Whenever we experience an unpleasant feeling, rather than going right into it and seeing it as a part of life, [we] see it as something to avoid, eliminate, or suppress. . . . [Shortcuts like pills and shopping promise] we can be new and improved. We can have a lot of gain with no pain. It is an understandable wish—who wouldn’t want that?
But the shortcuts don’t work. . . . [When we try to avoid pain] we lose the opportunity to follow the pain to the deepest part of our unconscious minds where our stories sit, spinning their magic about what does and doesn’t make us lovable, adequate, or acceptable. But it’s only when we . . . go into these deep places that we [break] free from the old, restricting narratives we have long outgrown. —Gail Saltz
Creative alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers, co-dependents, danger-seekers, and otherwise self-destructive self-soothers fill the pages of history, making it arguable that artists—as people whose perspectives can place them at odds with mainstream culture—often temper their loneliness and pain with such distractions. Here’s one of my own stories of willful distraction.
Once upon a difficult day, a friend stuck a cigarette into my mouth to help me calm down. Subsequently, I smoked for about ten years, eventually calming myself with two packs a day because most of my days were difficult. Only when I struggled with quitting did I learn to crouch quietly in a corner of my mind, watch events unfold in slowed motion, and figure out what was happening.
I discovered that while I was physically addicted to nicotine, I was emotionally addicted to distraction. Whenever I was sad or angry or uncomfortable I felt an overpowering urge to smoke. I began to understand that I couldn’t stand these emotions. When they welled up inside me I darted for the nearest exit—literally—and lit up.
Real magic, the kind practiced by wiccans, children, and other pagans, is really a matter of intentional focus. Like most religious traditions this is often accompanied by ritual objects, which are simply tools for centering attention. That’s why young magicians like Hermione and Ron use wands; it’s also why mature wizards like Dumbledore and McGonagall don’t need them. Dumbo didn’t need a feather, but it helped.
My cigarettes were a dark magic wand. I used them to focus and channel my feelings away from me, inhaling distraction and exhaling attention to anything bothering me. The longer I did this, the calmer I felt. Sure, nicotine drove some urges, but the real imperative was releasing emotions I didn’t know how to handle. Together my car, music, and cigarettes used to be an unstoppable freedom machine.
Because music was an older balm for me, I had visceral responses to hundreds of songs. Inevitably, some of my favorites were also painful emotional triggers because, as my personal soundtrack, they’d underscored difficult scenes. When I sat back and watched my quitting self, my instantaneous response to those tunes was fascinating. The moment a personally moving song began to play, I had to smoke a cigarette. IMMEDIATELY. Ask any smoker; they’ll tell you. And if you smoke, you know what I’m talking about*. The compulsion to redirect uncomfortable feelings never varied.
I see others experience this need for escapism every day.
*Reading this, a friend gives a small, half-guilty smile and exclaims, “I forgot about those—song cigarettes.”