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Feature story: Author warns of price we pay for racing through our lives

Do you feel empty if you are not in constant action? Do you feel nervous without your tech gear in hand or pocket? Do you believe stress is the price of success and chaos is normal? And lest we forget our kids, are we as a society modeling unhealthy behavior and sowing the seeds of a future generation that is socially crippled?

These are among the questions Stephanie Brown wants you to ask yourself -- preferably after you slow down and quiet your mind. A psychologist, teacher and consultant in the field of addiction, Ms. Brown has watched with growing alarm the revving up of our lives in recent decades as we attempt to do more, earn more, and "have it all."

The impulse to go ever faster is an addiction, she believes; the consequences are wide-ranging and toxic to our lives and society.

Deep concern about those consequences led the longtime Menlo Park resident to write "Speed: Facing an Addiction to Fast and Faster -- and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down," which was released earlier this month. The book offers a mix of stories based on the super-charged lives and discontents of people she has encountered in her practice and her social circle; her perspectives on how the pace of our lives is outpacing our ability to function as healthy, fulfilled human beings; and possible approaches to slowing down and living more satisfying lives, based on her professional expertise.

Ms. Brown will talk about the book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, at Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park.

A new conversation

"Hopefully, my book is going to be part of a new conversation," Ms. Brown says during an interview at the Addictions Institute, an outpatient counseling and therapy program she founded and directs in Menlo Park. The timing is right for such a conversation, she believes, because the problem she addresses is taking a heavy toll as work weeks lengthen into 80- and 90-hour slog-athons, children have more contact with their teachers, nannies and smart phones than with their parents, and hyped-up workaholics have to pop a pill to go to sleep only to jump on the treadmill again in a few short hours.

"A lot of people are aware of the problem, but feel they have no choice," she says. "Everybody is ready (to slow down), but nobody wants to fail. ... I want people to ask, 'What am I doing?'

"I hope my book is going to (encourage them) to do that. I'm very, very worried that we've lost ourselves, but we can't get back to ourselves by going faster."

Ms. Brown has had a front-row seat watching the evolution of the problem she chronicles. In her book's prologue, she writes: "I live and work in Silicon Valley, the heart of technology innovation and revolution over the last thirty years. I have felt the pace of my world increase dramatically in the last fifteen years, with pressures all around me to do more, go faster, and think smarter in every aspect of my life.

"I've felt it in my work, as more people call in crisis, out of control with alcohol or other drugs, hooked on prescription meds to wake up and go to sleep so they can maintain their fast pace, or frantic about an adolescent child who has shut down emotionally, turned to marijuana and all-night marathons of video games to cope with the constant pressure to keep up, to achieve, to push the limits."

During that time, she said in the interview, "I was starting to see the whole of Silicon Valley become like an alcoholic family."

As she watched and studied the trend of people "moving way too fast" that began in the 1990s, she began to realize they were out of control, "and since I knew about addiction as a loss of control, it seemed like I was seeing the world as a 3-D caricature of the same thing," she writes in the book.

"But I knew that raising the idea of a culture hooked on speed would be a difficult proposition at that point in time. This was a high on its way up, a huge new wave for anyone to catch. Nobody wanted to hear that there were tides and an undertow that could sweep you away."

Beyond technology

Although technology has allowed, even encouraged us to keep our lives in high gear for increasingly extended periods of time as we chase after ever-more money, power and success, there's much more to the problem than our digital devices, Ms. Brown notes. The behavior made possible by technology is also rooted in attitudes deep within us and our culture -- in some ways, in the legacy of the American spirit that forged a country from wilderness.

"The concept of Manifest Destiny, a creed of entitlement that began with the Pilgrims' arrival, reflected the belief that Americans had unlimited power and could go anywhere and do anything," she writes. That mindset was fertile ground for three pervasive attitudes in our culture, Ms. Brown writes: "You can have whatever you want and all you want; you should be in charge and in control; and, your power to accomplish these feats centers in you."

In modern times, this belief system "has mixed with the reality (for now) of an unlimited cyberspace and unlimited speed of technology to make a toxic brew," she writes. "Our cultural values and beliefs require people to live at high speed in order to progress, to achieve and not fail. People's lives become out of control. They become addicted to a fast pace just like the individual addicted to alcohol or gambling."

Our sped-up lives leave little time for self-reflection and to form real relationships, Ms. Brown warns. Without self-reflection, a person operates more and more on impulse, a primitive level of development. "We're becoming a playground of impulse dominance that often requires one public apology after another," she writes.

In the book, Ms. Brown cites troublesome examples of adults unable to form relationships for lack of time. As people devote increasing time to their work, "there's no deep contact (with others), and everybody's feeling empty," she said in the interview.

She sounds the alarm about the impact rushed and racing parents have on their children, noting that child development is founded on human attachment. Parents, she says, need to be actively, emotionally engaged with their kids. "You don't develop a sense of self without interacting with others," she says. That engagement should include real-time, face-to-face conversation, and she encourages a return to classic dinner-table interaction.

"Without fundamental human attachments, kids will grow up with real holes in their relationships," she says.

'Small is big'

Another pervasive cultural attitude is that change must be big to make a difference, Ms. Brown says. "People believe there's only the 'next big thing.' That's wrong ... we can change with small steps -- they must be small, otherwise people are way too frightened.

"Small is big when it comes to change, when it comes to understanding."

But change we must, Ms. Brown says, if we hope to take back our lives and foster a healthy, life-enhancing environment for our children to thrive in.

"Instead of looking for the big change, the big sacrifice, start with 15 minutes of quiet," she says. Quiet time is essential for self-reflection, she adds, and without that, there's no chance that change will occur. "I'm all for simple; for one step at a time."

The book includes advice and guidelines for people to evaluate their own behaviors and establish a path to regain control of their lives. She looks at the principles and philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous as a possible template for that task.

Ms. Brown writes about her own experience as a recovering alcoholic and the daughter of alcoholics. She founded the Alcohol Clinic at Stanford University Medical Center in 1977 and served as its director for eight years, according to her website.

Her opening of the Addictions Institute was not her first encounter with Menlo Park. Although she was born in the Midwest, she moved here with her family at age 7, attending Hillview School and Menlo-Atherton High School. She returned to Menlo Park after college, she says, and has lived here since.

If you go

Stephanie Brown reads from her new book, "Speed: Facing an Addiction to Fast and Faster -- and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down," on Thursday, Jan. 30, at Kepler's bookstore, 1010 El Camino Real in Menlo Park. The program begins at 7:30 p.m., and admission is free. For information, call 324-4321, or go to Keplers.com.

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