Hard habit to break

Michele Happe on attachment, suffering and free-wheelin’ Nevadans

Counselor and therapist Michele Happe and granddaughter Iris.

Counselor and therapist Michele Happe and granddaughter Iris.

As a drug and alcohol counselor and therapist, Michele Happe—and yes, it’s pronounced “happy”— knows something about bad habits. She’s had to break a few of her own. Whether it’s going to the gym or stopping a drug habit, she says the old maxim is true: Take it one day at a time.

Is it worth it to keep trying to break habits if we’ve tried and failed time and again?

I think the most important thing is really to be focused on the present moment, the present day. If you’re trying to eat in a healthy way or not do drugs or stop gambling, if you think, “I can’t do this for the rest of my life,” it’s going to be impossible. But when you wake up each day and say, “I’m going to do this today,” and make a daily commitment. That’s why they have the one day at a time saying in AA;it becomes a lot more doable.

There’s a tendency for people to say, “Well, I messed up, so I might as well go whole hog today and start again tomorrow. “

There’s something called the four-day phenomenon: You commit to a reasonable food plan. You usually commit on a Monday or January 1—but within four days, that hits around Thursday, you think, “I have to go to a wedding this weekend, and people will notice if I’m not eating the wedding cake, and I don’t want to embarrass myself.” … On Thursday is when the habit gets broken in preparing for the Sunday wedding. It’s all about the nature of the mind. It convinces us of these delusional things—like everyone is going to be watching us to see if we are going to eat the wedding cake—but the mind really works like that.

It’s so human to have bad habits. Can anything positive come from them?

I’m going to get a little Buddhist on you now. The first thing you have to do is accept that suffering is part of the deal. It is our nature as humans to be ruled by our ego rather than our Buddha nature or higher nature—our intelligent self. When we accept that suffering is part of the deal, when the suffering comes, we’re not adverse to it. Aversion and attachment are the primary causes of suffering. It can be attached to cake or putting nickels in the slot at the casino. Anything we’re adverse to or avoid, that we resist, persists. But it’s not so much the behavior as the reality of our existence—having the paradigm that whatever I’m adverse to is what I attach to … it keeps me from my Buddha nature. I don’t think bodhisattvas ever had to worry too much about wedding cake.

Is there a certain type of person more prone to bad habits?

Yes, we’re finding there are genetic predispositions to self-destructive behaviors. Risk-taking is a genetic component. There’s a fabulous book called Living with our Genes that talks about this behavior with genetic underpinnings, and risk-taking is one of them. There’s people with strong will, and there are others who just fall over.

Nevada has high rates of drinking, smoking, gambling—we’re full of bad habits.

I think every state has a personality attached to it. Like New Hampshire is “Live Free or Die,” Vermonters tend to be more democratic, socialistic. In Nevada, we’re a bunch of free agents. We’re rigidly independent as a personality, and those types are people who like to party.

How can people keep it in check when tempted every day?

I can’t give it a general solution. I would say some sort of a spiritual focus, whether it’s the Dalai Lama’s—his religion is kindness—having some sort of a recipe for ethical conduct is a really good thing for these fiercely independent people like us Nevadans. Nevada is a crazy state. I know it’s a swing state now, but it tends to be conservative. Yet prostitution and gambling are legal. There are so many dichotomies in this state. But for people so fiercely independent, I think they need to say, “I do need a recipe,” like the 12 Steps that tell you how to live.

Are you willing to talk about your own experience with breaking harmful habits?

I consider myself a wounded healer. I’ve been sober since 1980. I’m recovering from an eating disorder, from anorexia and compulsive overeating. And I actively work my own 12-step program. I never did have a huge problem with alcohol and drugs—I did my share of them—but being associated with a bunch of alcoholics, I knew I would go down that road eventually, so I stopped it before it started. There are three stages of alcoholism, and they’re explained well by a Chinese proverb: The first stage is a man takes a drink; the second stage is the drink takes a drink; and the third stage is the drink takes the man. You can be an alcoholic and be in the first stage of it, and it looks really normal, but you’re still an alcoholic.

Are there ways to restructure our lives that could help?

I think all of us do a whole lot better when we have a set routine. The Nevada type person will resist that, but even they will benefit. You see babies just naturally put themselves in a pattern. When they get older, having a bedtime story and bedtime, it helps them feel secure and safe. I think humans just thrive with these routines.

Did your own struggles lead to your career?

The first thing I did was go to Al-Anon because I kept falling in love with alcoholics, and then I got sober. But I had [degrees] in psychology. I so owe my son’s father—the first man I fell in love with who was an alcoholic, who caused me so much pain and suffering—for what I do today, and I’ll always appreciate him for that.

It works that way sometimes.

We do eventually have to be grateful for our character defects on some level, if acknowledging them helps us improve.

If you could give any advice to those trying and trying and trying again, what would it be?

My general advice, always, is don’t do it alone. Find somebody you can do things with. If it’s a serious problem, seek out a support group. Find a teacher or mentor who can help you in your quest and be transformed. Get a pet; pets are wonderful. Having a pet you love can really be an anodyne for all the pain that comes from dealing with other humans. They tend not to disappoint.