There’s beauty, I hope, in vulnerability, and after finishing Marc Lewis’ The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not A Disease yesterday, I felt like writing this.
I’m not sure of what sort of audience this’ll reach, and it’s sure going to look strange for folks to jump straight from five-year old reviews of my sound program and talks on GDC 2015 into this totally personal missive / book review. But hey, this URL is my actual name, and this outlet lives on it. Where else would I talk about it?
Lots of us in game audio are, I think, survivors of depression, or at least some form of creative anxiety. This goes for creative types generally, and is likely an unsurprising thing to read. There’s a long-standing and romantic characterisation of the artist’s internal struggle, some darkness she’s got to wrestle down–or tap into–to produce truly meaningful work. We treasure the flaws of our storytellers, recognizing the stuff they’ve gone through as mirrors to our own experience.
But depression and its neurological kith and kin–anxiety, fear, self-doubt–are total motherfuckers: fair-weather friends to the artistic process, sure, but more often its antagonist. The reassurance that so many deal with it doesn’t mean a lot when you’re really in its grips.
“Nothing is a cliche when it happens to you.” – Max Payne
“That’s great,” you think, “but I’m feeling this now.” It’s real, it’s here, it’s ravenous and persistent. It’s your reality, and all you can do to stave it off is careen, bouncing down the cliffside as your internal dialogue piles on the blows: “These sounds are terrible. How’d you even get this gig? You lucked into this one, but the world’s gonna catch up, discover the truth about how garbage your work really is. You’re gonna get lapped. You’re gonna get pushed out.”
“I can submit it uncredited,” you counter. “I can do just a little more work, enough to seal the deal, and then I’ll move somewhere isolated, take a random day job, disappear. No one’ll know me. No one’ll be able to judge the work that I did. I can just hide, and I won’t disappoint anymore.”
These are real things I’ve said to myself, as recently as weeks back. I hope they don’t ring too familiar, but in case they do–you’re in the right place, and I hope this article’s interesting.
(Also, you can reach out to me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk and I’m really good at letting people know the ways in which they’re awesome. So DO IT!)
Obviously, this stuff is nonsense. Who talks to others that way? What sort of fucking monster could lay that on another human being? And yet!
Our brains are remarkably plastic. The systems that power learning and adaptation are complex in design, a self-correcting orchestra of glands, systems and neurotransmitters that knit our minds from basal clay into the personalities that make a Human Being. How our personalities–our learned characteristics–are formed is obviously a really complicated process, and look: I’m a fucking sound designer. I won’t pretend to teach you all about them, here. But I’ve just finished Marc Lewis’ “The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not A Disease”, and I think he can.
That said, lemme try my hand at a really belabored and reductive metaphor:
How We Learn, Abridged
Trying something for the first time feels like a one-man expedition into the wild, panning for gold in a series of outcomes and experiments. Once the gold rush starts, your brain starts to clear out the underbrush, build trails to the source of this new good thing. It strings markers on the landmarks along the way–“if you’re seeing this, feeling this, you’re on the right track. Here’s the path you want.” Traffic increases. It’s the quickest route to riches–why go any other way?
In response, the brain techs up your transit to match: trails become roads, roads highways without off-ramps. It upgrades trail markers to signs, to billboards. Your neurotransmitters, increasingly, have nowhere else to go. Or at least, no way they’d rather choose to go. This is the path of least resistance, and the path that works: stay on it.
We as a species owe everything to these very systems. They’re what keep us breathing, tell us not to play with fire, let us know when we’re hungry, when we’re full, when we’re in love. Through stimulus, trial and error, they align themselves eventually into fixed routes that help us do a thing again and again with increasing efficiency. They reinforce the circuits they need and prune those they don’t. This takes work away from the conscious mind and ever frees us up to consider new challenges, ’cause the old ones are solved for.
But they’re the same systems as the ones that get me depressed, make it so easy to talk myself down. As the first cues of some imagined shortcoming roll into view, my go-to response isn’t an experimental probe into ways we can fix this thing, some scenic route through my better intuition. It’s pedal down, screaming up the on-ramp of self-criticism, with little hope of changing course.
Psychological trauma like the kind described above–and worse, a million ways worse–can be really difficult to confront, especially by oneself. So for lots, the response is to try to escape it. Distract, block out, cover up, find some quick solution that rejects this reality and inserts something nicer: call a friend, talk it through; breathe deep, let it pass; go for a walk; go for a run; hit the bag for a few rounds. Have a snack. Have a smoke. Have a drink. Play games. Just get the heck out of your head for a while.
When you find something that works, another one of those learning processes fires up, and you’re more likely than not to turn to that solution the next time around. That positive feedback loop knits the brain’s motivational core and reward center ever more closely, while slowly pushing away those structures involved in considering the context and making that initial decision. As you start to intuitively learn that it feels good, the decision part of the process drops away. The familiar rhythms of wanting and getting, impulse and action move from a dazzling interplay of all the brains functions, including logic-sorting, emotional association and the envision of multiple outcomes to a blunt and exclusive duet: do and feel. Repeat.
Thereby, Lewis argues, addiction becomes another learned behavior.
My name is Luca, and I’m…
This is where I nervously begin to talk about why this book connected with me hard enough to write this article on my professional front page.
The addictions I deal with are minor in the grand scheme. I haven’t lost a job, cut off a family member, bottomed out in some Behind the Music shit. But they, as depression experienced firsthand, are the realest thing I know, and exert an awful lot of influence in their ways. When things feel bad–when I make them feel bad (see above)–escapism feels good, and I can get real used to wanting it.
Here are a few of my favorites, the classic and the hilariously personal:
- I’d sit upstairs, locked away in the games that’d propel me into the career I’ve got (at least, until this writing goes live), their stories and universes washing over my own.
- I’d slip outside for a cigarette, because I just needed to step away for a bit.
- I’d steal bits and pieces from convenience stores, playing games with their imagined camera perspective as if I were executing on some Metal Gear Solid shit–and because, I told myself, I needed to save the money.
- I’d drink. After decades of relative disinterest, some part of me awoke to alcohol, and years of barely thought-of drinks with friends shifted towards hanging with friends because we’d drink. I’d feel that happy rush of the first drink settling in and think, Man, I kinda want more of this, my brain shuffling an otherwise happy and social foreground of friends to the back. I didn’t feel like drinking early in the day because, hey, the comedown sucks–if I can drink up until I go to sleep, I don’t really need to deal with it.
- I’d get lit. Marijuana. Way easier to dip in and out of than booze–no nasty hangover, no raiding the peanut butter jar while under its throes (yet). A thrillingly conscious and fun-feeling escape that I could recover easily from, and it’s so damn easy to get now! Bless Washington. I’m thinking about heading to the dispensary as I write this, and have been putting off that inevitable decision since the weekend began.
- I’d eat, and not because I was hungry. Food, man. Food’s kinda the worst, because you can’t just stop food. A venture into exercise and Intermittent Fasting turned brought me a few years of being in the greatest shape of my life and, I was happy to find, unbounded discipline. This was the first blankly positive habit I’d ever formed. After a while, I wasn’t just exercising because I had a goal–I was driven to it, had to do it at some really basal level. It’d become part of my routine and a defining feature of who Luca was. He eats tons, but it disappears. He does pull-ups with extra weights in his backpack. He has rings in his garage! As a guy who’s only ever flung from routine to routine for a few months, I was thrilled to find that exercising, diet and health had Really Stuck. With the Intermittent Fasting, though, came a lot of association with big piles of food as an earned reward, and way more thought given towards food and meals and getting them than I’d ever really had. Where exercise had gone subliminal, food’d come to the forefront, and seemed always to be at odds with my drive to get fit, especially as I leaned out. In one determined surge towards a long-time health goal–the elusive six-pack–I dipped under 10% body fat some time late last year, the leanest I’d ever been–until body chemistry and anxiety snapped me the hell back. Out with that bullshit, monastic lifestyle and deprivation, in with the peanut butter and comfort eating and all the stuff I wanted. An apple before bedtime because two apples, two apples and a Quest bar, waking up in the middle of the night to head downstairs to forage. This still happens pretty much nightly, so sorry in advance, Topher, for the crunching you’ll hear in the hostel in a few weeks.
- Let’s not even get into my salads. If you’ve met me, you know. They are a thing.
Why bother laying all this out?
Because the words “addict” and “addiction” are loaded labels. When you say those terms, you probably don’t think of me, or you, or anyone you actually know who’s ever struggled–you think of the down-and-out, Made for TV version of an addict. Someone who’s fucked up, lost control, probably needs to check in to somewhere. Someone diseased. Maybe they’re homeless, maybe they’re divorced; they probably aren’t someone you want to work or live with.
But if addiction can be thought of as just one particularly sticky outcome of this natural, human learning process, it becomes tougher to think of an ‘addict’ that way. It softens your worldview and invites compassion. If you’ve been branding yourself in such a way, that’s compassion that’s sorely needed.
Like I said, none of this stuff’s really that bad. Your creative situation on your worst days is truly not that bad. Seeing it laid so nakedly in a WordPress box here will help you realize that.
But when your image of yourself and all you feel you’ve got to stand on is things that these habits are sabotaging, their impacts are real: “I get paid to make great sounds / I just had a shit day, several shit days, where I’ve made nothing”; “I’m the fit guy / I binged on a ton of food I didn’t mean to, and now I feel terrible, and everyone’ll soon see I’m not that fit guy anymore”; “I’m an extrovert and at my best around people / I’m totally alone at the end of each night”.
These cycles breed shame, you escape to avoid the shame, the addiction eventually becomes both the source of and the relief from this problem you’ve created for yourself. Crazy, right?
So all of this is laid out in The Biology of Desire, which wraps with a bunch of strategies that build on this learning model of addiction to discuss the ways in which you might break it. A huge one for me was this concept of the Personal Narrative. The part of our brain responsible for making those decisions–the very one that’s severed from the impulse-reward circuits as addiction grows–plays a major role in the act of envisioning outcomes, possible futures. Things to look forward to. Reasons not to do an addicted thing. If you can’t see where you’re going, you won’t find a reason to move forwards.
An opportunity came earlier this week that got me thinking about me and what’s next for the first time in a while, and that process opened up a lot of space for The Biology of Desire to work in and leave a mark. In pulling back and looking at the big picture–an exercise I hadn’t done in many tormented months–I started finding reasons to change these things I don’t like, goals that they’d keep me from and real reasons to cleave to my convictions. Lewis talks about this and the power of working through a Personal Narrative as a recovery strategy to bring that dorsolateral PFC back online, to re-knit it to the source, and I’ll take it.
What To Do
If any of this rings true with you, here are the first and healthiest avenues out you need to consider:
Community. In isolation, we wither. The famous Rat Park Experiments found narcotic-addled rats were likely to give the stuff up of their own volition when placed suddenly in a cage full of others. Projecting, you might ascribe this to these rats discovering some purpose greater than getting ripped off cocaine water–but at the least, it’s interesting stuff, and referenced a few times in Biology. At my lowest of low points, the last thing I usually want to do is reach out, get out, be amongst friends. But it’s the best thing for you. I attribute a lot of the shit I’ve put myself through in the last several months to an ill-fitting living situation, and can say that every weekend I’ve resolved to get in the car and just get to people, I’ve felt lots better.
Meditation and Mindfulness. This is easily an entirely new post, but suffice to say that it’s a very healthy exercise to learn to sit and be with your anxiety, recognizing it for the mess of emotions it is–and to begin looking at it as a thing that’s Not You. Meditation and mindfulness are two excellent tools towards this end. If you want a starter kit, try grabbing the Headspace app on your phone. There are a million ways in to the core of meditation and I can’t pretend to know the best ones, but the Internet’s out there as a resource.
Therapy. Do not feel stigmatized or labeled if you choose to seek professional help with this stuff (and I strongly recommend that you do). I can tell you that therapy is incredibly common amongst the personal and professional company I keep, and I think nearly everyone should give it a go. In the worst case, you’re out a few sessions’ co-payments, and you stop going. More likely, though, is that once you find a therapist who suits you, you’ll learn all about the opening chapters to your Personal Narrative and develop a much stronger grip on authoring what’s next.
Self-Care. This is the most elemental way through. Tiny, tiny rituals like, saying something nice to yourself, going to the gym, dressing nicer than normal, anything to pick your self-image up. I absolutely batter my self-worth when depression cuts loose, so when it’s dormant, it’s extremely helpful to build these walls up. Love yourself enough and you might stop finding things to hate.
So: be kind to yourself, take a little time to consider your path, and maybe read this book if it seems up your alley.
Thanks for listening–I hope you found a little value in the telling, here.
Really not sure how I’ll stop with the salads, though.