What a lovely response I got from my last post, I’m Asking! It helps reinforce my desire to learn more about connecting with others. I can tell some people forwarded pieces of mine, because my site views were huge and I picked up about a dozen new followers in two days. Thank you to all, and welcome to my new followers! Your masks and black robes are in the mail, but the tattoo appointments will take a little longer to set up.
Sorry, a little Harry Potter humor slipped in there. Anyway, the topic of learning to ask for things we want started me thinking about the topic of pleasure in general. Why we need it, how to get it, and why it’s so important for living in recovery and living with other conditions we have.
Take recovery, for instance. In Anhedonia, I wrote a little about how opiate addiction affects the brain’s ability to create and feel natural pleasure. Recovery from any other drugs, including alcohol, also involves “teaching” the brain, body and psyche to experience pleasure in other ways. The barriers standing in our way are biochemical, psychological, and even cultural.
What do I mean by this? Well, biochemically, I mean that in the first year or so of recovery, and most acutely in the first months, our brains are literally starved for pleasure. We’re desperate for a surge of the neurotransmitters that govern reward and pleasure, and we’ve lost the ability to get it. It’s one reason people advise avoiding romantic relationships in early recovery: when two pairs of pleasure-starved eyes meet across a crowded room, decisions made are unlikely to be well-considered.
Even as our brains begin to heal, we often find ourselves at a loss when it comes to pleasure and fun. Some people in recovery never even had an opportunity to experience fun that didn’t involve some kind of drug. Their fun activities were limited to hanging out in bars or clubs, or someone’s home. If recovery is to be sustained, it has to include new pleasures, or it will feel like a never-ending round of chores and “being good.”
Living with mental illness also requires the sustained seeking of pleasure, relaxation, and activities that speak to our brain in positive ways. We’ve all known people who can go to work, come home, watch a little TV, go to sleep, and repeat the cycle day after day with seeming contentment. Very few of us are that type of person. We might be able to do it for a little while, if we are high functioning or in a high functioning phase, but a pressure or a void builds up and we need more.
So how do we seek pleasure in healthful ways? How do we even know where to start?
The first line of attack can be social activities in recovery, if that’s our thing. Many groups do camping, dancing, softball games and other interactive things. It doesn’t hurt to try some. But don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t please you as much as it seems to please others–you might be more of an introvert, or simply have different tastes.
The second phase of this pleasure campaign, and in my opinion the most important, is to think outside the box. This is where the cultural barriers come into play. We’ve been conditioned by family, peers and the media to believe certain things about what fun is, what people having fun look like and do, what is fun for men versus what is fun for women, and many other messages.
We have to explore. Try activities that we used to think were silly or pointless, or activities that are usually associated with another gender. We also have to remember that pleasure doesn’t always need to come in the form of a class or a structured activity; it can be found in little things we do at home or at random times. Since we really have no idea what might give us pleasure, exploration is vital.
Then we have to work on wholeheartedly accepting whatever it is we find. I have learned that I like some weird, seemingly pointless and often childlike stuff. I have this huge stack of old National Geographic magazines on my table because cutting out pictures is soothing to me. I like to color with crayons. I have a tendency to burst into song when I’m most relaxed, I’ve recently learned I have a need to write bad poetry often, and for some unfathomable reason I am fascinated by Latin.
The search for pleasure is not selfish or juvenile. It’s part of our battle for a sustainable life. If we’ve ever been in a state of utter despair–if we’ve ever felt a lack of hope so deep we’re not sure it is worth going on–the memory of that should be enough motivation to try. Fear of others’ opinions need not rule us. Old messages need not define us. We don’t need a reason to like what we like: it’s not logical, and it’s not going to be. We don’t need permission to fight the darkness with unconventional tools.