How "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" Saved My Life: A Tale of Recovery
Quitting alcohol was an extremely hard process, for me at least. Time and time again I would take "just one drink" after being suckered into it by a neurological subroutine that was attempting to preserve itself; tricked by my own brain's desire to maintain the status quo of one particular engram, I would give in to the desire to drink just to shut up the voice of craving. Being badgered by one's own thoughts, emotions, and reinforced beliefs is a torturous state, and while in the grip of an "attack" of craving one can do little of constructive value. One will try any number of tricks to shut down the assault, giving in being one of them.
Of course, relenting to the craving only reinforces the engram that is driving the push to drink and does not help the overall campaign of recovery, obviously, so that is out.
How I came to the decision that drinking alcohol was absolutely out of the question -- not simply cutting down or keeping to holidays, but absolutely refraining from the slightest amount at any time -- is a long and harrowing tale for another time. Suffice to say for now that I came to the decision after countless hits to my quality of life (what was left of it) and I desperately needed an island of discipline to fortify myself with momentum in the right direction. By force, by stealth, or by capitulation, it didn't matter so long as I remained free of the toxin.
I tried several methods of self-persuasion, intimidation, trickery, and policing.
My day by day program included disputing irrational beliefs and self-defeating thought patterns with Albert Ellis's Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), a form of Cognitive-Behavioral self-training that emphasizes the power of the individual to empower themselves in the here & now. This system deserves a full treatment, but for now I highly recommend it for anyone struggling to establish a baseline of self-empowerment on the road to reconditioning themselves away from drinking or any other self-sabotaging habit of thought or deed .
Having grown up with exposure to the Alcoholics Anonymous program, I knew I could always go to a meeting to expose myself to people who've ruined their minds and bodies with alcohol. Such journeys can be very effective in the short-term as a form of negative reinforcement. This tactic was fine for an occasional jolt of reality, but I needed something more immediate and less fatalistic to keep me in line.
At the time of my most resolute decision to quit, I was living alone in Indianapolis in a new apartment. My home was located in an extremely rundown area of downtown. Taking walks was a depressing adventure, and when I felt The Craving that activity was out of the question; overt crack addicts, prostitutes, gangs, and boarded-up, dirty houses all conspired in my brain to drag me down. Or at least keep me down where I'd sunk. Therefore I kept to the apartment and tried to keep myself busy with journaling, meditation, cleaning, or exercise. But when those activities were pushed to their reasonable limit, I still needed something to keep me in line besides staring at a 1970s era black & white TV. Enter "CJ" to the rescue!
Simulated Reality to Train the Aspiration
While in Indy I spent some time helping my father with his shop where he sold antiques, vinyl, CDs, electronics, and other curiosities. For my time he gave me store credit, which I quickly used to obtain a PS2 and a few games. Adding an old color TV to the mix as a gift, my father was a key-player in setting me up with a surrogate reality to help me ween my brain from its destructive conditioning.
Playing video games had always been a favorite past-time, even as I entered my mid-thirties. With only a few games at my disposal, I hopped from game to game, hoping to pass the time until fatigue carried me to sleep. Then I found Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which immediately took hold of all my PS2 time.
For those who are unfamiliar with GTA: SA, it is an open-world game which allows the player to freely roam the city (the ficticious "San Andreas" based on L.A.) and interact with several elements of the environment and people. The plot begins with the arrival of the central character CJ, with whom the player exerts agency. CJ has been brought to town by the news of the death of his mother, and quickly finds out that it was no accident. He resolves to find the killers, and thus his missions begin to unfold.
CJ is physically weak and flat broke when he arrives. He has only old and tattered clothes, a bicycle as transportation, no street cred, and several enemies including corrupt cops. However, through side-missions and other accomplishements, opportunities for him to elevate his status slowly begin to open up for him.
Some players will take advantage of the freedom allowed in the game to carjack rides, run down passerbys, rob old women, and commit other assorted anarchy. However, each act of crime immediately calls in the wrath of police, and the player must take time to try to flee to a safehouse. This also tends to use up resources and doesn't facilitate the accomplishments of the mission. In turn, the player commiting random acts of violence doesn't see any development in their character. Through the loss of money and being stripped of accumulated equipment, being arrested acted as a form of negative reinforcement in my case, since I was out to beat the game.
Following out the missions allowed me to develop CJ's street cred, which initially opened up the gym and first clothing store. This in turn made it possible to upgrade CJ's physical strength (visually depicted by an increased physique) and buying new clothes -- which stimulated surprising compliments.
Time and time again there were opportunities to increase liberty of movement (unlocking new areas) and upgrade CJ's living conditions. As he accomplished more and more missions, he gained more money which allowed him to purchase new homes, vehicles, jewelry, clothing, and other items which in turn gained him more charisma which in turn attracted more compliments -- as well as the employment of more individuals for missions.
Going with the Flow of Success
I began to perceive a pattern of positive reinforcement. Seeing the flow of "right action" leading to increased liberty and resource, I playfully threw myself into the spirit of the challenge and made CJ the hero of the city. Cruising around in hot vehicles carjacked from ruthless gang members, taking out drug dealers plaguing the 'old neighborhood' and intercepting drug shipments steadily increased new opportunities.
As I played, I was encountering roughly simulated conditions that I encountered in the real world -- "overt crack addicts, prostitutes, gangs, and boarded-up, dirty houses," as I wrote above. However, in the game I was able to do something immediate to change this. Taking out drug dealers, eliminating violent and ruthless rival gangs, and other altruistic acts gave me a simulated sense of accomplishment.
This simulation of taking steps to increase the quality of life wasn't mistaken for the real thing; I still had to go to work, pay my bills, and struggle with the lead weights of poverty. However, the process of watching CJ grow from a desperate weakling into an accomplished hero was a process of fantasy that gave positive reinforcement to what I was trying to accomplish in real life. When thoughts of frustration would come and taunt me with negative assertions of hopelessness, I could refute them with re-assertions of step by step opportunities I was taking to work my way up; there were indeed mechanisms for scrapping one's way out of poverty and substandard living conditions. It wasn't a process of thinking "well CJ did it and so can I." It was simply that I was immersing myself in a self-similar process which was suggestive of the type of momentum I was struggling to initiate.
Reality and fantasy are worlds apart, forever separate, and planes of reference should not be mixed. Yet these fantasies can be suggestive and influence the direction of thinking, as when fiction influences the mind to manifest something real.
It has been suggested that simulated reality can assist children to understand the consequences of their actions through positive and negative reinforcement. Well, during those critical three months when I was establishing the new behavior of not drinking in response to stress, I was indeed much like a child. Fighting the urge to drink forced me to act without the crutch of oblivion, forced me to deal with reality without the haze of intoxication. In such a state of sobriety I did not have my usual habits of behavior to fall back on, and often felt naked and overwhelmed. While making the shift in conditioning I was starting over with building mindsets and highly prone to suggestion.
During the three months of initial sobriety I would have the daily ordeals we all must face. Going to work and maintaining a social face, dealing with family, and wrestling with the oppressive tasks of rebuilding a shattered life all weighed me down and stoked the embers of stress. Previously, as a drunk, I would habitually turn to alcohol in the attempt to self-medicate myself. But as a player of GTA: SA I could look forward to coming home and taking my motorcycle out for a drive to the country, or go to the gym and work out, all from the safety and comfort of my home. (edit, 2015: as I reread this now, it's slightly sad and almost pitiful that I was reduced to such a state of petty enjoyment. Yet, it seems that's what it took after incalculable false starts.)
By the time I'd completed a few missions I'd look at the clock and it'd be midnight or 1a.m., time for bed. The cravings had passed, and I was looking forward to getting up for work.
Mission accomplished: another sober night!
(Written January 2010, further edited April 2015)