Don’t Ask Me To Normalize Your Addiction

Today when I was getting my haircut my hairdresser “Kelly” asked me why I looked so down. I told her about some work I am doing with my therapist to understand addictive behavior. My response led her to confess her battle with alcoholism. You would never know. She is young, gorgeous and outgoing…but she was a self proclaimed “totally addicted basket-case,” homeless on the street at 22. Kelly told me that AA meetings saved her life, but that she had already “messed-up” every important relationship she had before she found AA. Eight years later she still goes to AA once a week. She recommended I go to Ala-Non meetings. My last therapist who got me through my sea creature nightmares recommended Ala-Non well, my mom even recommended Ala-Non a few years ago but I didn’t listen to her. I’ve been going now, and sit in the back listening. The more I listen, the more I understand that addiction is about masking pain, and I am all about feeling pain and trying to figure it out.

I have too many stories of people in my life who are fucked up by substances. I’ve witnessed the slow demise, the denial dance, nervous system overload, violent explosions, the vacant stare comatose, and the cold turkey quitter. There have been prison sentences, family interventions, rehab, and talk therapy.

There are things we manage to forget no matter how painful, and there are things we can’t forget no matter how hard we try. For people who become drug addicts, the drug experience — the substance, but the entire “scene” too — is not only unforgettable but indelibly etched into the physiological brain circuitry that drives us onward through the obstacle course of existence.(1)

The “scene” can be cleverly camouflaged. A socially acceptable “scene” may involves fancy restaurants with expensive wine lists, old historic bars with flirty women who think they look sexy, a friend’s backyard fire pit or wine cellar, maybe a classy trip into Sonoma hopping incessantly from winery to winery. Everyone is in a good mood, everyone is somewhere between buzzed and drunk. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned not to morally judge addiction, and take it for what it is: a dis-ease. That’s not an easy thing to do when your whole life falls apart because of someone’s substance addiction. I wanted to get to the heart of it. To hear and understand everything. Show me the pain. I’m sick of covering up with “Michelin Star” restaurants, annual “family” BBQs, city clubs, and $1,000,000 wine cellars.

All addictive drugs appear to share a rather mysterious property: They’re “better than the real thing.” Better, that is, than the real things our reward circuitry was designed by evolution to reward: food, sleep, sex, friendship, novelty, etc. And better, even, than they were the last time around. At least, it seems that way to the addict.

Maybe that’s why the more someone uses, the less they seek pleasure from the various facets of life. The woman they married, the child they made, the brand new road bike in the garage with zero miles on it, the historic novel they’ve been meaning to read collecting dust on the shelf…

About 25 million Americans are addicted to drugs (including alcohol but excluding nicotine), about the same number as those who have diabetes. But wanting a drug — really, seriously craving it — doesn’t mean you have to like it. Addictive drugs mimic natural rewards such as food and sex by kindling a network of brain areas collectively called the reward circuitry, which is responsible for enjoyment — which if you think about it, is an important survival response. It gets us to do more of the kinds of things that keep us alive and lead to our having more offspring: food-seeking and ingestion, hunting and hoarding, selecting a mate and actually mating. Over time, the desire for the drug becomes more important than the pleasure the addict gets from it. By the time the thrill is gone, long-lasting changes may have occurred within key regions of the brain.(1)

That means that once drugs and alcohol become the “norm” for an individual, the brain has already changed, the person‘s personality has morphed, their potential has waned, and their relationships have suffered, except for the ones that normalize the addiction. Perhaps because those friends or family members themselves are scared to confront the individual, or because they themselves have an addiction and need familiar company.

I come back to Kelly: There was something bazaar about how she flipped from discussing the intricacies of her new hair extensions, to painting a picture of her former sloppy alcoholic self — all in the same five minutes. When I started to cry, she let me cry, fetched me a tissue, and kept talking. People were looking…but she didn’t care and neither did I. I loved her for that. She lives in the woods in Portola Valley with her recovered alcoholic boyfriend. They swim for an hour every morning.

References:

  1. http://sm.stanford.edu/archive/stanmed/2012spring/article5.html
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