Relapse and control.

When relapse happens, what can we learn from it?

It’s snowing in Chico, CA, something that has never happened for as long as I have lived here.

Sometimes I think the universe is telling me things.

Relapse and control.

I have been working on my story for a while and for the whole month of January I had a good thing going. I have a notepad that I keep all my evolving ideas on; I have a nightly routine where I sit in one of the kids’ rooms at night while they’re falling asleep (after stories and tucking them in) and work on my story. Generally I was getting about 300-1500 words every night.

Then it happened.

I relapsed.

I’m not talking about alcohol; I haven’t had a drink in about 2 years. No, this is something much worse for me. This is the relapse of control, of something that has plagued me for all of my adult life.

Projecting hopping and hyperfocus.

I am not diagnosed with ADD nor am I diagnosed with ASD but my wife swears that I have both. The more I read about the symptoms of both together in my brain the more I find myself getting really upset with myself. Not in a bad way, just in a—I don’t know, disappointed way? Disappointed that I could be so susceptible to impulses out of my control?

Judith Kolberg wrote on that because the ADHD is “motivated by the search for optimal stimulation,” it’s common for those affected to oscillate from a project you’re working on right now into another one—sometimes without you even realizing you’re doing it until you’re too exhausted to go back.


Generating ideas and seeing the potential of things produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can keep you mentally engaged when you might otherwise be unmotivated.”

It is the hallmark of an idealist that we will obsess about the future and what could be, rather than focusing on the now and what is.

This must be why I am constantly drawn away from my writing and toward things that are new, that cause me to think about new things in a new way and are refreshingly un-thought about.

Knowing that this is caused by some chemical dependency in my brain is bittersweet. On the one had I am disappointed in myself because a) I am beholden to drives that I cannot control, and b) I relapsed after all the hard work I have done.

But on the other hand, I have all the puzzles pieces in front of me to start feeling proud of myself.

It’s not about me relapsing, it’s about the fact that I recognized what I was doing and stopped myself from continuing.

It’s not about switching projects or project hopping, it’s that before I got too hyperfocused on the new thing and disengaged from the old thing I managed to stop and break the cycle.

Pain is progress.

At the risk of regurgitating the old saying we had back in the Marines—that pain is weakness leaving the body—there is growth in this pain. I am disappointed that I relapsed but proud of myself that I have caught it.

There is a fundamental truth to this life that everything exists with its opposite. In other words, the yin and yang of all things coexists to create the human experience. Maybe I had to get to a point where I became disappointed in myself to show me that I am ready to be proud of myself.

In this relapse I have discovered a capacity to stay focused on my writing—something that I didn’t know I had, that I didn’t trust I was able to exercise until now. In a way, this relapse was a good thing for me.

I am learning to trust that the value I want others to put on my writing is a value that I have to have on it myself.

I have permission to be proud of myself.

Being proud of something I have created has always been something hard for me to do. My wife once told me that it might be natural since I don’t consciously set out to make something sub-par; when someone says, “Hey this is really good,” instead of smiling and feeling good about myself, I get suspicious of myself and think, “Of course it’s good—it’s not like I was trying to make garbage over here.”

My desire to pivot to other projects can be seen at the biological level as a constant yearning for dopamine. It’s an impulsivity that has taken hold of my conscious desires and meddled with how I want to spend my time creating. Taking a step back, it’s clear to me now that my relapse is a symptom of the real problems:

  • My brain has been wired to consider anything I do worthless

  • My feelings have been wired to consider writing a fun thing which means it can’t be hard work

That it took a relapse to come to terms with this is the bittersweet realization that I needed. I’m not sure what I am going to do with it yet; maybe I’m not supposed to know.

The first step to managing a problem is being able to mention it. A counselor friend of mine once said, “If you can mention it, you can manage it.” Maybe this really is the first step on a new mountain of personal growth. I certainly hope so.

It makes sense to me that my constant project hopping is a function of my need for attention. Not attention like how one might see a social media personality living day and night by their follower and subscriber counts—nothing like that.

What I’m talking about is root psychological training that began in my childhood.

Rezzan Hussey wrote on that when children are raised by narcissists there is a laundry list of things that will have to be unlearned.

She mentions three things that we have to teach ourselves how to do:

  • Grieving for the loss of the parent figure you never had

  • Developing and accepting your own identity

  • Asking for what you need and saying ‘no’ to what you don’t

  • Avoiding overcompensating

  • Selecting secure romantic partners

It’s okay for me to recognize that I never had the parents that other, happy kids grew up with.

It’s okay for me to give myself permission to be a writer—to let that be my identity, no matter what that means. (The important part is that I am honest with myself and how I see myself).

It’s okay for me to communicate openly with what I want. I am very good at this; I believe communication is the key to good relationships. Where I need to focus my energy is in learning to say ‘no.’ I have gotten a little better in my professional life, though I can still feel the urge to jump in and save everyone whenever their projects go awry. It is in my personal relationships that I have the hardest time pushing back.

It’s okay for me to not be good at something. I don’t know why I always have to be amazing at everything. I tell myself that it’s because the human experience is so rich and wonderful that it would behoove everyone to try every form of self-expression, but the truth is I don’t think I can stomach not being the most amazing person in a room. I don’t know why.

It’s okay for me to be happy and secure with someone, and I don’t need dramatic outbursts and unmanageable emotional turmoil in my personal relationships just to replicate the conditions of my childhood. I found that in my wife; she is everything I could have ever asked for in a friend and partner, and I make sure to tell her how much I appreciate her every day.

There are many ways that I can see growth in my life. Since I stopped drinking alcohol there has been a lot of cleaning out the proverbial closet. Today is a time where I finally got a chance to look back and see just how much of this closet I’ve cleaned out.

Just because my parents were never proud of me doesn’t mean I can’t learn to be proud of myself.

Embracing my relapse as proof of growth.

It sounds counter-intuitive without context, I know, but I think considering my relapse as a test is helpful. I almost slipped painfully back into my old cyclical behavior of hyperfocusing on a project, distracting myself from what I’m currently working on, and eventually dragging myself back to my writing after being so exhausted from a dopamine-fueled multi-week bender that I have to reconsider my life and all the choices I made up to the point where I lost focus.

I’m not like that anymore. That’s what I have learned with this relapse and subsequent retaking of control.

It is a sign that I am becoming comfortable admitting to myself that writing is hard work, that by being a writer I am a hard worker—and most importantly, I write well.

I have spent so much time trying to get other people to recognize this, and just now coming to terms with this fact for myself is a new feeling for me. I have to unlearn what I learned about myself in my childhood—that I’ll never be good enough, I’ll never do something that will make my parents proud, that I don’t even know what the concept of supportive and loving parents even means.

In other words, I am giving myself permission to finally admit that my writing is hard work, that my writing is good work, and that I and I alone have the capacity to be a writer full-time.

Closing on a series finale.

I want to end this by talking about a great series finale I watched last night. The show is called Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a lighthearted comedy centered around a woman who was kidnapped and lived in a bunker for a long time, then has to rebuild herself in the world—whatever that “self” may be. Throughout the show she ends up writing a book and, during the series finale, her search for her sense of self culminates in the form of a boy who approaches her as she welcomes families onto a theme park ride based around her book. The kid says, “Your books make me feel safe,” and at that moment you can see in it ‘click’ for Kimmy.

That’s who she is. All this time it was right there. She is a writer, and writers can make a difference.

That’s who I am. All this time it has been right there. I am a writer, and writers can make a difference.


People and things I talked about.