How I Stopped Drinking Part 2: Structural Tension
Did I have a drinking problem? That depends…
If I lived in Ireland, they’d say no. In other places I’ve lived, like California, they’d say yes… I grew up in the winemaking region of South Africa, which I peg about half way between the two.
It’s not about how much you drink but how you feel about it.
Did I have a problem with my drinking? Yes. My friends who all drank the same experienced no internal conflict. My problem was I loved waking up early and I loved being in nature but my drinking meant that I almost never did. It felt like I was living two different lives. I put a lot of energy into trying to stop drinking. The tension was unsettling and I tried to re-solve and lessen that too which, in turn, perpetuated it.
Robert Fritz’s concept of Structural Tension is a perfect framework to understand this all through. It also explains why, when I did stop, everything became easy: Imagine yourself standing between two points, with a rubber band connecting you to each, equally.
On the left is what you believe, your views, your identity around something - conscious or not. You are in the middle. On right is a where you want to go.
In this example, the left is my identity as a drinker and what I believe about drinking and myself. In the middle is me trying to stop. On the right is the vision I have of me as a non-drinker.
The common idea is to use exertion, effort, force or willpower to get to the right, to close that gap.
But look what happens to the tension as I move to right: firstly, there is more tension now pulling me back. Secondly, as I progress towards a fixed goal, there is less resistance to it.
Swop this out with any of the common goals you have ticking over in the back of your mind and you’ll understand how things like yo-yo dieting and binge-drinking are exacerbated when people try stop. They use force… They get close… They rebound back... They are disheartened. Repeat.
The two points feel real but they are only real to you. They are not a truth like gravity that is experienced identically by everyone. The points rely on you believing them, or better put, are a reflection of your beliefs. What is true is you, in the middle.
With this in mind, how do you solve the desire to move forward? For starters, you don’t use effort. Moving yourself with effort towards something finite creates limited results.
You created the points and assigned the values. They are subordinate to you. If you want to move to the right without effort, and you can move the points, rather than move yourself using force, move the point on the right out… far out. Where is the tension now? And the effort?
When we are too invested in arriving at the point on the right, we try move with force or try bring it closer because we want it. Our focus should not be on tryig to move to the right, but on positioning the right out as far as possible and allowing the tension to be felt.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
I was fortunate to have this far out desire to wake up early and be in nature as often as possible in my life, even though I was never achieving it at this point. It is something larger than a fixed, finite goal like ‘not drinking.’ I can keep experiencing it and never fully grow into or reach it, but also be at peace with aiming towards it constantly. It can contain finite goals within it, like run a marathon, hit a weight target, or any other common target that people set as an end point. When you hit those targets or move closer to them the tension doesn’t diminish if there is an overarching non-finite one. The finger is still ‘pointing at the moon’, if you remember the previous article.
This deep desire for a different state was pulling me one way. It kept growing and growing, moving further to the right, and the tension was me holding onto the finite identity I had on the left still, until the white knuckle grip had to release.
Going back to where the last article left off — I stopped drinking that night at the airport in Bali and just waited, and watched.
The next morning I woke up early from the jetlag and walked around in this unknown paradise before the sun came up. Soon after, I started dating a Japanese yoga instructor who lived in the jungle and woke up very early too. There was a brief pause of rearrangement as I stepped from one space into the next and my identity I had of being a drinker shifted, but as mentioned, I had primed myself to take the leap in certain ways, as those before had also found useful. Again, consider a refresher of the previous article.
Like William James, I suspended the disbelief so the identity could be swapped out. He was priming his ego with more attractive options every single day for a year with his experiment, like a hermit crab seeing a much larger shell right next to it and moving safely across. Without the priming and securing of a new, larger shell, the crab isn’t about to release the old one.
An infinite goal on the right is just something that can keep on expanding, and best is if it involves direct experience. I love waking up in the morning and being in nature more than I love drinking.
I tried to attend a few AA meetings when I got back from Bali. I could not relate when people talked about missing alcohol. The longer I have not drunk, the less I am invested in the identity of not drinking, but also of being a ‘non-drinker.’ This is counter to the way it is handled in the AA. The longer you are sober for, the more of an achievement it is regarded as. ‘The longer you are sober’ looks like the second image of structural tension, above. The tension is on celebrating not doing something. You’re moving towards it with effort again.
My tension is pulling me. I’ m not sure if there is also tension to the left — maybe sometimes if I smell crisp white wine in hot weather. The point is not to try get rid of that or banish it into the shadows at all.
An infinite identity on the right is a larger space. It is what William James and everyone in the previous article was searching for: dis-covery.
I feel like Rumi predated Fritz’s model with, “let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you love.”
You change the game not by re-placing and re-covering but by dis-placing. I have done nothing to address my desire for alcohol. I did not try change the situation in any way.
This is probably the most solid through line you’ll find in any study of alchemy too. You don’t solve the problem at the level it is created.
Any process or modality that creates or works towards another finite identity will only trap you in another unique way. You cannot re-solve a problem on the level it is created on. You can move into a larger space and by doing so, the nature of the problem will change. I knew if I mastered the rules/path/way of the AA, I would be bound to it. I did however trace the origins of what they are trying to talk to, and applied those rather, in my own way, as did Bill W too.
The next article will talk to this. I hope you have realised, as I did eventually, this has nothing to do with alcohol anymore.
The very problem I had with my drinking is what catapulted me out of it — that tension — and allowing it to be felt. A lot of modalities address and try soften that tension, which only delays the journey. You feel good for a moment. You go to AA and see people who also miss drinking. They give you comfort. This is almost always re-placing. As a short term plan it can have merits but mostly we use it as a way to ignore the tension that can set us free. My personal opinion is if you’re going to meetings 20 years later, collecting all the badges and handing out the pamphlets, you’ve stopped at the finger pointing at the moon. It is not the moon. Keep going.
All these articles advocate creating your own path. By implication, if you disagree with this standpoint, you are only arguing for it. I do not suggest you disregard AA, have a burning desire to wake up early, become obsessed with William James and Basho, and fly to Bali after taking an hallucinagenic.
“When you’re on a journey and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you’ve realized that the real end is the journey.”
-Karlfried Graf Durckheim