Mental Health
11 min read

Resolutions: the addict’s guide to making a change

Don’t give up on giving up something. Lauren Windle explains how to arm yourself best for success.

Lauren Windle is an author, journalist, presenter and public speaker.

Three signs attached to a fence read: Don't Give Up, One Day At A Time, and Your Mistakes Don't Define You.
Road side encouragement in Lehi, Utah.
Ann Schreck on Unsplash.

I remember the talk we had on ‘giving things up’ every year in my primary school. The same doddery old vicar from a local church tottered down to tell two-hundred children what it meant to sacrifice something we enjoyed in order to feel better down the line. He explained that he could give up kippers, but that would be no sacrifice, as he didn’t even like kippers! How we laughed. 

We were young for a lesson on restraint, but down the line, it would prove to be the biggest challenge of my life. The concept is huge for 4-11-year-olds but, as adults, we all know that sacrifice comes with rewards – although many of us resist the idea. It’s very unsexy in a world of ‘you do you boo’, but the fact is, discipline is making a comeback. I read plenty of self-development, smart-thinking and spiritual books, and am gob-smacked by some of the wisdom on offer. The greatest minds of our day are now suggesting taking a full day of rest every week. They are extoling the virtues of honesty to our neural pathways. And they are encouraging fasting as a route to greater mental and physical health. This advice is so sage that it almost sounds biblical. 

The world is finally catching up with what the birthday-boy Jesus has been saying for so long. A life of prayer, meditation, bounded connection, outward-focused living, honesty, non-judgement and discipline will lead to the peace and sense of fulfilment that so often eludes us. 

We’re not so different you and I. We are all weak. We all live in a world tailored to give us short-sharp dopamine hits when our soul yearns for sustained, hard-earned rewards. 

As an active drug addict, I had none of this peace. I didn’t want it. Live fast, die young. The highest of highs faced by the lowest of lows that could be chemically rectified. My assumption was that everyone was miserable, I had just found something to get me through. If anything, I was the one who was winning. But from the cage I had built around me, there was no way to see the freedom I could be enjoying.  

It was on 22 April 2014 that I finally gave up cocaine and alcohol after handing over every good thing in my life in service to their attainment. I thought I was trading the misery of addiction for the misery of abstinence. But, what I would slowly learn was that the incredible weakness I had exhibited could be transformed into a strength of such magnitude, it exceeded any dream or hope I had for myself. I had decided to deprive myself for long-term good of my life and unlike Father Brown and his kippers, the cost would be great. 

I have a degree in neuroscience. This surprises both people I meet at dinner parties and other students who were on my course – one of which asked if I was lost on my way to beauty therapy. Since getting sober I have added a Master’s in Addiction Studies from King’s College London to my resumé and five years of heading up a recovery programme for people struggling with all sorts of addictions. I have mentored, coached and sponsored scores of people to freedom. In the process I’ve learned a thing or two about ‘giving things up’. 

The best time is right now. Before you’ve had one last ‘treat day’, one last party or one last flutter. The best time to make a change is the moment you realise you need to. 

There are two points I’d like to address before we get into the nitty gritty. Firstly, yes this is relevant to you. This isn’t an addict’s sob story where you get to voyeuristically bask in my pain before returning to your cushty life safe in the knowledge that you’ll never sink so low. Addiction is at the top end of a scale of idolatry that we all teeter on the brink of. If you think you can’t relate to my story, turn your phone off for three days and note how you feel every time you go to reach for it. We’re not so different you and I. We are all weak. We all live in a world tailored to give us short-sharp dopamine hits when our soul yearns for sustained, hard-earned rewards. We all have something we could afford to give up or moderate.  

Second, New Year’s Day is not the best day to give something up. Neither is the first day of the month, or next Monday, or even tomorrow morning. The best time is right now. Before you’ve had one last ‘treat day’, one last party or one last flutter. The best time to make a change is the moment you realise you need to. That said, I do know plenty of people who gave up smoking for Stop-tober and never looked back and there are plenty of resolutions that have resulted in lasting change. Also - we are conveniently placed at the start of a new year, so let’s strike while the iron is hot. 

If you have decided to give something up this year, here is how I, a recovering addict, believes you can arm yourself best for success.

Set clear goals 

Leave the shades of grey to E. L. James. When it comes to making a positive change in your life this is a black and white business. ‘To be on my phone less’, ‘to read more’, ‘to drink less’… these are too vague to be achievable. Instead try: ‘to turn off my phone at 9pm and not turn it back on until 9am’, ‘to go to bed half an hour earlier and read 10 pages of a book’ or ‘to only drink on two days a week and have no more than three drinks.’ 

I once worked with a woman who set herself some simple goals around food: not to eat while she was cooking, not to eat in the supermarket, not to eat in her car and not to eat in her bedroom. This is far easier to attain than just a generic diet.  

If you want to change your clear goals, you absolutely can… after a three-day cooling off period. If you want to up your drinking days to three per week, do it. But it will start next week, not this one when you’ve already drunk on Wednesday and Thursday and someone brings round some beers on Saturday night. You want to turn on your phone an hour earlier every morning, definitely do. But that will start in three-days-time, not on a low day when you’re fighting in bed and decide ‘what’s the harm?’ 

It's half about the lower screen time/alcohol consumption etc. and half about your ability to play by the rules, to exercise discipline and to make a decision today that will benefit you tomorrow. This is about looking after yourself as you would someone else who was your responsibility. You must enforce boundaries to help your charge develop well. Only this time, your charge is you.  

Tell people 

Social pressure is a helpful tool. Did you know those flyers that they drop through your door saying: ‘90% of your neighbours have completed their tax return by now’ are far more effective than the ones saying: ‘File your tax return’? How others perceive us matters to us. 

Research shows that the more people you tell about your new resolution, the more likely you are to keep it. If you’ve announced to the Jones’ that you won’t be drinking and then pour yourself a cheeky snifter, you don’t just disappoint yourself but you run risk of a loss of respect from those you informed of your decision. Keeping up with the Jones’ can be a powerful motivator. 

Expanding on that premise, and taking it from a threat to an encouragement, there’s also evidence that doing things in a group greatly increases everyone’s chances of success. If you’re reducing phone time, why not set up a WhatsApp group where you drop a message to your comrades just as you turn off your phone. That way everyone will have a record of the time each person logged off, you could then catch up in the morning and say how you used the time instead. If your plan is to exercise more, head to the same class every Tuesday morning with a friend and grab coffee afterwards. If you’re making pledges around food or alcohol patterns, why not agree them with your partner as you’re likely to share many meals together? 

For the sake of your friendships though - make it clear to whoever you tell if you expect them to challenge you if you fall short or if you want them to leave you to it. Don’t expect a friend to police you without their prior agreement. Equally don’t expect them to stand by as you break your resolution without saying anything, unless you’ve made it clear you don’t want their intervention.  

Observe yourself 

There will be times when sticking to your resolution is easy (usually the firs two days of January). But unless you’ve gone for the kippers option, there will be times when it is incredibly hard. Observe yourself in those moments, ask yourself questions and understand what it is about those times that present a challenge.  

Many people reach for their comforts when they’re happy, hungry, angry, lonely or tired. How do you respond when you feel these emotions? What brings you most comfort? Is there a healthier option that could support you instead? 

You see, if you’re giving up something that has become an idol, that takes your attention and satisfies that dopamine craving when you most want it, you’ve left a vacuum. The void could mean you are more drawn to your crutch of choice than ever. Or it could mean that you select something equally unhelpful to get you through. Identify these crevices as they arise and come up with a plan to protect yourself in those moments.  

I’ll kick you off with a few examples: 

  • You would usually pour yourself a glass of wine to mark the end of a working day? Get outside for a walk. 
  • You would usually fiddle on your phone on the commute? Bring a book with you.  
  • You get distracted during prayer/meditation time? Take a notepad with you, jot down any thought and then get back to your practice.  
  • Connect with friends over booze at the pub? Host a games night.  
  • Give yourself a little treat of chocolate or cake after a long day? Get a nice selection of teas and hot drinks.

Personalise the above as required.

Don’t beat yourself up 

Lifestyle changes involve failure. Sadly, most things that are worth having involve accepting some level of failure. It doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t make you evil. It doesn’t make you anything other than human. ‘The measure of a person isn’t how they fall, but how they pick themselves up.’ – said some over-quoted person like Gandhi, Theodore Roosevelt or Marylin Monroe probably. 

 Discipline is a muscle that needs work, and if this is your first time seriously embarking on something like this, you’re in the equivalent of the beginners’ Zumba category. Slipping up does not signal the end. It signals a slip. If I were cycling from London to Brighton and I fell off my bike around Horsham, I wouldn’t pick it up, walk it back to London and start again. I get to remount the bike exactly where I fell. I get the benefit and experience of the last 30 miles of road. It is an opportunity to strengthen my resolve and recommit myself, not to give up until next year.  

Use the tools 

There are an outrageous number of tools available to help you in your quest for progress. Don’t be too proud to use them. There are tracker apps, accountability programmes (like covenant eyes for those who want to cut out porn), books, podcasts, charities, anonymous meetings, medications, therapists, doctors, family, friends, churches and many others who can be with you. They can help while you mull on any challenges and strategize solutions that will help you grow.  

Self-efficacy is key 

There’s a study that I promise exists, even though in my in-between-Christmas-and-new-year haze I can’t find the reference for it. It was research on cannabis. Formerly cannabis was most commonly found as a secondary addiction for those whose primary focus was cocaine, heroin, Benzodiazepine or alcohol. But with the increased potency of street-level cannabis and the invention of synthetic-cannabinoids like Spice, more people are dying at the hands of marijuana, and therefore there are increasing budgets for research. 

Unlike heroine, Benzos or alcohol, there is no medical intervention to support those coming off cannabis. So the study looked at the primary factors that supported long-term abstinence from the drug. The strongest predictor of successful recovery was self-efficacy i.e. participants who were most likely to get and stay clean were those who started the process by saying they believed they could. 

 You can make any positive lifestyle change you want but it takes time and perseverance. But if you make a declaration believing you probably won’t stick to it or that you’ll see how it goes – you’ve lost before you’ve started.   

It won’t feel good 

There’s an unspoken expectation that taking steps towards better, more nourishing clean-living feels good. Some people think that they will start waking up before their alarm, well-hydrated, with enough energy for a quick round of squash before a bracing ice bath and hearty breakfast. This is not my experience. 

There are times when, in order to stick to my resolve, I had to just stay in bed. Not moving or facing the outside world. There were times when the agony of rejecting my crutches felt unbearable. Anything felt better than continuing on that difficult path of discipline. Achievement, to-do lists and even the notion of ‘a calling’ are reserved for those lucky enough to be functioning that day. The rest of us just have to survive. 

The feeling of pain won’t last. It never does. For some it will be a few days of discomfort, followed by smug boasting that they ‘don’t even think about caffeine anymore’. While for others, the loss will sting and it will take time before they feel any benefit. But those benefits are coming. They are worth holding out for. In a world of 10-15 minute Deliveroo meals, let’s take an hour to cook ourselves a good dinner. In a world where every movie is a few remote clicks away, let’s read a book. In a world where you can plough on, getting things done, let’s boot one thing off our checklists and pause to pray instead. In a world of quick solutions, let’s take the long, restrained route. Let’s allow the process to run its course. Let’s become better, stronger people who are more equipped to carry life’s burdens and help others along the way too. 

7 min read

What’s the point of purpose?

We need a wider understanding of our purpose – grand or small.

Emerson writes on geopolitics. He is also a business executive and holds a doctorate in theology.

A white arrow on tarmac points towards a setting sun and people walking by a silhouetted lamp post.
Chris Loh on Unsplash.

In his 2009 book Start With Why, the leadership speaker and consultant Simon Sinek encourages leaders and businesses to think about their purpose. He encourages them to answer the question ‘Why?’ before moving to ‘How?’ Sinek’s book is part of an industry, with no shortage of self-help books, executive coaches and university programmes assisting individuals in finding purpose. Surely Sinek is right that a sense of mission (the ‘Why?’) needs to come before the development of a strategy (the ‘How?’ as well as ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’). Yet working out our purpose is not easy. It takes time, effort, listening and crucially, an open mind.  

In a ‘purpose economy’ (to use the term coined by writer Aaron Hurst), we risk arriving at fast, superficial, or inflated purposes disconnected from the unique vocations to which we are actually called. Several years ago, I undertook a project, of which elements were shared in the Harvard Business Review. One interviewee stated ‘We are a generation that is ruthlessly comparing ourselves with those around us and our role models at the same time. And if we are not doing something exceptional or don’t feel important and fulfilled for what we are doing, we have a hard time.’ In an age dominated by social media and its emphasis on presentation of superficial images inviting us to compare ourselves with others, these are words worth dwelling on. 

This reflection struck me at the time, implying that many people believe that their purposes must be significant. Without grand purposes, we tend to struggle. That interviewee was right. Many of us value purposes involving high levels of excellence if not notoriety, whether pursuing elected political office, climbing the ranks in prestigious industries such as finance or consulting, or entering professions that are well-known and whose value can be readily explained to others (such as medicine, law or accounting).  

The problem with an idea of purpose focused on excellence is that only some people will be seen to have worthy purposes. The consequence is more ‘ruthless comparison, in which we all look over our shoulders to what our peers are doing, wondering whether their respective purposes measure up or not. Of course, this issue could be dismissed as little more than a case of early-career angst, in which ambitious self-starters seek to outdo their peers in climbing the career ladder, but I doubt this is a good explanation.  

Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. 

After all, modern workplaces are full of people, across all generations, searching for purpose. More generally, rapid industrial transition over recent decades – whether the loss of the shipbuilding or coal mines (not to mention important parts of the steel industry in recent months) in the UK, or the recent loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States – and waves of technological change leave countless thousands of people feeling lost at sea. A sense of aimlessness is amplified when personal dignity is connected to work rooted in local communities. When this industrial work vanishes seemingly overnight amid shifts in government policy and technological change.  

These examples suggest the need for a wider understanding of purpose, which makes room for many kinds of excellence, whether grand or small. Consider the example of a single mother. In comparison to the high-flying politician, business executive or university administrator, her purpose is anonymous. A paid job in the workplace is unlikely to be the source of the single mum’s purpose. Rather, the raising of a family is almost certainly the driving purpose in her life, a purpose which is nevertheless no less significant than those occupying more esteemed, high-status roles.  

In the eyes of God, the single parent is called to the vocation of parent (I don’t think there is a difference here between a vocation or purpose), possibly through an unexpected event such as a divorce or passing of a spouse. Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, the lone parent fulfills a vital role of service in raising children who can help to approximate the Kingdom of God on Earth. Martin Luther pointed it out well: every person has a divine calling providing them with purpose, whether they are aware of this or not.  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

How then can we define our purpose when elements of culture, technology and other forces tempt us to identify clear purposes as rapidly as possible? To start, it helps to resist the urge to form large and lengthy purposes. Our purposes are often revealed gradually. Even the most profound events altering the landscape of a person’s life must be digested slowly. Tom Wright, in his biography of Saint Paul, writes that after Paul’s encounter with Jesus while on the Road to Damascus, he returned to Tarsus for ten years to meditate on what he had learned. In all likelihood, Paul spent this time working as a tentmaker, working within a ‘small, cramped workshop,’ in which ‘he prayed, he studied, and he figured out all sorts of things.’  

It is only ‘by the end of the Tarsus decade [that] Saul had worked out in considerable detail what it meant that the One God had revealed himself in and as the crucified and risen Jesus.’ Paul’s purpose was formed over many years, ‘hammering away’ at what he learned on the Road to Damascus. Had Paul wanted to make sense of his encounter with Jesus in a single go, then his purpose would surely have been truncated, thereby limiting the fulfilment of his unique calling that transformed the world we live in today.  

Our circumstances may also limit the scope of our purposes. Our family, geography, gender, and socioeconomic situation all shape the people we become – at least in the short-term. The philosopher Robert Adams writes in Finite and Infinite Goods that ‘One’s actual circumstances condition and in various ways influence and limit one’s vocation. The vocation, however, is not the circumstances, but what one is called to do in them.’  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. The question of who we wish to become is a crucial one, involving personal vision, and Adams sees this question as outweighing extensive consideration given to existing circumstances. Another idea of vocation, proposed by the theologian Oliver O’Donovan, is more gradual. He says that we come to be a certain person over time, without too much planning. Our purposes develop one day at a time. Specific events give us chances to put our purposes into action, but we do not know when these events will occur.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. 

How then can we find our purposes when they are often ambiguous, intertwined with our personal circumstances, and without too much recourse to self-help books, life coaches or university programmes recommending quick answers?  

Our purposes need to be worked out through consistent, small-scale practice of the things we enjoy. For some, this is the playing of a musical instrument, for instance the piano or guitar, two hours per day. For others, this is the constant practice of a given sport in the early hours of the morning. And for others, this is working away on a tricky mathematical problem that simply grips them.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. It is then unexpected events – as Harold MacMillan said ‘Events, dear boy, events’ – which shape us. These events may change us, setting us in entirely new directions much like Paul’s encounter on the Damascus Road, or the lone parent following a divorce or death of a spouse. But it is not only the events that create purpose. The seeds of purpose are planted well ahead of time, through practice in relation to the things that bring us joy.  

Our purposes, then, should be less a cause of anxiety requiring self-help industries – needing to figure everything out at once – than a reason for play, practice, and prayer, listening to the still small voice – perhaps the voice of God, gently leading us to a settled sense of purpose. This allows purposes we never imagined to reveal themselves to us over time, sometimes merging with – and sometimes out of – our circumstances and personal attributes that are more easily visible.  

Rather than search for fast answers to our purposes, we can take comfort knowing that we do not need to do all the work ourselves. We may begin to work out our purpose through action, but trust that our purposes will come to fruition when the time is right.