Guilty pleasures?

Is it wrong?

I’m researching Amazon birds while drinking coffee — coffee being one of many crops destroying these gorgeous creatures’ habitat.

But I am at Cold Smoke Coffeehouse drinking Papua New Guinea, grown nowhere near the Amazon rainforest, though I’m sure there’s destruction going on there as well. But anyway, some of the proceeds from the coffee sold at Cold Smoke goes to supporting El Porvenir, a small nonprofit providing clean water and sanitation to Nicaraguans. I always thought Cold Smoke’s slogan was simply a punny comment about what happens when one drinks too much coffee: “Drink Coffee. Give Water.”

Photo on 8-19-16 at 1.27 PM

So is that supposed to make me feel less guilty? It doesn’t.

Guilty as charged, your honor!

But I’m supposed to be avoiding caffeine as it may exacerbate hot flashes, according to renowned women’s health expert Dr. Christiane Northrup.

So what’s a guilty, aging, coffee-loving girl to do?

My ADDled Brain’s ADDiction

“There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.”

                –Deepak Chopra

I admit it. I have an addiction.

I also have mild depression and anxiety — conditions not uncommon to people with ADD or women going through perimenopause, of which I have both.

Yay for me!

Though it’s not destined to destroy my physical health like alcohol or drug addiction, mine does feel self-destructive. It affects my ability to pursue my career and creative goals.

My addiction? Puzzles.

When I’m feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed and want to avoid work, I turn to online jigsaw puzzles, word games, crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

Side note: Nearly 1 in 5 American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Now substance addiction is a different animal than say, gambling or puzzle playing, I don’t deny that. Using alcohol, drugs or even tobacco has true physiological effects. But in terms of brain chemistry, I wonder how different those addictions and mine really are.

For me, I think doing puzzles calms my overwhelmed and sometimes anxious brain, much like a heroin addict who soothes his anxiety or pain by shooting up. OK, I admit, that’s probably a stretch given the physical ramifications of not taking a highly addictive substance, as in withdrawal, which is a serious health concern in and of itself. But either way, both addictions result from a lack of impulse control (as embarrassing as that is for me to admit about myself).

Self-proclaimed Puzzlecrossword addict Dean Olsher is ambivalent about crossword puzzles. In a 2009 interview with Melissa Block on NPR, Dean Olsher spoke about his book, “From Square One: A Meditation, With Digressions, On Crosswords.”

Olsher confirms my thinking about puzzle addiction. Reading from his book on NPR,  he says, “Entering a crossword is like stepping into the clean, white cube of an art gallery or into a church or a Japanese rock garden. There are days when solving puzzles feels like a practice — the next best thing to seated meditation … It is more honest, though, to think of crosswords as a habit, like smoking. It’s just something to do every day because it’s there.”

Soothing, right?

However, Olsher also asserts that puzzles “have an addictive, immersive quality that keeps people coming back for more.” Part Zen and part addiction, he likens them to their own form of mental illness.

Yiiiiiiiiikes!!!

According to an October article by National Institutes of Health, researchers found that “addiction’s power lies in its ability to hijack and even destroy key brain regions that are meant to help us survive.”

Healthy brains reward healthy behaviors, it says. Exercising and eating healthy foods switches on brain circuits that makes us feel good, so we’re motivated to repeat those behaviors.

When a healthy brain senses danger, it elicits a chemical release that prompts the body to react quickly — the so-called fight-or-flight response. According to a  Harvard Medical School article on depression, “Every real or perceived threat to your body triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produces physiological changes. We all know the sensations: your heart pounds, muscles tense, breathing quickens, and beads of sweat appear.”

But drugs and alcohol mask those chemical responses by hijacking the brain’s pleasure/reward circuits, the NIH says. Addiction sets danger-sensing circuits of the brain into overdrive, making an addict anxious and stressed when not under the influence, leading them to want more and more.

For substance abusers, it becomes a vicious cycle that has them using drugs or alcohol to avoid feeling bad rather than to feel good.

And those stress hormones? They are produced as a result of increased activity in the frontal cortex of the brain — lo and behold, one of the areas of the brain affected by ADD and depression!

If you’re tempted by something questionable—like eating candy instead of a healthy dinner or buying things you can’t afford—the frontal regions of your brain can help you decide if the consequences are worth the actions. But if your frontal cortex isn’t totally functional, as is the case with addiction, ADD and depression, you may not have the ability to rationally stop yourself from doing something you know won’t be good for you. I feel that. It becomes an intense struggle to control impulses. And, like any addiction, it gets in the way of living life.

But I can report now that I have cut down on my puzzle-playing over the last few months during which time, this post sat in my draft folder. Maybe I felt the need for some good news before I came clean to you.

I’m far from cured. I still take an occasional trip to my favorite online puzzles. But I’ve deleted games from my phone and I often stop myself when I feel the urge, so I’m getting there. So does PA exist — a support group for puzzle addicts?

Where is … uh, what was I looking for again?

Housework can’t kill you, but why take a chance?” –Phyllis Diller

So the reason it took more than 50 years to discover that I had this hardly rare “disorder” called ADD is that the condition was seriously exacerbated by the effects of, shall we say, hormonal changes. Until I hit about 50, I was managing — maybe not as well as I could have had I known I had ADD, but I was getting by.

Perimenopause is the period in a woman’s life when she is going through “the change.” I hate that term. I prefer transition; it just sounds more Zen.

Anyway, the transition is often referred to as menopause. But in reality, menopause is when the hormone shifting has pretty much ended along with all the crap a bunch of dissipating hormones brings.

And when I say crap, I don’t mean that literally — holy hell is more like it.

My symptoms include hot flashes and, trust me, they are not pleasant even in the dead-freezing cold of a Rocky Mountain winter. In fact, the after effects often result in chills. Sometimes I’d get so hot my glasses fog. The hot-cold cycles also severely disrupt my sleep.

I use present tense here because I’m still in the throes of it. However, I am doing significantly better thanks to a little patch I slap on my butt or belly twice weekly. It was a difficult decision to go on hormone replacement therapy, but that’s another blog entry …

Many women who’ve been through it will tell you they get quite befuddled during the transition. Forgetfulness, difficulty communicating and serious cognitive issues sometimes arise. Sleep disturbances only serve to heighten these challenges.

Depression is also not uncommon — predicated, in part, by all the other lovely perimenopausal symptoms.

Creased and nearly falling apart, it is clear this notebook is my constant companion. It contains random phone numbers, ideas, book and video suggestions from other people, old to-do lists and vague reminders.

Creased and nearly falling apart, it is clear this notebook is my constant companion. It contains random phone numbers, ideas, book and video suggestions from other people, old to-do lists and vague reminders.

It’s sort of like going through adolescence all over again — what fun! Only now you understand what’s going on AND you’re trying to live an adult life. So really it’s just damn frustrating.

There’s no more tantrum throwing, emotional meltdowns or locking oneself in the closet only to come out later to a nice, hot dinner and a forgiving family. Seriously, it’s just not acceptable adult behavior. But believe me, I’ve probably wanted to do all these things (and worse) over the past year or so. You women out there of a certain age know what I mean.

So combine this transition thing with ADD and you have a human wrecking ball — at least that’s what I feel like sometimes.

For example, another fun thing about people with ADD is their tendency toward disorganization. Despite my best efforts, I just can’t seem to keep things — let alone my life — tidy. Add to that the befuddlement of the transition and you get, well, me.

I’ve been working to make my freelance writing life more organized and it’s mostly working thanks to Google calendar and GTasks — a mobile app that syncs Google calendar and Google tasks from my computer (actually Google’s gargantuan servers, I guess) into a single window on my phone.

I also carry around a small notepad which I use to take down quick notes which I usually transfer to my computer or phone later. It’s just faster than putting them into my phone when I’m on the run.

But my stuff, well, that’s still a struggle.

I’m attempting to ascribe to the OHIO (Only Handle It Once) behavior and it’s also helping. It’s gratifying to see our house getting less cluttered.

However, right now I haven’t seen my cool coffee press travel mug for weeks (maybe months).

The significant other's coffee press mug. Mine's missing.

The significant other’s coffee press mug. Mine’s missing.

And I know I’m missing other things, but I can’t even remember what they are. One day, perhaps, I’ll come across them again and it will be a fun eureka moment. Until then, I guess I’ll remember what I’m missing when I need it. Or maybe I just didn’t need it to begin with …