It’s Neither the Carrot Nor the Stick

Today’s post is brought to you by a good bit of synchronicity as of late. Between Monday’s meeting, a conversation with a sponsee yesterday and what’s been going on with my son lately, I was really starting to see a theme building. A particular news story this morning was the final nudge – Okay, okay, I’ll write about this. You don’t have to yell!

The bit of local news which tied it all together for me was a piece saying that Texas has decided to try seventeen-year-olds as minors for misdemeanor offenses. Previously, they had been tried as adults with the hopes that the knowledge that they could receive actual jail time for their crimes would be a deterrent. Apparently, though, the powers that be have realized that these kids simply aren’t thinking about the consequences of their actions, so why should we fill up our jails with petty offenders who could be dealt with through the juvenile courts?

Wait, do you mean to tell me that when a teenager is placed in a situation where they are tempted to commit a crime, they don’t actually stop to consider all possible outcomes of the scenario?? Really!? Who knew!? It calls to mind a recent bit I read about this PhD-type who was commenting on the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. (And yes, I swore I wouldn’t write about PSH, and I’m not; it’s just a contextual note here.) I would link to the article here, but I don’t want to give this guy any more credence or rile up any die hard recovery-types. The premise of the story, though, was that in this expert’s opinion, all an addict needs to do to overcome his addiction is to stop and think about his consequences and about all the good things in his life. He says that PSH should have just taken a moment to think about the beautiful life he had with his children and that would have kept him from going back to the drugs which killed him. … … … and they gave the guy a PhD for this ground-breaking “expert” research.

My sponsee said it best yesterday, “If I am tempted to drink, there is no thought involved. The drink is already in my hand.” Monday, we started out talking about the progressive nature of the disease and somehow ended up on whether it was the fear of potential consequences or the desire to not give up our new lives which kept us sober. I submit to you that if you are asking yourself that question, you have already relapsed.

My son has been having a hard time at school lately. He’s a very bright kid, but his grades have been horrendous and he’s been acting up in class. He simply doesn’t listen; he doesn’t take school seriously. He spends his days trying to crack jokes with his friends instead of paying attention to what the teacher is trying to say. He has never been an honor role student and I’m okay with that. I don’t want to pressure him to be perfect. At this point, though, it has become apparent that he simply isn’t even trying. And that is not okay.

So what do you do? Do you punish the kid? Take away all his toys and privileges if he doesn’t straighten up? Do you give him incentives to do better? Offer him a dollar for every “A” he brings home? Maybe a little mix of carrot and stick, both? Well, how about we look at the root problem? Why is he acting this way? What is going on with him that he has focused his priorities on how much attention he gets from his buddies instead of learning and developing appropriate problem-solving skills?

Trouble-making teens, alcoholics and my son all need the same exact thing – an “entire psychic change.” We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that these people don’t know the difference between right and wrong. That’s asinine. Even toddlers can point out when you’re doing something you shouldn’t be. Rather, these people have determined, for whatever reason, that right and wrong simply don’t work for them. Something has happened along their life’s journey which has superseded their necessity to live by these social norms. Perhaps they did not receive the appropriate response to their behaviors – they were punished despite (or because of) doing something good or they received praise for bad behavior. Perhaps their instincts are simply out of whack as the 12×12 suggests. No matter the cause, until that necessity is restored, the bad behavior will continue regardless of consequences or benefits. Unless we are reprogrammed to live by a more acceptable code, we will keep doing what has worked for us in the past.

My sister has had this dog for probably seven years now. Mickey was one of a large group of dogs taken from a home where they lived in squalor. Animal Control, or whatever agency it was, came in to find all these unruly animals with absolutely no training. They lived like they were in the wild with no respect for humans, relieving themselves wherever they felt like it, not being fed regularly. It was just a bad scene, so they had to be removed from the home. My sister, with her big heart and love for dogs, took one of these poor pups in. My sister is really great with dogs and the one she already had could do all sorts of tricks because she had spent a lot of time training him. Mickey, though, he just couldn’t learn! To this day, all these years later, he still has accidents all over the floors of her house. No sort of discipline works with him. He can’t comprehend that the swat on the nose is related to the puddle on the floor or that the treats and praise only come when he potties outside. Neither the carrot, nor the stick work for him because he is so conditioned to the behavior he learned as a pup.

In much the same way, we have been conditioned to bad behavior. Unlike Mickey, though, we can overcome our instinctual responses. It certainly isn’t easy, but it is possible. In order to do that, though, we have to completely rewrite the rules of the game. In the program, we tell newcomers to change their playmates & playpens. We stress “90 meetings in 90 days.” We implement repetitive behaviors like prayer, meditation, journaling, calling a sponsor every day. By doing these things habitually, we can create new responses within ourselves. If we don’t practice reaching out even for the simple things, then when something big comes along we will fall back into our old behaviors and attempt to handle things the only way we knew how. For me, whenever I had a feeling, whatever that feeling may be, I wanted to get rid of it in whatever way possible. Guilt, pain, hope, pleasure – they were all either stuffed away or celebrated with a drink, a drug, a shopping spree, a sexual encounter, anything which would make me numb out so I didn’t have to feel. I couldn’t stop numbing out until I reprogrammed myself to understand that feelings aren’t going to kill me. I can be sad without crawling into depression. I can be happy without jumping off the deep end.

Until we have experienced an “entire psychic change,” we will always return to our old behaviors. We drank long after it stopped working for us because we didn’t know what else to do. These teens are still going to cause trouble regardless of the consequences because their behaviors feed them in a way that living according to the rules doesn’t. And my son will never develop a desire to learn unless he is able to see the value in it above those things which distract him. To that end, I have chosen not to punish him for his bad grades nor to offer him rewards for better ones. Instead, I have completely changed the game. Both of my kids are still reeling a bit from the changes taking place around here, but they’re not complaining. They are still receiving the positive feedback they need to establish their worth, albeit in a different manner than they’re accustomed to. Just like we alcoholics have to take the option of drinking completely off the table, video games are now completely off the table – not just for a little while, but at least during the school year. We’ll see if we can handle them during the summers. We have developed a program of accountability where they will check in with me and tell me about what they’re studying or reading. And they are reading more… because they have to do something with all that time they used to spend playing games. My husband and I are more hands-on with them so that we can more appropriately model positive behaviors.

We could all use a little more guidance. We can’t just dangle carrots and hope people follow them. Neither can we whip people with sticks and hope they go in the right direction. No, what we need is someone to walk with us and show us where to step. We have to discover a new path before we can give up on the one we’ve been travelling. And we have to see for ourselves that this new way is better and more fulfilling than our old way. We have to give up all of our old ideas and start fresh. The only hope we have of breaking our old habits lies in completely changing the way we look at life. If we are still looking at sobriety in terms of carrot or stick, then we have not experienced that “entire psychic change” necessary to create a new way of life. And until we are reprogrammed, we will inevitably turn back to our old remedies.

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2 responses to “It’s Neither the Carrot Nor the Stick”

  1. jrj1701 says :

    Very good post, something that kept coming to mind is “half measures availed us nothing.” Some are lucky enough to get results with the carrot and stick, yet I haven’t seen many.

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