Friday, February 15, 2008

The Plastic Addictive Brain

I joined a new online book club started by a college sorority friend. The first book chosen by the club is The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) The book discusses brain plasticity, or the ability of the brain to change and adapt.

Part of my discomfort with my current self has been a general feeling of ennui, lack of motivation and wonder, and decreased desire to learn and seek out new experiences. Drive and curiosity were traits that defined the younger me, and I was worried that something had taken them away from me.

I was worried, going into this project, that any habits or addictions I have formed in my life would be impossible to break. When I was young my mother was both a smoker and a nail-biter. To cover her short nails, she began using press-on nails. Since she could not bite these off, she inadvertantly cured her nail biting habit. When one of the fake nails would fall off, she found that the real nail underneath was long and healthy and that she did not have the urge to put her fingers in her mouth. She now enjoys regular manicures and upon occasion can be heard bemoaning a broken nail.

The smoking, on the other hand, in not a habit but a powerful addiction joined to ritual and habit. As teenagers my brother and I would try to get our parents to stop smoking. Hiding the cigarettes, flushing them down the toilet, and even one year giving them the nicotine patch for Christmas. Our mother's response? "I am too old to change now. It's just who I am. "

Reading the book, and even seeing my mother disprove herself by breaking one of her two nasty habits, has given me confidence that this assertion of hers is not a forgone conclusion. My book club book shows countless examples of people who beat not only deeply set addictions, but the ability to change attitudes and perceptions and improve memory.

In the shadows of this newfound optimism is one dark note concerning addiction. Doidge mentions that there is a trigger in the brain that when switched on activates an addictive personality. Once on, it can never be turned off and the person is forevermore susceptible to addiction. Even furtive forays into addictive elements can be enough to flip this switch. Addiction is also a trait passed on genetically. It is my greatest concern that my addiction trigger has been activating, making the process of change that much more difficult. Time will tell!

Another tool in my belt

For the past week I have been trying to live my life in anticipation of this upcoming project. I know that trying to make all these changes at once will be too much, I have been trying to take small steps to get myself in a place to really tackle it. To this extent, I have done several things to proactively better my situation. Some of these are discrete tasks, but one in particular is a seemingly small item that will perhaps benefit me in the future.

I asked my boss if I could take a class in AutoCAD, which is a computer program I use for my job, but am not that proficient at. He agreed to pay for it, and I signed up. It is a three-part course at NYU's school of continuing education. I am hoping that not only will this class help me with my current job, but will be a valuable addition to my resume if I have to look for a job in the future.

The last time I decided to make a change in my life was in 2003. I was working as an Environmental Consultant for a corporation in New York City. The work I did was generally monotonous, churning out reports by the boatload. For an environmental firm, it was ridiculous how much paper I used. Anyhow, I was quickly realizing that I did not want to spend my life doing this type of work, and the options in my field within New York City seemed limited. I had enjoyed decorating my new apartment in the city, and was regretting not having pursued architecture in college. I decided that Interior Design was the next best thing. I started taking classes at FIT, in an effort to switch careers. After taking a semester's worth of classes, I began interviewing for design jobs. Eventually, I was laid off from the Engineering company. It was a blessing, as I was able to get unemployment insurance and take a job as an unpaid intern at a design-build firm.

Since that time, I have alternately worked for design firms or as a waitress. I have learned so much in the past years, about design and design resources, patience in dealing with clients, and how to run (or more accurately, how NOT to run) a small business. My ultimate goal is to one day work for myself as a designer. It is a field that is open to such possibilities, assuming you have a network of willing clients. At this point, I do not. Until that time, I hope to gather up as many skills, tools, and resources as I can to best prepare me to step out on my own. Taking this AutoCAD class is just one small piece in that puzzle.

Friday, February 8, 2008


What sort of things do I need to do to get me to where I want to be in a year? Better yet, where do I want to be? Never being one to ask for help, I have never read a self-help book or seen a therapist. I don't even watch Dr. Phil. I don't know if what I am planning to do is the "right" thing, but it's the thing that makes sense to me. Thinking about what I want to accomplish, I realized that there are small tasks, large tasks, and what I am calling habits.

Small tasks are things I can do in an afternoon, such as paying bills, taking down the Christmas decorations, or putting photos in an album. These seemingly simple tasks, when not tackled, weigh on my mind and clutter my life. Large tasks take more time, but are still discrete tasks such as spring cleaning or losing five pounds.

Finally there are habits. These are the biggies. I am a task-oriented person. I love the little thrill I get by crossing off items on a list. It is my hope that by breaking these habits down into smaller tasks, they will become less intimidating. The potential downfall will be that I will be even more overwhelmed by everything I have set out before me. Time will tell. In thinking about my life, and what I want to change, the following seven areas (in alphabetical order) have come to mind.

1. Attitude
2. Drink
3. Exercise
4. Food
5. Money Management
6. Personal Presentation
7. Project Completion

Over the next seven weeks leading up to my birthday I will examine each area in depth. I want to see how each one impacts my life, what my goals are, and what needs to be done to achieve those goals.

I can tell you already that one item that will fall under number seven is this very blog. I am committing to finishing this project. I cannot guarantee that I will meet all of my goals (I have to leave something to work on for my thrity-first birthday!). But for this to have any semblance of validity, I have to at least be able, one year and 365 days (it is a leap year, after all) from now, to say that I did everything I could to make myself happy, fabulous and successful as I venture into my fourth decade of life.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Today I am two months shy of my 29th birthday. That's fourteen months away from thirty. As I careen towards the big three-oh, I have suddenly taken stock of my life. Perhaps it is the recently passed New Year, and my blatant lack of resolution. Perhaps it is the fact that the many aspects of my adult life that had been unsettled for so long are finally settling into place. Or perhaps it is the new-found maturity that comes with approaching 30 (ha!).

In any case, I realize now more than ever that am not the person I thought I would be half a lifetime ago. This in itself is not a bad thing necessarily, however I am not sure I am the person I want to be at this point in my life either. In the last six months I have started a new job; gotten married; and moved out of my Manhattan bachelorette pad to a residential neighborhood in Queens. By settling into this stable life, I have eliminated the chaos and variability that permeated the majority of my twenties.

The last time I probably felt this settled was back, that half-lifetime ago, when I was ensconced in the safety of my childhood home. The disparity of my lifestyle then and now is glaring, and brings questions racing through my mind. That fifteen year-old girl was ambitious, active and accomplished. What happened to cause me to become lazy, cynical, and under-achieving? Why am I underemployed, broke, fat, messy and careless? Sure I am happy in my new life, but could I be happier?

While out to dinner with a friend the other night, she was talking about her recent computer crash. The computer technician asked her if she had recently backed up her hard drive. She quipped that she wanted to tell him, falsely, "Yes," as one does at the dentist when he asks if you floss. It's the kind of thing you know you are supposed to do, but for some reason never get around to doing.

I found this anecdote particularly pertinent seeing as I recently went to the dentist for the first time in several years (one of the perks of getting married is the insurance!). Of course my teeth were in pretty bad shape, and I was asked that same flossing question. My answer, in an attempt at full disclosure, was, "Not as much as I should." Of course what I really meant was, "Never, unless I have a very visible and/or painful piece of food lodged in between them; and even then I may only floss between the teeth harboring said food particle."

Why is it so easy to spend hours in front of the TV or playing on the internet but so difficult to floss? In other words, why is it so hard to do the things that I know are good for me, or even the things that I used to enjoy so much? How do days, then weeks, then months pass while the same tasks linger on my mental to-do list?

Then in one crystallizing moment I decided. It’s time for a change. What better occasion than my thirtieth birthday to reveal the new and improved me? April 7, 2009 is a Tuesday. And by that day I hope to have gone from nerdy to thirty.