Dear Brain: How can personal marketing help me stay clean and sober?

Dear Brain

Dear Brain,

I’ve been struggling with a drug addiction for 7 years now. I have quit several times only to find myself coming right back once I’m starting to get comfortable in my own skin again. When I read your articles I realized this is most likely what I need to get over this hump. I was finding myself writing personal messages about quitting on pieces of cardboard and placing them around the house as reminders and inspiration. Seeing this site helped me realize just how close I may have been coming to my goal only to undermine all my hardwork by relapsing once again. Currently I have been clean for 26 days and feel really pretty good, though not quite what I once was. I feel as though I am very susceptible to advertising yet I am very aware of it as well. Along with maintaining sobriety, I’m looking to deepen my spirituality, via buddhism and meditation. Any ideas or thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Seth D.

Dear Seth

I think we’re all susceptible to advertising, because we’ve been conditioned to be so our entire lives. I started experimenting with advertising to myself because I wondered if I could take advantage of that susceptibility to support my own goals. It does seem to be very effective.

It sounds like you were indeed very close with your cardboard reminders. The tips I can offer are to make sure to frame your ads as affirmative, rather than negative statements, and to include pictures if possible.

You always want to avoid using negative statements because the part of your mind that processes this stuff seems to leave those words out, which reverses the meaning. So for example a statement like “I want to quit using drugs” might get processed as “I want to use drugs”. Or “I don’t want to lose my wife and job” might turn into “I want to lose my wife and job.” Not the messages you’re looking for!

So be sure to say what you DO want. Also pictures are very, very powerful. I think they tap into an older part of our brain than language.

Keep in mind that commercial advertising always seeks to emphasize benefits, and to tailor those benefits to the target demographic. So think about what’s important to you, what you enjoy, what you love – and then shamelessly exploit how well you know yourself as you craft your persuasive messages.

I can think of several kinds of advertising messages that might be helpful:

  • Messages that affirm you’re savoring life on its own terms as a sober man, comfortable in your own skin, etc. If your drug of choice numbs you out then maybe something like, “Feeling is how I know I’m alive.”
  • Ads that promote the benefits of alternative behaviors. Show pictures of yourself enjoying new habits like going outside or exercising (fake it for the photo shoot if you have to). Those images will normalize the new you.
  • Messages and photos that remind you about the things that are precious to you, that make it all worth it. Sooner or later if an addict keeps using he will lose everything that’s important to him. What are those things for you?
  • Photos that show in advance that you’ve made it to a milestone goal. For example, if you’re participating in a 12 Step program (or even if you’re not) you may find it helpful once you’ve reached 30 days to take a picture of yourself looking happy and proud with a 90 day chip, so you can visualize how that achievement will feel. Then when you’ve reached that goal take your picture with a 1 year chip, etc. (If this suggestion violates the one-day-at-a-time rule in a way that feels problematic then please ignore it.)
  • Reminders that support your spiritual practice. For example in a recent article I wrote about a very simple mindfulness exercise I’ve been doing. It makes me feel much more centered, and the frequent reminders really help me remember to do it.

Congratulations on your 26 days, Seth. I know how tough it is to get clean and sober, and wish you much courage and patience on your journey.

Now it’s your turn

What about you? Have you ever used personal marketing to help you with a difficult personal change? What methods did you use to advertise to yourself? Did it help? Do you have any other suggestions about how Seth could use advertising to help himself stay clean and sober? Please share your advice in the comments.

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One Comment

  1. That Seattle Girl
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    It might be a little too late for this to ever reach Seth–he may have moved on from this site–but I thought I’d share a few things that have helped for me. Disclaimer: I am not, as far as I know, an actual addict. I AM–or can be–a heavy user. Here’s how I put the brakes on my habit when I think it’s too much:

    1. I make SURE I’m using because I really, really, want to. Not because I haven’t slept, or I’m anxious, or stressed out, or feeling inadequate, or hungry, or feeling un-sexy. Once I started staying away from situations that stressed me out–why go camping if I don’t like camping?–I started to lay off the mind-erasers. If you ever start thinking, “Well, I’m going to a club, so I automatically need to do (blank)”, then DON’T GO TO THE CLUB. “I’m camping, so I’d better drink my brains out so I enjoy it.” “I’m going to a book club in which I don’t respect the opinions of most of the people there, so I’ll take a taxi so I can drink a lot, so maybe it won’t be so bad.” You may not be that bad–but once I realized how many decisions I was making on a daily basis that allowed me to drink/use just so I could tolerate what I was doing, I realized I was in way over my head.

    2. In TBYB language, I found rituals that, for me, replaced the time and equipment aspects of my habit and took pictures of myself enjoying THOSE replacement rituals–long tea ceremonies, ritual dusting/sweeping, arranging tablescapes in my apartment, saving concert tickets and photos in a simple notebook. (If I couldn’t remember being there, at least I could remember to keep the memento. That served a double purpose for me, as well–“Why did I pay $45 to attend this concert just to blow my brains to oblivion and not remember it? Maybe I won’t do that again.”) Take pictures of yourself enjoying the replacement ritual and post them everywhere.

    3. Use TBYB ideas to celebrate the Every Day is a New Day philosophy. Don’t get sucked down into the guilt/shame spiral–celebrate mornings. (The hardest part of being a user, for me, is the goddamn morning.) Turn that around–celebrate it! I used pictures of me, healthy, in early-morning walks, in the sunshine, with my dog at my feet. Me, happy, holding an alarm clock. (And yes, I had to fake all these pictures.) Every day is a new day, a new chance to start over! Celebrate that!

    I’m pulling for you–nasty habits are hard to kick. Good luck.

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