Thursday, May 9, 2013

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Hi, my name is Karen . . . I recently made it 3 days without a Diet Coke. 

This may not seem a significant achievement for many of you, but Diet Coke is the absolute bane of my existence.  I'm a hard core addict.   I have a collection of international Diet Coke cans.  I have one that I brought back from Italy. Then when I went to visit my sister in Germany, one of the highlights of the trip was a jaunt into France (!!!!!) where my brother in law found me a French Diet Coke to keep my German Diet Coke company on the trip back to the states.
This is what 4000 gallons looks like. 
  I started drinking Diet Coke in college.  Since then, I figure I have probably averaged about 2 of them a day for the past 20 years.  Now, this is a rough estimate, but I imagine that my unrestrained intake in the earlier years is compensated for by the "one a day" years.  I feel fairly confident in the realization that I have consumed close to 4,000 gallons of the stuff.  Holy Cow. 

Last week, (ok 3 weeks ago now, since I got sidetracked from my blogging) I attended a lecture given by Bill Kelley of Dartmouth University entitled "How the Brain Forms New Habits:  Why Willpower isn't Enough" or something like that.  I commented to my colleague as I sipped my post-lunch Diet Coke that no doubt by the end of the day I would have all the tools I needed to kick the habit, and so he should take a picture of my very last Diet Coke.  He's a psychologist.  He didn't take a picture.  I did learn more about him in the few minutes we chatted during the breaks than I have in 13 years of sharing office space, which I find fascinating. 

During this lecture, I learned several things:
First, I have learned a lot about neuropsychology in the last couple of years.  I remember vividly attending a lecture with Dr. John Arden a few years back and taking (not kidding) over 40 pages of notes. I just love this stuff.  It was kind of neat to recognize a lot of the information presented last week as "stuff I already know." 

Yay pairing Diet Coke with strong
man hands.  No that doesn't strengthen
the connection at all.
More important, I learned about the workings of Dopamine as a chemical motivator in the brain, and its role in the formation of habits.  I learned that Dopamine has nothing to do with how much you like something, but rather with how rewarding it is to your system.  Rewarding doesn't always mean "YAY THAT MAKES ME FEEL GREAT!" either.  It is rewarding, for example, when my kids turn the Wii on, and it makes that crazy dinging sound at an amazingly loud volume no matter what the actual volume of the TV is.  I holler "TURN THAT THING DOWN!!!" which I don't think they really have to do but they appease me anyway and the dinging stops.  That's rewarding.  The same way that Pavlov's dog salivated to the ringing of a bell once upon a time.  The cue (the bell) has nothing to do with the response (salivation).  But drool the dog did. 

Strategy:  Stop calling it Diet Coke and
start calling it by its given name.
So, the first time you experience something, and it's rewarding, you get a little bump of Dopamine in your brain that says "ooh.  do that again."  From then on, the dopamine bump comes from the CUE - just the THOUGHT of Diet Coke makes me want to do it again.  Then for extra added fun, consider this:  dopamine production is of course the common denominator in all drugs of addiction . . . including sugar and caffeine.  So your brain says "ooh.  do that EVEN MORE."  It doesn't even matter if you enjoyed it.  The chemical reaction taking place without your conscious knowledge or permission strengthens the habit.

Oh.  And in writing this article I found a blurb that part of the chemical reaction in processing phenylwhateveritisamine creates L-Tyrosine . . . which is a vitamin you can BUY that's supposed to help with stress.  So I get the dopamine bump with the cue.  And another dopamine bump with the caffeine and sugar.  Then until today I've always thought that "Diet Coke makes me feel less stressed" was all in my head.  It's not.  It's the triple threat.  Unfortunately, I have this pesky obsession with healthy living, and don't want to live my life from one chemical to another.  How come broccoli can't do all that stuff right that very instant??? 

So I get cues . . . like . . . morning.  Gas stations.  Eating food.  Being tired at work.  Driving.  All of which have been associated in my little brain at some point with the amazing deliciousness of Diet Coke.  Which no doubt in addition to caffeine and "sugar free" sugar which my body reads as REEEEEEEEEAALLY sweet sugar, contains traces of crack.  All of which stimulate the production of Dopamine. 

No wonder it's so hard to give the stuff up.  I once asked my amazing therapist if she could hypnotize me to believe that Diet Coke was really disgusting.  Like dog poop.  She said no. 

So we're back to will power.  I KNOW my goal is to ingest less and less of this nasty stuff.  None would be AWESOME.  I've tried setting rules for myself, like I can only have Diet Coke on Fridays, or only when I go through the drive through when I'm in a hurry.  I don't keep it at home.  Ever.  If I am at home and want one, I have to put on shoes, load up my kids, and drive "in to town" to get one.  This is a deterrent, but sometimes not enough of one. 

I do ok for a couple of days.  I carefully monitor my self-talk and support myself in driving to work without stopping to buy one.  I set myself up for success by making a wonderful jug of hot tea before I leave the house, so I have something to drink on the way in to work. 

But then life kicks in.  Sometimes I'm tired.  And the reality is, when I'm sitting in my office seeing client after client after client after client . . . my brain gets a little fuzzy and a Diet Coke honestly does help.  So I try substituting.  Coffee, tea, even tried caffeine pills.  But sometimes I want something a little sweet . . . so I keep fruit in the office. 

All this stuff takes effort.  And when I'm already depleted because I didn't get enough sleep, and my kids were hellac  - shall we say less than cooperative - that morning, and I'm swamped with trying to be the kind of therapist I want to be to both the clients IN my office and the ones who are having an unscheduled rotten day and need some extra support . . . sometimes it's just easier to stop at the gas station and give myself a treat that takes zero effort, makes me feel GREAT within minutes, and is an opportunity to say YES to myself when the NO list piles up too high.  And my addiction is back on in full force.  Let me just say out loud that as I listen to my "addict" clients, it has not escaped me that their behaviors around their substance of choice are NO different than my behaviors around Diet Coke and chocolate. 

So what am I going to do about this? 
    Strategy:  post this picture on the mirror in my bathroom. 
    And the dash in my car.
    And my office.
    Heck.  Maybe a tattoo. 
  1. IDENTIFY what my body is trying to tell me with the craving.  For example, craving chocolate can be a sign of magnesium deficiency.  Pretty sure craving Diet Coke is a sign of a sleep and rest deficiency.  I have a bottle of L-Tyrosine at home.  I'm going to start actually taking this supplement and see if my Diet Coke cravings diminish. 
  2. PRACTICE the positive behavior I want to do:  I will start picturing NOT drinking a Diet Coke, and pairing it in my mind with things like a healthy pancreas, healthy body, healthy life.  When I DON'T drink one, pat myself on the back and say "Look At YOU!!!"Now if I could just figure out how to make man hands a part of that visualization . . .  but I digress.
  3. SUBSTITUTE for the habitual behavior: I will continue make tea for myself so I have something to drink in the car.
  4. SAY YES:  I will give my body what it's asking for in healthier ways instead of creating more deprivation:  I'm going to nurture myself in other ways whenever I can so I don't feel so depleted.  At work, if I reallly am struggling, getting caffeine and a little something sweet from a healthier source.  Coffee has way fewer chemicals than Diet Coke, and I like it kindof watered down.
  5. BREAK the habit:  I'm going to white-knuckle it past the gas station and tell myself all the reasons I don't need a Diet Coke and remind myself that I won't still be craving it in 5 minutes. 
  6. REWARD myself for successes AT LEAST as much as I beat myself up for "failures."  I'm going to congratulate myself for making it 3 days before I relapsed. 
  7. REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS for progress:  I'm going to recognize that kicking a habit is HARD, whether it is smoking, Diet Coke, stress eating, exercise or crack - and I'm tired.  I have a more than full time job and 2 amazing more than full time kids.  Not that "falling off the wagon" after 3 days is acceptable, but it is better than never getting on the wagon in the first place. 
And yes, I drank a Diet Coke while writing this.