Define Your Environment: Addiction and the Art Of War

Sun Tzu

The addictive mind is a battlefield. Everyday occurrences that are mundane and routine to some people can be a complicated mix of emotions for someone coping with addiction. There are many little instances during the day that I still find myself trying to remember how to do things sober or breaking routines and patterns that I developed while I was drinking. For example, I travel the same route to a gig once a week. I usually stop at the same gas station. For a couple of weeks, I found myself walking unintentionally towards the beer cooler. I had no intention of drinking; I had no craving. It was simply a pattern. It was as if I was a deer, traveling the same game trail every day to my food, water or bedding source. It was a simple, nearly animalistic, behavior. The same can be said of coping with your environment. Your environment absolutely determines attitude and behavior and vice versa, at least for me it does.

Being a full-time musician, I work in what can be called a “high-risk environment”. Weddings, corporate events, bars, and breweries make up 99% of my physical workspace. Practically every time I go to work, booze is right there in front of me, easily accessible and, in many cases, encouraged. As I have progressed, saying no has become easier. But, for a long time, my pattern or routine consisted of finishing the beer I was drinking in my truck, grabbing my gear, walking into the venue, putting my gear down and ordering a drink. If there wasn’t alcohol there at that particular establishment or event, no problem. Walk back to my truck and fill my canteen with a couple of beers from my cooler and voila! I always had a beer with me.

Many times, especially early on, I would attempt to concoct a reason to skip a gig. But, just because I quit drinking does not mean that all alcohol will just magically disappear from the earth, never to rear its head and try to inject me with its venom. I found that I had to actively plan to navigate my environment for my own well-being. Oftentimes, I would walk as far away from the bar top as possible. I found myself isolating, hiding in my truck during a break and timing it just right to re-enter my workspace. While effective, these kinds of tactics were becoming impractical. When I was drinking, I was an active isolationist, drinking alone at home and losing a sense of community. Early on in sobriety, I was committing the exact same crime, relegating myself to enforced solitude out of fear and anxiety. I needed to recreate my bonds with people and using my run-and-hide tactics would not work in longevity.

Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War stands as the seminal work on military strategy and tactics from the classical world. While the whole book is a phenomenal treatise on warfare, the principles can be applied not only to contracted warfare but to your everyday life. The 30 principles of Book X describe how to observe, analyze and utilize the terrain of a given parcel of ground. As I revisited this classic, the tactics Sun Tzu described were applicable to how I often felt walking into a situation where I knew I was going to have to navigate my temptations and master my environment, as Sun Tzu states, “ponder and deliberate before you make a move” (Book VII.21).

Without going into a lot of detail, Book X advises a general on ways to attack certain types of terrain: narrow passes, precipitous heights, great distances, etc. I already have a firm grasp of “the enemy”, in my situation, alcohol. But, sometimes I felt as if I was an army of one invading an occupied country.

Sun Tzu stated, “if you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete” (Book X.30).  I know that I have to stay away from alcohol. I had some fun times, for sure. But it had become a noxious and potent poison to my well-being. That poison is synonymous with the majority of my work environs. Sun Tzu talked about this, Book XI.42: “when invading a hostile territory, the general principle is, that penetrating deeply brings cohesion; penetrating but a short way brings dispersion”. I could no longer barely commit, battling my dreaded anxiety, letting the environment press me into the safe retreat of my truck. I had to learn how to get in there and define and control my surroundings.

Now, over 100 days in and several dozen sober gigs in the books, I don’t have to focus near as much as I did. The early days of planning out my entrance and exit plans are fewer and farther between. A very positive and useful byproduct of those early days of paranoid preparation is an enhanced awareness and sense of situational observation, noticing small details of my surroundings. My anxiety has decreased substantially. The temptations are virtually nonexistent.

First, know your enemy. Second, when forced to confront it, study and plan in advance. Many times, with addiction, your battlefield is chosen for you. The arrival of the armies is out of your control. Learn how to look at your given battlefield and use logic, reason, and courage to steer the advantage and your ultimate victory.

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