Thursday 13 May 2021

Baby steps to post-collegiate health

Dustin shares his experience with addiction and how he took baby steps towards recovery.

-  Dustin Kemp

Back in 2019, I had just finished a graduate program at a branch of an American university located in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I would love to say I had put my head down and doggedly pursued my studies like a good grad student, but the truth is that I got hopelessly lost along the way. To be more specific, I had developed a pair of nasty habits.

The first was smoking cigarettes. It had begun as a social activity I did with friends. Before too long, though, I started to really enjoy the feeling a cigarette gave me. And soon I stopped enjoying it and started to rely on it to maintain normality.

With  this dependence came negative feelings. Not only did the smoking itself make me feel lower-energy at all times, but the addiction brought on a feeling of helplessness I could not shake. I felt as if I was no longer in control of my life, which was an awful feeling.

My second dangerous habit was online gambling. I found it difficult to find exciting mental stimulation as a student in Vietnam… until I discovered online casinos. I went through the same phases with gambling addiction that I did with cigarettes; what started out as fun evolved into habit and then agonising dependence.

Unlike cigarettes, gambling did have a big impact on my bank account. My parents were sending me a large chunk of money each month at that point -- I’m lucky to come from a supportive background. But I was blowing nearly all of it on gambling.

I’ll always remember a line from the speech the dean gave on my university’s auditorium stage during graduation: “Now it is time for our graduates to begin their journey into the working world, and all the trials and tribulations that come with it.”

I took that line to heart, and I asked myself what those “trials and tribulations” would entail for me. Would I bring my demons with me? Would I continue sapping my health and losing money at a worrisome clip? The obvious answer was no, but I could hardly bring myself to stop those behaviours which had so quickly come to make up most of my identity… or so I felt at the time.

So instead of going cold turkey, I chose to take baby steps. My uncle (a reformed smoking addict) had told me about nicotine vapes that you can slowly decrease in nicotine content over time. I decided to give it a try, and I ordered one of the vapes from a local distributor.

Since then, I have very gradually decreased the nicotine content I smoke. I feel more clear-headed and I have a definite sense of pride in my own ability to make positive change that I never would have if I was still nursing my smoking habit. Eventually, I hope to get to 0% and, even further down the road, shed the vape completely. Baby steps.

For my online gambling addiction, I took another recommendation from a relative. My brother (who has always been much healthier than me) had for years been telling me to join him at a social casino he uses. He told me it’s free and it still provides the same mental stimulation as paid gambling through socialisation. When I realised online gambling would destroy my bank account (which my parents refused to continue supporting after I graduated), I decided to give the social casino idea a try.

And just like with the vape, I was astounded. I had always believed that the mental stimulation I needed could only be acquired through putting myself in dangerous situations, but that turned out to be totally false. Instead, I found stimulation by spending time with other happy, friendly individuals. And as an added benefit, I made friends online. Lots of them. It turns out healthy communities are actually a lot nicer than communities filled with addicts. Who knew?

I want to make it clear that I am not endorsing vapes or social casinos. I wish more than anything I had not started smoking or gambling in the first place, and that I did not need to use them as a coping mechanism. But I am endorsing baby steps. Almost everyone develops some kind of unhealthy habit, especially as a young person. And I want you to know that it is possible to kick those habits through small, incremental changes. Adopting a healthier lifestyle and removing negative habits from your life is a crucial part of success in the real world.

Read more about the small steps you can take to look after your wellbeing.

Dustin graduated from College of Wooster (USA) in 2010 and completed graduate studies at RMIT (Australia) in 2019. Since then, he has been focusing on mental health topics, especially addiction and recovery.


He currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he is learning to embrace life in a healthy and upwardly mobile way.

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