Comfort. Comfort is necessary. Comfort is release. We seek comfort constantly – whether we are aware of it or not. Our brains are wired to equate comfort to survival, so it is the first order of priority for our subconscious, and often our conscious minds, too.
Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. A cozy sweater on a cool day. Sex. A cup of hot tea. Football in the fall. Our favorite music. Cigarettes. Social media “likes”. Sleep medication. Anxiety medication. Antidepressants. They all serve the same purpose. Above all, they bring us comfort.
As an active alcoholic, I would feel a tingling sensation at the anticipation of my first cold and bitter India pale ale. Just the knowledge that I would drink in a few hours would give me tremendous comfort as I negotiated the challenges of the day. From the first sip through about the middle of the third beer, it was as if comfort was displacing the anxiety and disappointment of the day, like pouring water into a bottle pushing out all the air. They could not coexist, and I was hardwired to know the beer would win the battle for my emotions. I didn’t drink because I wanted to. I drank for survival. For comfort.
As children, that comfort was every bit as important as it is for us as grown-ups. As children, we weren’t programed by cultural norms and an angry society to avoid natural comfort for fear of rejection and ridicule. As children, we took the shortest and straightest line to comfort. We sought the warm embrace of someone we loved. We found comfort in the answers to our many questions about the world around us. Nurturing touch. Words of love. If we were lucky, as children, we were surrounded by the things that brought us comfort.
As adults, the line separating us from comfort becomes twisted and long and difficult to navigate. Rejection, fear, troubling memories and expectations of adulthood make seeking the embrace of a loved one far more complicated than it used to be. Kind words are lost in our busy, stressful lives. Nurturing touch and loving sentiments are every bit as necessary as when we were kids, they are just hard to find and impossible to ask for. Instead, we turn to meatloaf. Or worse.
Money is also necessary for our survival. Money leads to food, shelter and things that bring us fleeting pleasure. Perhaps that is the reason we hold wealth and power in the highest regard in our society. We have no trouble brazenly seeking our financial fortunes, and we wield any power we attain over those around us with pride and a sense of entitlement. We spend so many of our waking hours earning money and status, there is almost no part of us left to develop and nurture the connections and tenderness required to bring us comfort naturally.
Instead, we convince ourselves the thing we spend all of time in pursuit of is the key to the thing we are missing. More money will surely bring us happiness. More power and status must equate to the contentment we are missing. Success! Success will surely bring us the comfort we so desperately desire and so completely require for our very survival.
We allow our lives to revolve around this concept. And it’s too bad. We spend our lives going a million miles and hour in the wrong direction.
Tiger Woods had it all. He was the most powerful athlete in the world and had more money than he could ever dream of spending. He had everything. Except comfort. So he destroyed it all – his marriage, his reputation and his competitive dominance – seeking comfort, first through wielding his power for limitless sex, then through addiction to painkillers and sleep meds. Love and tenderness were nowhere to be found. And he was crushed under the weight of the emptiness.
Whitney Houston died in a bathtub from a drug overdose. Don’t think for a minute that the opulence and pleasures of fame and fortune led her to have a little too much fun thus ending her life. Whitney Houston was so desperately devoid of the true comfort money and power can never buy that it quite literally killed her. Whitney’s husband cheated on her and left her, but not before driving her best friend away. Her father turned on her, and most of the rest of the relationships in her life were based on her fame. And she knew it. She had everything our society tells us to want. But she had none of the comfort she needed, and it killed her.
Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Chris Farley, John Belushi, Kurt Cobain and so many others reached the top of the mountain, then jumped off it to their death. It takes an incredible dedication and relentless persistence to attain the glory of transformative success. That focus and dedication leaves little time and even less talent for nurturing relationships, for comfort. Naturally occuring – developed, not purchased – genuine comfort. The tunnel-vision-tenacity that brings cultural success is so uncomfortable that it’s deadly.
I will be two years sober when the business my wife and I spent fifteen years building comes to an end in February. It took me a long time to understand and accept that I’m not a very good businessman. I make emotional decisions regardless of financial impact. I am passionate about health and nutrition, and I give my customer what I think is best for them rather than what they want. My decisions have taken a monetary toll. And while our business has suffered from my stubborn passions, it has always provided enough.
Now, as our customers learn that we are in our last six months working together, the outpouring of emotion has been unexpected and moving. Our customers have shed tears and shown deep sadness that we will no longer be part of each other’s lives. “What will you do next?” they ask. “How do you feel about moving on?” In a cold and selfish world, I have been shocked by the concern and tenderness our customers – men and women, old and young, wealthy and middle-class – have expressed for us.
As this business venture draws to a close, I am troubled with disappointment of dreams dashed and plans for financial success thwarted. But there is not enough room in the bottle for disappointment. It is being displaced by loving, nurturing human interaction. It is being displaced by comfort.
We all know the saying, “Money can’t buy happiness.” But then we get up every morning and go out into the world to make as much money as we can. Even if we choose a less lucrative career path, we exalt and admire our society’s rich and famous. The success stories. The miserable, narcissistic, ruthless, joyless, suicidal success stories.
And if we can’t find comfort in financial pursuits (either because we don’t attain financial success or because there’s no joy in our wealth), we turn to meatloaf and vodka and Ambien and affairs and sugar and wine filled afternoons and oxycodone to take away the pain. Artificial, guilt-ridden, deadly comfort.
I turned to whiskey and beer to ease my stress and fill the void. I spent all my time working toward wealth even though I wasn’t equipped to reach the goals I pursued. I lacked the energy for, and the understanding of the importance of, time spent nurturing relationships. I was uncomfortable. I learned that alcohol made that feeling go away. My survival instincts kicked in. It really is as simple and profoundly complex as that.
A lot of people think alcoholism is about a lack of willpower and getting drunk. In fact, the opposite is true. Alcoholism is about a dedication and drive to pursue the most basic of necessities: comfort. We alcoholics are exceedingly willful in our quest for comfort. And it works. Until it doesn’t.
You see, booze, the thrill of infidelity, opioids, binging on chocolate, taking pills to fall asleep, attaining wealth, wielding power, and even gorging on meatloaf – they all provide a temporary and unsatisfactory comfort replacement. We can fool our souls for a while, but eventually, our poison of choice stops working. And the consequences are often deadly.
I still have more questions than answers, but when I was drinking, my thoughts were too cloudy to even know the questions existed. I just knew I was in pain and I didn’t have the capacity to understand why.
The comfort that is so tangible and easy in an innocent and healthy childhood becomes so elusive for us as we evolve into guarded and jaded adults. We further complicate the pursuit of comfort by looking for it in all the wrong places. Tenderness is there. Connection is there. Nurturing is there for us. We just have to ask for it and work for it and give it more than we expect to receive it back. Comfort isn’t easy. But I’m willing to work for comfort because I finally understand my life just might depend on it.