, strategies for ‘holding down’ the restless wanderer as well. Nothing has worked yet, and by that I mean no strategy–internet fasts for instance–has shown itself to be sustainable. Perhaps the most successful behavioral modification is architectural as in physical distancing, like that present in my trips to the gym, where for a brief, intense set of moments, I can immerse myself and concentrate on physical effort. In those moments, there is genuine relief, not the empty kind experienced when switching tabs. Then, all too soon, the workout ends, I towel off and head home, already, bizarrely, anticipating the moment when I will sit back down at the scene of my perdition.

Note: In subsequent posts I hope to describe my experiences with the strategies I have tried for dealing with distraction.

Distraction, Political Activism Online, and the Neglected Physical Sphere

Frank Pasquale left a very interesting comment on my post yesterday, highlighting the political implications of the attention deficit disorder that the ‘Net facilitates and enhances. (Please read the full comment, and if you have the time, chase down the wonderful links that Pasquale provides. Ironic advice, perhaps, given the subject under discussion.)

I want to respond to the opening statement of  Pasquale’s comment:

Rather than empowering new forms of solidarity and political activism, the web may just distract us from them.

In particular, I want to do so by focusing on a kind of activism that suggests itself as a natural strategy to all too many today, that the way to be politically active, an ‘agent of change,’ is to be a ‘thought leader’: to blog, tweet, Facebook-discuss, Twitter-converse, to ‘influence the conversation’ by jumping into the online fracas, dishing out our own, assuredly-unique contribution to the mix. After all, we’re changing minds, one at time, by sending on all these links, writing all these posts, pushing and prodding information hither-n-thither, directing it in the appropriate ways to the appropriate folks. Aren’t we?

So that’s what we do, staying online as we do so, perpetuating and sustaining a set of persistent fantasies associated with the Internet. One of these is the illusion that one’s Internet audience is all there is, all that one needs to worry about. So, when we step out into physical space, away from our keyboards, our activist energies depleted, our work for the day is done. The keyboard is where I do my political work. We’re all cyber-journalists, cyber-polemicists, cyber-pamphleteers, cyber-radical presses now.

My worry about this is the converse of the fear expressed in Frank’s comment: that not just may the web distract us from ’empowering new forms of solidarity and political activism,’ it might tempt us into discharging our political batteries online. It might lead us to disdain the boring, tedious, often unrewarding forms of collective action that are still required in physical space to make political change happen: Do I really need to go for that rally when I’ve already done my bit by forwarding fifty links from the bloggers with the biggest Klout? Why bother attending activist meetings when I’m leading the conversation online?

The excessive attention paid to–and the hosannas showered on–social media tools during the Arab Spring, and indeed, protests elsewhere in the world, seem to have convinced all too many–who I suspect were already primed for such news–that physical space interactions can now be disdained in favor of social-media-capital-accumulation. All to be spent on political purchases, of course.

But this well-intended strategy goes all too wrong, all too quickly. For online is where we stay, distracted, and satisfied by retweets, forwards, link-backs, and Facebook-shares. Sure, we aren’t turned on by the ka-ching of cash registers–we are too elevated for that–but we love watching other numbers pile up. Paying too much attention to those is a diversion too, away from the grubbiness, messiness, and persistent intractability of political work in the physical sphere.

That Beehive in Your Head? That’s Just the Net Calling

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. My distraction isn’t unique, but it has its own particular flavors: I find myself visiting the same sites far too often, I have too many email accounts,I can only use one social media ‘tool’ at a time. What makes this deficit disorder intolerable is that I am simultaneously resentful and afflicted: I rage and rage against its hold on me, resolve to cut myself loose, but all too soon, stumble back to the keyboard, defeated.

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, when I was working on A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents; 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.

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 do realize, as many others have, that all of this sounds most like an incurable, pernicious addiction. But there seems something terribly banal about all of this: an inability to attend to that which is difficult and anxiety-causing is hardly a novel disease. Procrastination has been around ever since the Good Lord took all of six (or was it seven?) days to get on with creating the world. And yet, that doesn’t seem to reduce any of its personal urgency. I haven’t given up hope yet, especially as more drastic solutions offer themselves: ten-day meditation retreats, for instance. If I can stop checking email for long enough, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Note: In case you were wondering, yes, even as I wrote this post, I interrupted myself several times: to check email, switch tabs, and make myself a cup of tea. The last-mentioned brought some calming relief.