Addictions and how easy / hard they are to break

My terrible secret is that I used to be a heavy smoker. It happens to a lot of us. In the 1990s, when I started smoking, 30% of the adult population smoked. Thankfully the minority of the population that smokes is falling, fast. By 2013 it was down to 19.3%.

But when I started, it felt completely normal. And thanks to a heady mixture of peer pressure, a burning desire to rebel and nicotine, I was soon hooked. My addiction lasted around 15 years – from the time I first tried cigarettes when I was 15 or so, until just before my 30th birthday.

The break came for me pretty suddenly. On the day before Christmas Eve to be precise. I had been out the night before drinking and smoking and when I woke up in the morning I felt truly terrible. I felt – and looked – like a fat, old man. I decided to quit smoking there and then. And I never smoked another thing.

The truth is, I found it really easy. Well, certainly easier than I thought it would be. I simply despised myself and what I had become enough that I wanted to stop smoking and within a couple of weeks, I couldn’t imagine being a smoker.

It’s not just about the cigarettes

The truth is, though, that cigarettes are not my only vice. And I am struggling with a few of them right now.

I am trying to stop consuming alcohol, caffeine and sugar, because that I what is recommended for couples trying to have a baby.

Actually, the first two are the substances that I am finding the easiest to avoid. It’s simple really to not drink alcohol or caffeinated drinks. Everything containing either is clearly labelled. So I simply don’t buy or accept them when offered.

The sugar is more difficult. That – as anyone who has thought about it knows – is in everything. And I mean everything. Only yesterday I picked up what I thought was a drink made of sparkling water and fruit juice (that also contains sugar, but I’m really concerned with the added stuff). But when I looked at the label, the second biggest ingredient, after water was … [drum roll, please] … sugar! Sugar is in so many processed foods that it is almost impossible to avoid if you need to eat on the go. Or use a sauce at home. Or have cereal for breakfast. The list goes on.

And sugar is also harder to avoid because it is so damn addictive. We have a lovely, innocent phrase for it – a sweet tooth – but in reality, it is a craving that is incredibly hard to ignore. And the sugar industry, like the tobacco industry, has a huge interest in people having the biggest and most numerous sweet-teeth possible. Global sugar production in 2014/15 was 175.1 million metric tons. With sugar trading at around $530 per tonne, it’s easy to see why our sweet teeth are encouraged and catered for.

The difficulty of ‘good’ addictions

One of the other addictions that I am struggling with, is to exercise. I have realised that I am somewhat caught between my innate laziness on the one hand and the darkness that I feel when I am not exercising on the other hand. As with addictive substances, exercise has the ability to make me feel great when I am doing it and miserable (guilty, depressed, worthless) when I am not. I’m addicted to the feeling of becoming fitter and – as an endurance sports fan – faster, stronger and capable of enduring longer. When my fitness is deteriorating, I feel as equally miserable as I feel high when I am training or racing.

Of course, apart from those at the very extreme end of the scale, an addiction to exercise is considered to be a good thing. Certainly my finding running meant that I replaced nicotine with endorphines and never felt the desire to go back. But when I fall out of the habit of exercising and I don’t manage to do it for a while, the downer that I feel can be pretty powerful.

The other addiction – perhaps this one could be called a compulsion – is the development of Freestak and Like the Wind magazine. I think that the hook here is that I see such huge potential in both of them and it frustrates me beyond reason when I feel as though the potential is not being fulfilled. Or at least striven for. That is why I find myself checking emails last thing before I turn the lights out and five hours later when my eyes fly open at the though that there is something I should be doing to drive the businesses on. I don’t appear to be able to switch off and at the same time, I am making myself too stressed out and tired to be as effective as I know I can be.

As with exercise, an obsession with the success of the businesses is usually considered to be a good thing. We’d probably call it being driven or passionate.

So what is the point of all this? Well, I guess I am just trying to understand what it is that drives me. I seem to get caught at times in a cycle of addiction / obsession / over-drive that means I am either incapable of leaving the thing alone that has become the object of my focus or I feel guilty for not focusing on those things. What I think I need is a more moderate approach. A middle way that means that I can do or consume the things I love in moderation, without falling into the same trap over and over again.

Wish me luck. So far my track record is poor!

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