In detox and treatment we often hear patients say things like, “I’m an alcoholic, but it won’t hurt if I smoke a little weed now and then,” or “Those pills really messed me up; I’m sticking to beer from now on,” or “I can still hit the casino now and then, I don’t have to drink while I’m playing,” or “No way I’m going to wait a year before I have a relationship; everyone needs sex!”
When we caution folks about these things, they naturally give us a lot of push-back. The general attitude seems to be “You people don’t want me to have any fun at all,” or “I have to live in the real world, and in the real world people _________!” (You fill in the blank.)
The Dangers of Justification
We addicts love to get things done instantly. Addiction is about getting what we want, when we want it. Yes, we do have to live in the real world, but we weren’t doing so while we were active in our addictions, and diving back into it headfirst is a recipe for disaster. We simply aren’t at home there, and haven’t been for a long time. The adjustments are uncomfortable, and many things can distract us from making them, since our brains are telling us we don’t want to in the first place.
In order to realize why some things are a really poor idea for people in recovery, we need to understand that addiction occurs in our brains, and as far as our brains are concerned, one source of stimulation is pretty much the same as the next.
Addiction — all addiction — is about the reward system, that mechanism of the brain that causes us to want to do things like eat, drink, associate with others, bond to others, make babies, and so forth. When we play hard and win, we feel good because our reward system has gotten a dose of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and similar brain chemicals. When we confront a problem and solve it, we get a feeling of satisfaction. When we enjoy a movie, when we laugh, when we see a beautiful sunset — or a beautiful person — we enjoy those things because we get a jolt of those feel-good chemicals. Romantic love, sexual pleasure, and the feelings of contentment, companionship and comfort that come from mature relationships are also due to stimulation of our reward systems.
But the reward system can be hijacked. Drugs such as alcohol, cocaine and heroin — in fact, any drugs that make us feel good quickly — deliver their payoff via the reward system. They do that by either replacing or mimicking chemicals that insure the delivery of a LOT of feel-good neurotransmitters to the reward areas of the brain. When we use drugs, or when we compulsively engage in activities such as shopping, sex, gambling and other things that are highly exciting, we are able to artificially achieve a higher level of stimulation than we would naturally. This makes us want to repeat the experience.
We Will Never Match that First High
The problem is, our brains quickly adjust to the higher levels of stimulation and we then need to “up the ante” by increasing whatever we are doing to achieve them. Two beers become four or five, one bag of dope becomes three — or ten; one shopping spree doesn’t do the job, so we shop online; one “casual affair” becomes the first of many; one win at the slots keeps us searching for the next one. We keep chasing that original, wonderful first high. And we never find it.
So it’s pretty easy to see how we can convince ourselves that we “need” something to “distract” us from our drugs. The trouble is that the pills we take for our nerves, the hours on the Internet, the sets of iron at the gym, the marathons, the romances don’t really distract us. Our reward systems are still screaming for more, and because these things work on our reward systems in the same ways that our drugs of choice do, they are prime candidates to become substitute, or cross-addictions.
Breaking the Cycle of Dependency
The trick is to listen to folks who have been there. We can substitute the healthy relationships in our recovery groups for the sick ones that are strictly for pleasure. We can take long walks to help us sleep and to burn up the energy that seems to be driving us nuts. We can take up hobbies, help other addicts, spend time with our new friends doing healthy things, and generally change our lives.
Or, we can end up with another addiction that will distract us from our recovery and most likely lead us back to our drug(s) of choice, with possibly another one or two added on for good measure. Sound like the path to a happy life? The decision is ours, and we have to make it for ourselves. We need to choose carefully.