What if Boba Fett never got paid? What if he brought Han Solo all the way back to Jabba’s palace in that slab of carbonite, maneuvered him through the hallways, and approached his client for his money, only to be greeted with indifference? What if his demand for pay was met with a reminder that no reward was necessary for doing what was right, and he’d better not make a fuss or he could find himself in trouble? How likely would he be to hunt down his next target if this became a regular occurrence?
In recovery, I’m like Boba Fett trying to change careers. Used to putting in bursts of effort for a tangible reward, I have to adapt to steadier effort without immediate gratification. Life, as a whole, is infinitely better, but to my primitive brain chemistry it’s lacking that straightforward “do this, get that” sequence that is so much a part of addiction. I still seek that instinctively, especially when I have just put effort into something. The bounty hunter in me wants her pay.
For example, I’m feeling virtuous today, and that’s not good. I’m feeling virtuous because I have successfully improved my self-care in the last couple of days: meds are back on track, food is being managed better, and I’ve even exercised. All desirable things, and there’s nothing wrong with me being pleased about them. Feeling virtuous, however, tends to lead to trouble, and I want to intercept that feeling before it goes where it tends to go.
Virtue is a bad idea when it comes to my recovery. It’s not only that it can lead to complacency or false pride; its real danger to me is the way it encourages a split view of myself. I wrote about this in Carrots of Good Intentions: the fact that when I assign virtue to behaviors it makes them other, and there is always an element of anticipating the return of the “real” version of myself. Eating healthfully, exercising, doing laundry, opening the mail or any other behavior I have trouble doing consistently gets tagged with this idea of “virtue” as opposed to just being something I do because it needs to be done.
So a part of me, rather than moving forward with plans for more good living, is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. At the same time, that bounty hunter inside me wants to be paid, a process that is likely to speed the return of the less healthful behaviors. Payment used to be in the form of drugs: I got through this family outing, so now I get to lie down and take pills. Or food: I got through the work day, so I deserve drive-through on the way home. If both of those are sidelined, the reward takes the form of something else that shuts me down or of skipping chores.
I know I’m not the only one who has felt the insanity of this thought process. I opened the mail, so as my reward I’m going to let it pile up for a week now. I lost two pounds; time for pizza! I exercised yesterday, so today I’m not giving my body a single thought. Self-sabotage and self-destructiveness, disguised as treats.
Many self-help resources recommend finding ways to reward ourselves in harmless ways. Celebrate weight loss with a new dress, not ice cream. Buy ourselves books, pamper ourselves with spa treatments. Doing nice things for ourselves is great, and as we develop healthy self-esteem it will become part of our lives. But the problem with using such things as rewards remains the same: we depend too much on them. For an addict like me, my need for them will also increase and what started out as a harmless type of reward seldom stays that way.
How do we, as people seeking to achieve and maintain change, deal with our internal bounty hunter? How do we convince Boba Fett that from now on he’s working for the greater good? How do we convince our primitive selves that life is worth living for deeper rewards; that we can reach the end of a productive day and not need to mark the accomplishment with anything that will harm us?
It’s not just about needing to grow up and leave behind our childish or selfish desires. Changing a life process, a rhythm, creates a deep feeling of disorientation. If you are like me, you may have felt it at the end of a day or after finishing a task: an aimlessness, a vague discomfort. An almost physical distillation of “now what?” that grows until you consciously or unconsciously do something to restore the status quo.
I have no easy answer to this, but I know I will grapple with it often until I do make some progress. My greatest weapon so far is being conscious of it, and writing this helps me see my bounty hunter clearly. Apparently my subconscious has chosen to dress her like Boba Fett’s hot sister: she doesn’t have that helmet, but a lot of the outfit is similar. Grimy from a long journey, eyes uncompromising, she has little patience with explanations. I suppose I’ll invite her to tea, order a guest chamber prepared and hope for the best.