Monday, November 28, 2011

Addiction and Learning...

Our brains are wired to learn stuff - to speak a foreign language, play music, or do arithmetic. We can learn what makes us feel good about ourselves and how to prioritize. A big part of addiction is the learning of it. Drugs and alcohol teach the brain certain pathways to pain relief, euphoria, numbness, lessening feelings of grief, loss and guilt, anxiety control, mood stabilization and relief from depression and other psychiatric disorders. At first drugs work, until they don't work anymore, and it can be years and lots of damage before an alcoholic realizes that he/she needs a divorce from Mr./Ms. Smirnoff. (footnote 1)

So how do you get a divorce from the only thing you have ever really known, this thing your brain has learned to crave as strongly as it craves food, sex, air and sleep?  Craving is a mystery - the diet business thrives on low rates of weight loss success - not for lack of desire to lose weight. Wanting to get clean and staying clean are two different things but if an addict does not pick up his/her drink or drug he/she will not get high. So until the neurological brain chemistry mystery of craving is solved the practical question is not what stops craving but what stops relapse. (footnote 2)
There are a lot of approaches to relapse prevention - psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, hospital or clinic rehabs, outpatient treatment, etc. but the approach that has the most consistent and highest success rate is "working the program" of Alcoholics Anonymous and/or Narcotics Anonymous, i.e., go to AA/NA meetings, get a home group, get phone numbers, use them, make a coffee commitment, get a sponsor, work the steps, lose the old friends, develop a sober network, avoid "people, places and things". Early recovery is a full time job. (AA does not work for everyone - I am just reporting what experience has shown to have the highest success rate - by a wide margin).
If you want to be a lawyer you need to learn what lawyers do. If you want to be a teacher you have to learn what teachers do. If you want to learn sobriety you need to learn what the sober do (and I do not mean just the sober in recovery, I mean what regular non-addicted civilians do - what the poet Marie Howe calls, "What the living do"). 

The 12 steps of AA are what the living do. Some people think the 12 steps can be divided into 3 categories; 1) accept that substances are making a mess of your life, 2) fix your mess, 3) going forward, do the right thing. Some think that is pretty much what non-addicted civilians do - if they make a mess they clean it up and they move on. It can be tough sledding. Life on life's terms is rarely euphoric and often boring, sad, hard and way too frequently brushed by tragedy.  But the living somehow know, deep down, (footnote 3) that while pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice.

Sobriety does not guaranty the absence of pain and suffering but it does provide a chance.


FN 1: That you come to want what sobriety gives you more than you want what Mr./Ms. Smirnoff gives you.

FN 2: You probably have to learn how to stop using before you can learn why you used in the first place. Rarely is the order reversed.

FN 3:  You need a deep reason to stay sober because white knuckling it only works for so long.  By "deep" I mean a reason of the heart (whatever that means).

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