Addiction and the Internet

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sometimes posts information in bars, knowing that the people who need their help are likely to be found there. But would you send a possible alcoholic into a bar to pick up information on AA?

Monday I came to work and opened my email. Being the first workday of the month, there was an email from Human Resources about health and wellness. The topic of the month is Internet addiction. The email included a link to read more information about Internet addiction, and that link led, of course, to the Internet.

So what about it, my WordPress friends? How many of us could be described as Internet addicts? Do we think about the Internet all the time, even when we are not using it? Do we resent things like work and meals and sleep because they require time away from the Internet? Has our use of the Internet caused damage to our relationships, our careers, or other important aspects of our personal lives?

I generally frame WordPress posts or responses to posts while I am off the Internet, whether driving or showering or mowing. That is less an indication of Internet addiction than it is a writer’s standard procedure for creating effective writing.

If I am addicted to any sites on the Internet, I am addicted to Sudoku and Nonograms. But that is more an addiction to games than to the Internet per se. If I had a hand-held version of either game, or a paper version, I would play just as intensely as I do on the Internet.

I cannot think of any way that the Internet has damaged my personal relationships. I might check WordPress or Facebook while at work, or sneak in a quick game. But when one logs onto Facebook and sees that one’s supervisor is posting while at work, it hardly seems worth worrying about getting caught.

If anything, I have gained important relationships through the Internet. Not through Facebook—I got a Facebook account mostly to spy on my children, and I have never approved a friend on Facebook whom I do not already know. My WordPress community, on the other hand, has become very important to me. I value my online friends and their ideas and interests as much as I value those of people I know in person. Moreover, I take attacks upon my WordPress friends as personally as I take attacks on people I know in person.

Gains and losses both come from making friends over the Internet. Some people pretend online to be someone they are not. At the same time, communities form sheltered existences where people can reinforce one another’s opinions and viewpoints, no matter how peculiar and uninformed those opinions and viewpoints might be. Trolls roam the Internet, looking for victims to verbally abuse. Internet addiction is real, and it can damage lives and relationships. This Wednesday I walked into a room and saw five members of my family sitting, each using a device, not interacting with one another at all—and this included family members who had traveled from other states to spend special holiday time with their family.

This summer, for several reasons, I have had less time to spend on WordPress and other social media. I am copy-editing a book for a publishing company and putting together another book of my own writing for publication through CreateSpace. At work I am filling in for other people who have taken vacations. I am also playing nonograms a lot more than I should. As a result, I missed some of the news that some of you have shared in the past couple weeks, catching up days later. I sincerely hope I have offended no one by my lack of response to their posts.

But what of it, my Internet friends? Are you concerned about Internet addiction and its effects on your life? Or do you feel safe and secure in your use of the Internet? J.

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Sugar: the spice that changed history–part four

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor; I don’t even play one on TV. I am not qualified to give advice about nutrition or other medical matters. The following is historical information for educational purposes only.

For most of history, nutritional problems have been caused by deficiencies, not by excess. The number of wealthy people capable of overeating has always been far smaller than the number of people facing starvation or malnutrition.

The human body is designed to crave certain necessary foods that are rare in nature. The body needs a certain amount of salt to maintain good health–a completely salt-free diet can lead to difficulty thinking, nausea, muscular cramps or weakness, fainting, and even seizures and coma. Carbohydrates are necessary to fuel the cells of the body. Therefore, most people crave salty foods and sweet foods. In a land in which most sugars are contained in fruits and honey, overdosing on sugar is difficult to accomplish.

The food industry has changed all that. Now sweet foods and salty foods are easily obtainable for meals and for snacks. Makers of our food have no nefarious schemes to damage people’s health. They merely want to make money by giving people what we want. Since we want sweet food, many companies exist for the sole purpose of making sweet food and selling it to us. Control over what we eat belongs to each of us (and, in the case of children, to their parents). Expecting corporations (or the government) to exercise that control on our behalf is just silly.

After the middle of the twentieth century, doctors and nutritionists began recommending a decrease of the consumption of sugar. The only disease directly caused by sugar is tooth decay–even diabetes is a fault in the body making it unable to process sugar; diabetes is not caused by sugar. Yet people who regularly consume more calories than they burn are prone to a number of health problems, and reducing the use of sugar is one of the easiest ways to reduce calories in a person’s diet.

Corporate inventors created several artificial sweeteners during the twentieth century. These sweeteners have no calories, but they still make food taste sweeter. No artificial sweetener is made available to the public before it is thoroughly tested to ensure that it will not cause health problems. However, replacing sugar with a calorie-free chemical does not, by itself, mitigate all the problems that are blamed on sugar.

Recent studies demonstrate that sugar is an addictive drug. It stimulates the same portion of the brain that is stimulated by addictive behavior–gambling, for example. Sugar quickly enters the bloodstream when it is consumed, giving the brain a happy stimulation; four hours later, the brain wants another jolt. People with personalities prone to addiction find sugar far easier to acquire than controlled or banned drugs. Artificial sweeteners stimulate the brain the same way sugar does, producing the same results.

Given the power sugar has over individuals, the power it has exercised over politics and government is unsurprising. Sugar motivated explorers and investors five hundred years ago. Sugar persuaded people to buy and sell other people as slaves. Sugar remains heavily involved in the world economy today. Sweet foods and beverages are constantly advertised on every form of media. Sugary products are packaged in bright, attractive boxes and bags. What would television be like without Tony the Tiger, Cap’n Crunch, the Trix rabbit, or the Lucky Charms leprechaun? What if Santa Claus did not always wear a red suit (inspired by Coca Cola)? For that matter, who would teach the world to sing in perfect harmony?

Like it or hate it, sugar is too much with us. Late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! J.

The spice that changed history–part one

Since early times people have been gathering and using spices and herbs. They make food taste better (and sometimes they hide the taste of spoiling food), but spices can also preserve food, or be used as medicines, or as perfumes, or in potions and salves and ointments. Merchants liked to deal in spices because they are incredibly efficient as merchandise. They are easy to transport and possess a large density of value, whether measured by weight or by volume.

The spice trade—and one spice in particular—helped to shape the history of the world. The Persian Empire built and maintained roads for government messengers and for their army, but these roads were also used by merchants traveling across the Empire from India to Egypt or Greece and back again. India, China, and Rome all imitated the Persian system of roads; the result was an intricate system of travel ways (some involving rivers or coastlines) called the Silk Road. Italian glass was sold in China two thousand years ago, and Chinese silk was sold in Rome. Anything that could be bought and sold traveled along the Silk Road—precious metals, gems, artwork, fabric, fruits, vegetables, animals, and slaves. Spices were an important part of this vast economy which linked three continents and would eventually shape two more.

The most prized spice that traveled the Silk Road was made from a plant indigenous to the islands of Indonesia. Indian travelers brought this spice west, selling it in India and also in Arabia. Europeans first encountered this spice when they traveled to Asia for the Crusades, and it rapidly became popular in Europe. Italian investors tried to raise this spice on islands in the Mediterranean Sea, but the climate was too temperate for this plant. By the 1400s, as Portuguese explorers traveled along the coast of Africa, they found uninhabited islands of the coast that were ideal for this Indonesian spice. Soon the Portuguese had a booming business raising and selling this popular spice, enriching the nation and making further travel possible.

If you search through your spice rack, looking for this particular spice, you will not find it there. This popular spice is not pepper, or cinnamon, or nutmeg, or cloves. Nor is it ginger or mustard. The name of this spice, so desperately wanted in Europe centuries ago, is sugar.

Of course now sugar is treated as a staple, sold in five pound bags like flour rather than in tiny jars or cans. Yet sugar is indeed a spice and was treated as a spice by merchants and by governments that taxed products when they were bought and sold. Europeans were familiar with other sweeteners, such as honey, but cane sugar appealed to the European sweet tooth. This addiction to sugar changed the history of the planet, as I will describe in coming posts. J.

Coffee

In my life I have participated in most of the legal substance-abuse vices, with the exception of tobacco. I’ve been around smokers frequently, but I’ve not been interested in smoking. Some other time I might address the abuse of sugar, salt, and oils, but today I want to write about coffee.

My parents had the habit of drinking a cup of coffee with each meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They drank it black–no sugar, no milk or cream. As a child, I didn’t like the smell of coffee and didn’t want to drink coffee. Even when I went to college, coffee held no appeal for me.

That changed my last year of college. I took a course in art history which met three afternoons a week, right after lunch. The professor turned off the lights and showed slides of paintings and sculptures on the wall. He had a quiet, monotone voice. His quizzes were very difficult. To keep awake in class, I started drinking coffee with my lunch those three days of the week.

By the time I started graduate school, I was in the habit of drinking coffee every day. During my internship, I even learned to drink Cuban espresso, which absolutely requires a lot of sugar because it is so bitter. Also during my internship, I learned that drinking a cup of coffee during Wednesday night Bible class was a bad idea. I was often awake for hours after Bible class, until I learned to stop drinking coffee that late in the day.

When I graduated and started working a steady job, I had one day off each week. After a couple of months, I began to wonder why I always had a headache by lunchtime on my day off. I finally realized that my headache was a symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Rather than giving up on coffee the other six days of the week, I started drinking coffee on my day off as well, and the headaches went away.

My habit became two cups of coffee a day: one with breakfast and the other with lunch. Most of the time I drink it black. On hot summer days, I sometimes prepare a cup of iced coffee, which includes sugar. On some winter days, I treat myself to a mocha, stirring a package of hot chocolate mix into a cup of coffee. I always fix my coffee at home, because I do not want to pay the coffee shop prices to soothe my addiction. I have been careful not to have coffee in the mid-afternoon or evening, because I want to be able to sleep at night.

This was not a scientific study with proper controls, but I have played video games while mildly intoxicated with alcohol, and I have played the same games while “buzzed” with caffeine. In matters of coordination and in matters of judgment, I found that caffeine created more problems for me than alcohol.

Over the years, I have given up alcohol for Lent, and I have given up caffeine for Lent. I found caffeine to be the harder substance from which to fast. Withdrawal symptoms, the desire for a drink, and the rush to return to the substance when Easter arrived all were stronger for coffee than for alcoholic beverages.

My doctor suggested that I cut my coffee drinking in half to help control my blood pressure. At first I resisted his advice, but after I was diagnosed with anxiety, I was willing to cut back to one cup a day. I still drink a mug of coffee after breakfast before I leave for work.

Some web sites list the dangers of caffeine, while others insist that caffeine is safe except in extremely high doses. Some mornings I savor my cup of coffee, while other mornings I worry about my addiction to caffeine. I sympathize with people who struggle with addictions, because I know how powerful my own addiction is in my life. J.

A day without coffee

A day without coffee is like… well, I’m not entirely sure what it’s like. I’ve had so few days without coffee recently, I don’t remember what they are like.

When I was growing up, my parents drank coffee with every meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes in the summer they’d switch to iced tea with lunch and dinner, but otherwise, the coffee was always there. As a child I didn’t care much for the smell of coffee. I didn’t hate it; I simply didn’t think I’d enjoy drinking it. As a result, I had very little coffee throughout my formative years.

My last year of college, I took an elective class in art history. The class met after lunch, and the professor’s voice was calm and soothing. He turned off the lights and showed pictures of important pieces of art. His quizzes were hard. I tried everything to keep awake in class—grounding the heel of one foot into the top of my other foot, clenching my fists to drive my fingernails into my palms, even answering the occasional questions the professor asked. Nothing worked. Out of desperation, I began drinking coffee with my lunch, and I managed to survive the class and even earn an A.

Over the following years I drank coffee sporadically, until finally I arrived at a full-time job with an actual day off each week. The day off happened to be Monday. After a few weeks, I wondered why every Monday, by lunchtime, I developed a headache that didn’t go away for the rest of the day. I should have been more relaxed on Mondays—I shouldn’t have been getting headaches. The only difference, I found, was that on Mondays, being off of work, I wasn’t drinking any coffee.

From that time on, I became a regular coffee drinker, two mugs of coffee every day, seven days a week. I didn’t dare have coffee after early afternoon, or it would interfere with my sleep. (I learned that during my internship, when I would drink coffee during Wednesday night Bible class and then be awake until the early hours of the morning.) Generally I drank one mug of coffee with breakfast and another with lunch. If I was at a meeting and had coffee there, I skipped the lunchtime coffee.

Twice, I gave up coffee as a Lenten fast. Both times, I wisely tapered off the strength of my coffee during the month before Lent to reduce withdrawal symptoms. Both times, I found myself returning to my coffee habit as soon as Easter arrived.

Two years ago my doctor suggested that I reduce my coffee intake to see if that would help control my blood pressure and my anxiety. Since I began taking medication to control anxiety at the same time, it’s hard to say if drinking only one mug of coffee a day makes a difference in the way I feel. There’s no sense paying a doctor and refusing to follow the doctor’s advice, though, so for two years I have had but one mug of coffee each day.

I’ve not learned yet how to brew just one mug of coffee. Generally I brew about two-thirds of a pot, drink the fresh coffee that day, the day-old coffee the next day, and the two-day-old coffee the third day. Microwaves make that very easy to accomplish. I’ve learned not to make a full pot of coffee and try for the fourth day. Especially during the heat and humidity of summer, some sort of algae or slime begins to grow in the coffee by the fourth day.

Last Friday I came home from work to an empty house—my daughters were away for a dance competition. When I began to get my supper ready, I noticed that the microwave was flashing a message at me: “Enjoy your meal.” That seemed premature, since I hadn’t yet heated my meal in the microwave. I assumed one of my daughters had heated some food and had forgotten it. (Getting ready for dance competitions can be a whirlwind experience, and sometimes things are forgotten.) No, in the microwave was my mug of coffee, forgotten since I left for work in the morning.

But what happened to my withdrawal symptoms? Driving home from work, I had felt some pressure or pain above my nose and between my eyes. I assumed that was caused by sinus problems, which I’ve been having all month. I had not been short-tempered during the day, or restless, or tired. I proposed several theories about my lack of symptoms, still not sure which of these is true:

  • My aging body is no longer as prone to addiction and withdrawal as before. Not likely, but worth considering.
  • My reduction to one mug a day has made me less likely to have withdrawal symptoms when I miss my morning coffee.
  • The medicine I’m taking for anxiety blocks symptoms of coffee withdrawal.
  • Something at work is so pleasant and distracting that withdrawal symptoms from coffee had no chance of getting my attention.

Whatever the reason, I made it to suppertime without my daily coffee. On the other hand, as soon as I found the cup of coffee in the microwave, my headache became worse. I finished the coffee while I warmed my supper, not knowing whether or not it would interfere with my sleep that night. As it happened, sleep came slower than usual, and I was on the point of turning on the light and reading some more (even though it was after midnight) when I finally drifted off to sleep. J.

Habit, addiction, and OCD

When I woke up this morning, I thought it was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. A little later, I learned that it was actually Groundhog Day, arriving more than a week later than the calendar promised. What, you may ask, does that have to do with habit or addiction or OCD? Bear with me, and I will arrive at those topics.

My morning routine is fairly set. I wake up to the sound of music. I brush my teeth. I take a shower and dry myself. I comb my hair. I take five pills: one for blood pressure, one for pain, one for allergies, and two for anxiety. I always take them in the same order. I put on my clothes in the bathroom. I leave the bathroom, grab a pair of socks and a pair of shoes, and sit down to put them on. (I put on my left sock, my left shoe, my right sock, and my right shoe, always in that order.) I unlock and open the front door to pick up the day’s newspaper. I get myself two granola bars and a glass of cranberry juice and read the paper. I drink a mug of coffee, pack my lunch, grab my badge, and drive to work. Aside from a few uninteresting details, that describes nearly every morning, except that on Sundays I drive to church instead.

When I read the newspaper, I start with the two comics hidden on the second page of the want ads section. Then I start with the front page of the paper and work my way through to the other comics. It appeared that this morning the newspaper had reprinted yesterday’s comics among the want ads, which has happened a few times before. But when I got to the front page, the first two articles seemed strangely familiar. Finally I checked the date of the newspaper, and it said February 11. Sure enough, the delivery person had left a day-old newspaper on my doorstep this morning. (Hence the Groundhog Day reference.)

Clearly I am a creature of habit, following the same routine every single morning. Some people might accuse me of being obsessive/compulsive. My therapist and I agree that I have some obsessive/compulsive tendencies, but we also agree that I do not have a disorder—I am not OCD. My reaction to having the wrong newspaper this morning was humor, not fear or dread. I don’t like it if something throws my routine out of order, but I don’t let it ruin my day. If for some reason I was to put on my right sock before my left sock, I would not expect terrible things to happen the rest of the morning.

Having some obsessive and compulsive tendencies actually helps me through the day. My badge has a magnetic card attached to it that opens certain doors at my workplace, including the room where I do most of my work. When I stand up from my desk to go somewhere else in the building, I always touch my badge before I leave the room. As a result, I have never left my magnetic card behind, locking me out of the room. When driving to work, I check the seat next to me once, or sometimes twice, to make sure that I have not forgotten my badge or my lunch. When I park my car and turn off the engine, I always check to make sure the headlights are off. I always lock the car door, but I always hold my keys in my hand before I close the door.

Some of my OC tendencies are not so useful. Driving to work from home or driving home from work, I observe the other cars, hoping to spot at least one car of each of the following colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, reddish orange, yellowish orange, yellowish green, bluish green, bluish purple, reddish purple, white, light gray, dark gray, and black. Pink and brown are bonus colors. I do not expect anything good to happen if I see cars of all sixteen colors. I do not expect anything bad to happen if I do not see all sixteen colors. I just have the habit of looking for all sixteen colors, and even when I try not to notice the colors of the other cars, sooner or later I start keeping track of what I have seen.

In my personal library I have a fascinating and useful book, Addiction & Grace, written by Gerald G. May and published in 1989. Dr. May writes about chemical addictions, but his more interesting observations describe behavioral addictions. The difference between a habit and a behavioral addiction is small but important: someone with a behavioral addiction is so attached to that behavior that he or she has symptoms of withdrawal when that behavior is prevented. One of Dr. May’s examples is reading the morning newspaper. If the newspaper is not delivered, an addicted person would be upset, possibly angry, because of the missing newspaper.

Dr. May suggests that people generally have about five addictions, most of which they do not notice. If you can “go with the flow” when your usual behavior is prevented, then you are not addicted to it; but if a change in circumstances makes you badly upset, you probably have an addiction.

Many other interesting things are in the book, but the interesting application today is for me to observe my reaction to receiving the wrong newspaper. I was amused and not angry; I call the newspaper to report the error, and they promised to send a copy of today’s paper. The deliverer was at the house fifteen minutes later with a newspaper and an apology. Meanwhile, I had eaten my breakfast and drank my coffee without a newspaper, and it didn’t bother me at all.

I will continue to follow most of my habits, both those that are useful and those that provide no benefit at all. Having a break in the routine is good for me, though, if only to confirm that I am not OCD or addicted to my morning newspaper. Just don’t try to stand between me and my morning coffee. J.