There is no defiance like toddler defiance.

They assert their will with the persistence of Gandhi, and negotiate with the kind of ideological stubbornness that President Kennedy must have used during the Cuban Missile Crises. The only difference between our dinner table and the round table of United Nations is the stakes.

“I need cereal.”

“You don’t need cereal. You want cereal. And you don’t get to eat what you want because you still need to at least try everything on your plate.”

“But I don’t like what’s on the plate.”

“You eat broccoli five times a week. Broccoli’s on your plate. Eat your broccoli.”

“I don’t like this broccoli.”

“You haven’t tasted this broccoli, so how do you know you won’t like it?”

“I need cereal.”

And around and around we go. We try to explain to our son the difference between needing and wanting to no avail. I’ve broken out into Rolling Stones covers: “You can’t always get what you want. But, if you try sometimes…” I’ve told him how we need to breathe in order to live, but we only want to watch a movie at night. I’ve put my foot down with stern command: “if you don’t do what we ask, you don’t get what you want,” adding a “period” like he knows the punctuation that ends a sentence.

Still, I just can’t break through to my son concerning the difference between what it means to need something and what it means to want something.

A luxury of first-world parenting is that we have the capacity to meet his every need. In fact, we bend over backwards so that he need never lack nourishment, love, clothes, shelter, support, the undisputed needs of childhood. How does the boy whose needs are provided for learn that he has those needs in the first place?


I know I learned the hard way.

While my son’s mornings require eating cereal and putting on clothes, mine require the admission that I am an alcoholic and an addict. That’s all I really need to do before leaving the house. Although, I’m sure my neighbors always appreciate that I also put on pants before walking outside.

I want to be well-fed and over-caffeinated, but those are extras. I could eat steak and eggs and drink a pot of coffee, and if I don’t admit to my inner-most self that I am alcoholic, I will find a way to royally fuck up my day.

I know what the newly-sober reader is thinking. “Inner-most self” is a phrase in the “fake it ‘til you make it” and “keep coming back” category of bullshit-alarm-sounding, cult-disciple drivel. That’s what I first thought of it. But, I’ve had enough experience to write that, today, this admission is a requirement for my survival. It is my oxygen mask on Mount Everest. (see “Be a Sherpa” for more climbing tips) 

Other behaviors I’ve learned to need include but are not limited to going to meetings, step work, and selfless action.

The amazing thing that happens in recovery—an occurrence I know is shared by many—is that by understanding the things I need to do, I gradually learn to want to do them, like a man whose doctor puts him on a diet to save his heart from failing and he grows to love how he feels when he eats healthy. I have gradually learned that I most enjoy doing the things that make me feel best.

I used to tell myself that I drank and drugged to feel good. In reality, I was doing what I needed to do to quench an unquenchable thirst. Now, I need to feel good and do the right thing in order to stay sober, so I find myself wanting to do the heavy lifting required in recovery.

It’s a strange paradox, this needing-what-I-want business—a paradox in that I want to do the honest thing now, even though it is uncomfortable. Who in their right mind wants to be uncomfortable?

I am learning more and more that uncomfortably is exactly what my right mind wants. My right mind wants to take the more difficult path, wants to be caught when I do wrong, wants to live without regret, wants to revolt against the complacency that my petty desires can drown me in.


Convincing a four-year-old that he actually wants to eat his broccoli because it is better for him?

Now that would be a miracle.


17 Responses to “Need

  • You’ve just made me realise that I need to remind myself every single morning that I AM an alcoholic, in order to make sure I keep away from the stuff. Otherwise I get complacent after about week 2 and think I’m ‘cured now’ or something. ‘Trying to quench an unquenchable thirst’ is spot on. That’s what I’ve been trying and failing to do for the past several years! Sending miracles your way for the broccoli encouragement ? Thanks for the post xxx

    • Wow. What a great realization! I tell you it works like a charm. If I do that, everything falls in place. At least, it’s been true for me. Thanks for the broccoli wishes.

  • “This about sums it all up:

    My right mind wants to take the more difficult path, wants to be caught when I do wrong, wants to live without regret, wants to revolt against the complacency that my petty desires can drown me in.”

    It’s a crazy thing because we bitch about things being difficult yet gravitate toward the difficult path, and the difficult path is usually lumped into the “easy way out” category.

    Thanks for the post, buddy.

  • Once again, gold: “I know what the newly-sober reader is thinking. ‘Inner-most self’ is a phrase in the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ and ‘keep coming back’ category of bullshit-alarm-sounding, cult-disciple drivel.”

    Really interesting how this notion of the inner-most-self dovetails with the book I just finished by Rabbi Rami Shapiro God: A Rabbi Rami Guide. In the passage below he’s describing how we interpret ourselves when looking in a physical mirror.

    “Every time you look to see who you are, you discover a. you behind that you; a you that cannot be seen. This you cannot be seen and only sees; this you cannot be known and only knows; this you has no name, no gender, no age, no location, no qualities of any kind. It is simply awareness.”

    Shapiro, Rabbi Rami (2013-08-23). God: A Rabbi Rami Guide (Kindle Locations 471-473). Seekers Without Borders. Kindle Edition.

    • That is a fascinating snippet. Like peeling away layers of an onion. Lot of tears involved as well. I want to hear more about this book when we meet up next weekend!

  • What an amazing post! I was ‘snort’ laughing at the dinner table negiotaions. I tell you Professional Negotiators have nothing on my children they can negotiate circles around the best of them and walk away while you are standing in the kitchen wondering what happened.I’m finding that these days what I want and need are becoming more aligned. I used to want to numb out and just escape and now I want to be awake and deal, and just BE without running away. xxx

  • This need vs. want tutorial would be great reading for anyone. Thank you.

  • I have to admit, that after reading this brilliant post, that I felt a jab in my side. That jab is knowing that I am not doing the things I need to do always. Like eat well. To eat properly to respect my body. To exercise regularly (mind you injuries are inevitable). To help others more. I know that I am doing some things which are “easy” to do, but don’t serve me in any way. And so when I read that we gravitate towards the difficult, because we know it will keep us on the beam (so to speak, in cult-language), I know I do fail in that. And then when I say that, I see the inner critic being an overbearing jerk.

    Where am I going with this? I don’t really know, but it has given me pause for thought, which is what a great post does. So with that, thank you for this, Mark.


    • Paul, there have been so many of your posts that have made me pause and think. I’m happy I was able to return the favor.

      While I can’t say I always take the more difficult or uncomfortable or right way, I can say that I am aware of it. And the better I’m aware of it, I find, the harder it is to ignore it.

      I hope you recovery quickly, health-speaking, and get to enjoy some time for yourself in these next few weeks.

  • Hi Mark!
    My hubs is glad I am doing the next right thing, because now I do the laundry, make the bed, and put the dishes away!
    I didn’t do those things when I was drinking.
    But now I want to help out, and I want to be less lazy at home.
    Making the commitments to myself and other people to stay sober, volunteering in the recovery community, and helping hubs, makes life so much richer.

    • PS- Hubs has to fight me about ice cream for dinner VS chicken, fruit and veggies.
      (I am the one who wants the ice cream.)

      • It’s funny, how similar we are, although in the who’s who spousal arrangement.

        It just feels good to do the right thing doesn’t it? And it was so hard to learn.

        Thanks for your feedback, Wendy!

  • When my kids were younger I tried to make it fun. Broccoli and carrot sticks blanched were accompanied by mayonnaise . They were allowed to use fingers to dip them in the mayo instead of using chopsticks.
    Now two are adults and we still all eat our broccoli and carrot with our fingers ?

    • Beautiful keepsake of parenting that. Recently. We discovered my son will eat virtually everything with sour cream on it. Funny. Thanks for reading and reflecting!

  • This made me laugh out loud. As you know I work with children, I get the “I need—” request/demand often! I am going to have to take The Rolling Stones song and add it to my “therapy arsenal”, kids love music. I also use “it’s not fun but it has to be done.”
    Excellent and thought provoking reflections on the human state and sobriety. My hubby says hello and he enjoyed the reading as well!

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