The Mechanisms of Addiction

When alcohol killed my best friend I wondered why the hell she didn’t stop.

When it ruined my friends, I wondered why they didn’t stop.

When I wound up in jail, I wondered why I hadn’t stopped.

When my friend calls about her boyfriend who can’t stop drinking even though they have three babies who need love and attention and care, I wonder.

In rehab for bulimia I learned about the way dopamine is released upon successful completion of a task or upon successful imbibing of a drink. Throwing up releases dopamine. So does getting high. Drinking.

Andrew Huberman, a Stanford based neuroscientist, recently said on The Joe Rogan Experience: “Addiction is a progressive narrowing of the things that bring you pleasure.”

When we do difficult things, like set out to run a mile, we are forced to push ourselves beyond our limits. It hurts. It sucks. But the release of dopamine after a good run brings pleasure. You might not hit that runner’s high state until you’re able to run up to two or three miles. First, there’s that two-week stage of just clearing out your lungs and lymph nodes, getting everything flowing again. Then there’s that secondary stage of passing through the muscle fatigue, stretching, breathwork and maintaining pace to push beyond that stop sign at the end of that 2 mile mark. Then there’s the third stage: Run as much as you want…the high is the best freedom you’ve ever experienced. Now you’ve just got to make sure you’re eating well and drinking enough water.

Natural highs take work.

Alcohol, it was explained to me in rehab, and weed and throwing up and shopping and eating guilty pleasure foods are quick fixes we turn to so that instead of taking the time to work hard for the more sustainable, healthier payoff, we can feel immediate relief.

The problem with this regarding alcohol or any self-destructive behavior really, is that the more we turn to whatever that fix is for relief, the less tolerance we maintain for pain. We reinforce the pain, which is often caused by a lack of self-esteem and self-worth, perpetuate it by pacifying the pain instead of addressing it at the root, and turn to it even when people we love start to fade out of our lives because alcohol causes brain damage and dependency. Eventually, after long enough, the distance between you and pleasure can only be measured by the distance between your gullet and the next drink.

I know this because I’m an alcoholic and I’ve switched up one addiction for another plenty of times.

Jail and fear of losing everything are the only way I was able to find the motivation to stop, but there was nuance to that.

In his investigation of Ashininca Ayuhuasqueros and their use of botanical plants in the Amazon, Stanford anthropologist Jeremy Narby writes about the eye: 

“…the human eye is more sophisticated than any camera of similar size. The cells on the outer layer of the retina can absorb a single particle of light, or photon, and amplify its energy at least a million times, before transferring it in the form of a nervous signal to the back of the brain. The iris, which functions as the eye’s diaphragm is automatically controlled. The cornea has just the right curvature. The lens is focused by miniature muscles, which are also controlled automatically by feedback. The final result of this visual system, still imperfectly understood,” [hail science], “in its entirety, is a clear, colored, and three-dimensional image inside the brain that we perceive as external. We never see reality, but only an internal representation of it that our brain constructs for us continuously,” (105). 

I like his use of the word diaphragm. We breathe to live and the diaphragm works like the lens. By looking at something with the diaphragm in the eye, do we breathe it into being but like, with light? Visualization is a powerful tool.

What’s more, the images we “see” are processed upside down and take up to 13 milliseconds for us to recognize, on average, during which time our brain fills in the missing pieces of what we didn’t take in consciously with a sort of predictive text function we call expectation which adapts to the context of the situation to keep us sane, very unlike the predictive text function that turns “fucking” to “ducking” on my cellular device. This function of expectation is one born of the collective agreement upon what is sane—or, our cultural narrative. 

But it is still a story around a thing that is storyless without our interaction with it.  

Anil Seth, a cognitive neuroscientist, came out with one of my favorite Ted Talks ever in 2017. He explains these processes in much more detail and with a much more thorough understanding, but I will share here one thing he says: “All that changes is your brain’s best guess of the cause of that information, and that changes what you consciously hear.” 

In other words, what you think you know, changes what you consciously perceive. So unless you think you know absolutely nothing, you’re walking around in your own world which is very far from objective. We all have likes and dislikes, fears and desires, impulses and habits, idiosyncrasies.  

This happens often in arguments. A stranger in a restaurant says, “Pass me that napkin,” and you (the proverbial you, of course) grew up believing in manners, so the lack of a please or thank you makes you perceive them as rude. They are asking for a napkin to help clean up a spilled soda that a little girl is crying over, not because of the soda, but because she is ashamed to have made a mess. Her mother is controlling the scene, so the poor girl has some internalized, mommy-induced shame to work through later, but that really is her problem. Life is easy for no one. Therefore, you are now rude for not helping that man and that little girl. Further, you’re petty.  

The brain processes about 11,000 bits of information per second, 40 of which we are consciously aware of. The other 10,960 bits account for the subconscious expectations which influence our perception of the non-seeing picture we develop of the world. What’s more, previous expectations that are entirely unrelated to this experience other than the experience was ours, can see us bringing our expectations to a scene and committing in action to that story of our past trauma instead of the present story of what is now.

You want objectivity? Be present always. It’s impossible unless you’re Buddha who doesn’t operate in a the cultural narrative which is a version of insanity by all technical definitions. The ego is what we use to interface with one another. It is necessary. There is no such thing as objectivity unless you are totally enlightened, in which case you’re no longer human.

What I’m getting at is it’s possible to change our subconscious narratives, but we must take control of our own personal narrative or surrender to the narratives to which we are exposed. I don’t know about you, but I’m not stoked on a lot of our modern narratives so I’m down to craft my own thanks.

Our minds seek the problem as a means of finding the solution, but often we get stuck only looking at the problem. It’s habitual to do so, but not exactly helpful. Famous problem solvers like Einstein and Isaac Newton, believed in the power of the subconscious and intuition to solve problems. If Einstein had a problem, he’d nap on it.

The 10,960 bits per second are being processed in the “90%” of the brain capacity we don’t use. When we use meditation and visualization to focus our intentions, the subconscious mind starts to understand: this is the problem we are working to solve and this is the result we want. (The subconscious mind also knows when you are convincing yourself you want something instead of actually wanting it. That’s a different post in the making right now. We’ll problem-solve that later.)

We have revealing dreams. “Synchronicities,” start to appear, signs and coincidences, although it is likely they are just opportunities our brain wasn’t noticing before when we were training it to only notice the problems. Instead, we must train our brain to look for the solutions and we must know what result we are looking for so the subconscious mind can get to work.

We will cal this alchemy, for these are the foundational principles of the law of attraction from my practice, understanding, and many more intelligent peoples’ research over years of hard work and exploration. We have the power to train our minds to be our servants.

The addict is a slave to the mind. The battle to recover, then, is one we fight daily through choice, intention, conscious awareness, and cultivating healthy values that are good for us and our people.

 I would agree with the statement that we haven’t ever truly seen reality objectively, arguing only that instead of never seeing reality, we always have the potential to see various versions of reality until we commit to the construction of the narrative.  

We commit via action.

What do your actions tell you about what you value?

When I reached for that bottle, I was committing to being an alcoholic. What’s more, I’m still a girlfriend, a mom-to-be, a person in a family, a friend. Those facets of me didn’t just go away. I was an unsupportive girlfriend, a woman who definitely wasn’t ready to be a mom, an alcoholic who had used her family and blamed them for her circumstances, and a friend who only called when she needed to blow off steam, which was always.

Addicts suck. It is what it is. Addiction is a disease born of mistreatment of the brain and a hijacking of it’s natural reward system. An addicted person is not free. An addicted person lacks self-worth.

I suspect alcohol is only legal because the industrial complexes around death, health, and productivity at the expense of a human being’s precious time are all fed by alcohol. 50% of all accidents–not just car accidents–all accidents, involve alcohol. Most reported cases of sexual abuse involve alcohol. The Native Americans were done in as much by addiction as they were by white force. It is an evil, toxic substance. Some people can handle it though I don’t know why we bother anymore. We have better things to do like saving our country and our planet and ourselves and the animals and stuff. First I need to just stand on my own two damned feet. Are you with me?

So, cool.

I was there in jail realizing I’d really fucked up remembering how my friend’s boyfriend called the cops on her per my suggestion once when she was beating him. She was drunk. He had a few broken ribs.

In jail my dead friend stands next to me and learns along with me. Her anger in life was too bitter for forgiveness. Her company is welcome. We have a silent conversation. I know better than to speak aloud to ghosts, though I see them all the time.

First we talk about how I fucked up and I have to fix things because no one else is responsible for my mistakes or my life. I do not have time to feel bad for myself anymore. I tell her I’m sorry I couldn’t help her and she tells me to help myself. If I can do that, I can help others.

So I start running instead of drinking, understanding that the struggle to push my body is also the struggle to push past my mental limitations. Also, not drinking made me feel like crawling out of my skin and there is really a lot of anger and resentment to address, so running is the healthiest outlet I can think of and requires no money. Just me and my shoes and my body.

It should be difficult.

We turn to addiction because we fail to overcome.

Second: Now that I’m committed to a different story, what actions shall I take instead?

Don’t feel like doing the dishes? What kind of person are you?

Don’t want to be sober? What are you choosing instead?

Where in your life are you unhappy? Probably, you’re going to have to do some hard things to correct that, but you must start. Start somewhere.

The alcoholic has no self-esteem with which to become motivated. The only pleasure, until distance and healing of the brain are achieved in some minor capacity, is the promise of the next drink.

What’s sad about all of this is that if we can work this stuff out in our subconscious minds with a solid picture of where we’d like to be (start with something small) is that the problem seems not to be alcoholism or addiction at all but a lack of an ability to imagine one can become better.

It is hopelessness.

You can be better, I promise.

It’s not your fault. It’s no one else’s either. This is just your life and you’re responsible because you’re the only one who has to be in it.

No one told you, maybe, and maybe no is going to tell you besides me, but you can be better. If you have the courage to imagine you will reach for your kids instead of a bottle and you have the strength to face the shame for all the times you should have and didn’t and you summon the conviction to act you have already become a better person than you ever were.

It takes real chutzpah to look at oneself full-on and say “fuck you, you drunk sad self. You can be better. I love you person in there who is sad. Why are you doing this? Stop it. You know you can do better. What’s better? Holy shit we can have that and we’ve been drinking it away the whole time?”

Here’s where the cycle of shame starts again. DONT let it.

“FUCK YOU, SHAME. Today, I am strong. Today, I have courage! You want me to drink? NO! I’m going running and it’s going to suck and I’m going to feel so good when it’s done. Today, no bottle of booze will come between me and my love of life. No more.”

Fight. Fight for your life. These are the stakes for the alcoholic always.

I called my alcoholism a demon and put myself in a story of light against dark and started to tell those demons to fuck off. Daily. Minute by minute. It was maddening.

Eventually, it was so maddening I became fueled by anger which needs a healthy outlet, which became running, which became needing to eat more, which became a healthy diet.

Just start by naming the drink or the fix for what it is: A demon.

Alcoholics are possessed by alcohol which in those words just looks fine, except the further you go, the more fucked you get. Stop now. We cannot buy back our time. Use your time like it’s money. Spend it wisely.

More on this later. It’s a start for now.

All my love.

Be well humans.

3 thoughts on “The Mechanisms of Addiction

  1. Well stated. I’m curious if you’ve ever done AA? I’m in it now along with paid outpatient treatment 4 hours a week which my employer is making me do and which surprisingly I enjoy because the counselor is good. I go to AA meetings less and less lately because the repetitive nature kind of annoys me. Usually attend weekends on zoom though. I was just curious if you ever attended and found it helpful or if you are doing this all on your own.

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    1. I have done AA and had a sponsor through step 3. The reconciliation with the word GOD took me about three years. I’d say the whole testing my faith thing has been the theme of this last year as well as developing a faith. AA was difficult because I felt like there was a competition to see who’d fucked up more and I couldn’t be in a room with that energy because I’m highly competitive. So I use the principles of AA combined with my own idea of faith and cross reference that with multiple faiths and recovery programs…the point is not to gridlock myself into an ideology, but rather to understand why I felt it necessary to drink in the first place. I believe human nature isn’t fully understood, doesn’t have a healthy outlet in most civilized avenues, and that my drinking stems from a lack of self worth that is perpetuated by that short-lived reward system. Exercising the Dopaminergic system the way it was supposed to be used…with patience, discipline, and long-term reward for hard work, directly cultivates self-worth. Faith gets us through the uncertainty and fear of failure, and humility gives us the courage to get back up and try again and to understand everyone else is struggling too. So yeah. I think AA is an excellent program and one of any tools that should be used to stay sober. Fight!

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      1. Well stated =). Thanks for answering that because I was curious. I read with interest your comment about having ended up in jail for a night for busting a window or something a while back. Had meant to comment on that but time got away from me. I have trouble with the God thing – I relate to that comment. It would help me if they printed a version of The Big Book where “Spirit Guide” replaces “God”. I try to do that in my mind, but just the actual word God and the fact that the BB is so clearly Dogmatic even though it purports not to be is kind of a block for me. It’s kind of funny and interesting to me about your being competitive and the thing about how it’s a big competition about how is the most fucked up. Ha. I can see how that would bring about a negative energy because it’s not a very good thing for people to compete over.

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