On Emotional Reasoning—Thinking with Your Feelings

By Richard Tayson 10/21/15

Turns out my alcoholic thinking fits into an all-too-recognizable syndrome.

Cognitive Distortions at the Eveready Diner

When I walked into the retro-'50s diner on an early Sunday morning in August, most of Hyde Park was still sleeping. The woman who greeted me—Alexandra K. by her nametag—took one look at my small stack of magazines, escorted me to a booth, and had poured my first cup of coffee before I’d begun to consider the implications of The Atlantic’s cover story peering at me from the top of the pile.

Since I teach at two universities and am nearing completion of a book project, magazine reading is an indulgence reserved for vacation, which this year happens to be in the Hudson Valley: Storm King Art Center, Innisfree Gardens, and, today, the former home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, located a few blocks south of the stainless-steel and neon diner on Albany Post Road, 100 miles from work demands.

When I meditate, I somehow have greater facility to shut down my mind’s impulse toward separation and align it instead with integration. 

Or so I thought, for from within a comic-book speech balloon, the words “Better Watch What You Say! How the new political correctness is ruining education” hijacked my attention, as did the hand located at the magazine’s brick-red margin, which held a lighter and set fire to the cartoon bubble. I opened the magazine and felt the leisure of summer slip away, not knowing that what I was about to discover had less to do with my career than it did with my alcoholic thinking.

What could millennial college students’ imperative, as authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt put it, to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort” possibly have to do with my alcoholic mind?  

On the surface, nothing—until you get to a canary yellow chart that illustrates the authors’ claim that protracted regulation of speech generates distortions of thought that cognitive behavioral therapists relate to depression, anxiety, and what I recognized as the attributes of the alcoholic mind.

Regardless of my opinion concerning the article’s claims for education (Apologia for offensive speech? Necessary analysis of First Amendment rights?), I was shocked to discover that my alcoholic thinking could be summarized in a single sidebar. I was even more alarmed to realize that, even before ascending sunlight had reflected off the restaurant’s chrome-edged tabletops, I’d already engaged in a number of the authors’ 12 suspect thought patterns.  

Had four years and two months of sobriety had no effect on my thinking?

*  *  *

The road to discovering my alcoholic mind began on a Friday night in early 2011. The crush I’d had for a few months had gone unreciprocated, a circumstance that gave way to a slow-trudged buzzing in my brain that felt like my thoughts were swooping down from my cranium to my feet and out through the floorboards of my Queens, New York, apartment. I knew I was in trouble, and rather than follow my habitual protocol of gin and pot until I became unconscious, I did the unexpected: I asked for help.

A few days later, within 20 minutes of meeting me, the therapist asked if I’d consider getting sober. I balked, but more help soon arrived, this time in the form of a fall I took down a flight of stairs that resulted in a head injury. After 33 years of using alcohol and drugs, I agreed to enter a program of recovery, four years and change from the day I’d sit before the daffodil-yellow chart in the Eveready Diner.  

Reading the list was at once comforting and unsettling, for from its first enumeration, “Mind reading,” to its last, “Inability to disconfirm,” the authors gave me an overview of mental tendencies I’d been warned about since my first days of sobriety.  Suddenly, the upside-down THINK sign made sense, and I had scientific backing for the value of the phrase “I came for my drinking but stayed for my thinking.”  

Still, I hadn’t realized that my thinking fit so neatly into a recognizable syndrome. For instance, like every alcoholic I knew, I engaged in “catastrophizing,” which I’d learned as “planning for the wreckage of the future.” Case in point: soon after I became sober, a radio show warned how Americans weren’t saving enough for retirement, and my immediate response was to envision my destitute future, right down to which street corner I’d inhabit.  

I also tend toward what the authors call “emotional reasoning,” or thinking with my feelings. I’d long known that the remedy is to “right-size my emotions” by sticking to facts, yet earlier this summer, when one of my classes was canceled, I concluded that the school no longer wanted me on the payroll. A friend said, “Sounds like you need to go on a fact-finding mission,” so I visited the department’s assistant chair, who said, “We’re lucky to have you,” and explained that low enrollment had been the cause of many class cancellations. In the words of the yellow chart, I’d been “let[ting my] feelings guide [my] interpretation of reality,” a sure-fire way to cause alarm and thereby take a step toward, rather than away from, a drink.

My distorted thinking didn’t just happen in the past, a fact I was made aware of when I saw Alexandra K. seat a heavyset man at a table across the aisle. Without meaning to, I immediately engaged in “Labeling”— “assign[ing] global negative traits to yourself and others”—and judged the man as overweight.  

As I quickly looked down at my magazine, I realized that I’d made a number of such judgments, and it wasn’t yet 8 a.m. Earlier, I’d observed an elderly couple sitting in silence and assumed that their marriage was a failure. And, truth be told, I’d secretly berated Alexandra K. for being a 50-something waitress in a diner whose reputation rested on a 960-calorie banana split called a Scoop de Ville.

As I returned to the chart’s description of “Discounting positives,” “Overgeneralizing,” “Dichotomous thinking,” “Blaming,” and other indicators of distorted thinking—I began to wonder: Does familiarity with these traits make me mentally ill?

*  *  *

One way to consider this question is that mental stability is relative and takes place on a continuum. Some aver that most people, alcoholic or not, have developed defense mechanisms, including distortions of thought, to survive. The mother whose child has died has little chance of overcoming depression if she doesn’t enter and exit the stage of denial. Denial—for that mother as well as those who lost loved ones on 9/11 or those diagnosed with cancer—is a temporary defense. Yet I treated denial as a way of life that allowed me to disregard my problem and seek my eveready defense of oblivion through mind-altering substances.

Another way to think about the question of mental illness is how could 33 years of the use of drugs (for me, pot, cocaine, crosstops, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and—once only, thank God—crystal meth) and a shipload of alcohol not have distorted my thoughts?

A third response might coalesce around the fact that before I knew what alcohol was, I had a feeling of never having enough—not enough McDonald’s or Michael Jackson, not enough books or approval or time with my grandmother. I always felt ten cents short of a dollar, a feeling that, as much as any drug or drink I ever took, was the match that the first drink had struck into flame, engendering the distorted thinking that nearly burned my life to the ground.

However I respond to the mental health question, one thing seems certain: if left alone, my thinking will distort reality in all the ways The Atlantic chart specifies, sooner or later leading me to the grandest of all distortions: that I can drink responsibly.

Two vital actions, both as eveready as my former go-to of oblivion, remedy distorted thinking: open communication and meditation.

So as I see Alexandra K. standing beneath a ceiling lamp made of three inverted, red-tinted plastic soda fountain glasses, I call her over. “Do you mind if I drink coffee for a while longer before ordering breakfast,” I ask as she pours me yet another cup.  

“Don’t be silly,” she cajoles. “Just holler when you want to order.”  

As she walks away, the heavyset man looks my way and as I say “Good morning,” it occurs to me that since mental distortion is fed by thought retention, the most effective way to alleviate its insidious effect is to short-circuit its cycle by making verbal connections with others.

I close both the magazine and my eyes. Though I’m a novice, I’ve found that when I focus my attention on my breath, I can hear the active distortions of my mind gather around two sets of opposites: want/don’t want; like/don’t like. The root of my distorted thinking centers here, and after some months of practice, I’m able to see mental distortions as impediments to my relationships between myself and others, including a creative power greater than myself.  When I meditate, I somehow have greater facility to shut down my mind’s impulse toward separation and align it instead with integration. 

I open my eyes, and the words BURGERS SHAKES CHEESECAKE are sun-drenched silver emissaries that, hovering above the dining room, incline my phone to ring.

It’s my partner—the one who was reluctant to date me, but with whom I’ve now been living in sobriety for over a year.

“Are you at the Eveready?” he asks, likely remembering his Greek salad from the night before.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I’ll get take-out, and we can eat before heading over to the FDR house.”

The woman with hopes and dreams like any other person takes my order, and as I’m thinking how FDR was a powerhouse president who brought the country back together, the elderly couple walks past, holding hands. 

“Beautiful day out,” I say as they smile and walk toward the door. 

Richard Tayson is a freelance editor and the author of The World Underneath, The Apprentice of Fever, and Look Up for Yes.

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