The Value of Knowledge
How I keep relapse thoughts under control
“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?”
– Indiana Jones
Most of us do not know snakes very well. That really isn’t a problem for most of us, but if we find ourselves in the woods, what if we see a snake?
There are plenty of snakes that aren’t poisonous and some that are. If you apply a metaphorical truth, you will treat all snakes as if they are poisonous. It works and if you follow it, you’ll never be poisoned by a snake’s bite.
What’s the problem with that? When it comes to snakes, not much. Most of us don’t hang out in the woods a lot (and best of all, most aren’t attracted to the idea of playing with them). However, when it comes to potential issues that are more common, it can be costly to fail to understand them.
For example, fire can be very dangerous. It can harm you and it can even kill you. It can also keep you warm, cook your food, power vehicles, and in some survival cases it can save your life. So, why don’t we separate ourselves from fire at all costs? Because we understand it.
The threat of relapse back into alcohol use disorder is no different to me, because the threat of relapse is very real and ever-present. Taking the time to understand and mitigate that threat can free me to maneuver more freely, increase the potential for adventure, and return to growth in my life.
The way I see it, there are two problems to face when it comes to relapse. The first is the biology and the second is the psychology. Using some knowledge that is medically oriented, but not detailed or technical, will help me explain.
Our bodies are instilled with self-preservation. Like the body’s blood clotting and muscle flinching, the brain has defenses to protect itself. When we were building a tolerance to our drinking, the brain increased its own chemicals to balance the alcohol. When we periodically stopped, the balancing chemicals continued to flow. That’s what made us miserable, giving us shakes and cravings.
However, the body balances itself again after we completely quit. The shakes and cravings soon subside because those balancing chemicals aren’t needed anymore to counteract the ingested alcohol.
Unfortunately, in other ways the brain does not reset itself back to what it was like in previous days. As we drank more, the brain reduced capacity for the chemicals (dopamine) that made us feel good to take effect. That’s why we drank more and more to get the good feelings like we had in the beginning. The problem is that reduction capability was permanently reduced. It doesn’t come back, even after we quit for long periods.
If I were to drink again, in order to reach those good feeling level again, I’d have to increase right back to the levels I left off. The counterbalancing chemicals would increase and I will go back to feeling worse when I stop drinking, ending up right where I left off.
Here’s the other problem: we can’t control what we think. Think that’s crazy? Try this thought experiment. Try not to think of something. For the next 30 seconds, don’t think about white clouds in a blue sky, using your watch to track the time. You may try to think of a starlit night, or maybe even an orange sunset, but I bet those white clouds in the blue sky will appear in your mind, most likely when you look at your watch to see how far along you are.
Similarly, euphoric recall of good times is inevitable, especially when you are bored, and the thought of drinking again becomes attractive. Even if you recovered from a low bottom, your brain still think of times when you were drinking in a positive light, even if subliminally remembering that drinking was something that brought you to feeling normal, let alone drunk.
So what to do about this? Here’s where I differ from a lot of my friends. I simply let the thoughts happen when they come. I can’t stop it, so I don’t try. Sound dangerous? Well, like sitting by the fire, it is important to understand what it is and what to do to stay safe. Psychology studies also show that the more you fight it, the more it comes back. Until the day that they stop coming, here’s what I do.
When the conscious thoughts come, I remember the biology of it all. Yes, a couple drinks sounds good, but when I think about it, I think about how much it really would take to be satisfied, and it’s not a couple drinks. Knowing the consequences of that high consumption required, I soon remember that when the run is over and the alcohol stops flowing, the balancing chemicals will not, and I will feel worse off than when the whole fantasy-turned-reality started.
There is a common saying in traditional recovery about ‘playing the tape all the way through’ and this concept is similar with an important difference. When simply contemplating how it will all go forward, without understanding the absolutes of the biology, it would be easy to convince oneself that things will be different this time. Not knowing better, you think you have healed back to how you were before you started drinking… but you have not.
Many types of recovery are full of metaphorical truths (on top of superstition). They contain things that might get you through the day, and while they do work for a minority of people with alcohol use disorder, the far majority do not stick with the programs. The problem is they do not acknowledge the real issues that biology and psychology bring to the table.
Knowledge allows me to deal with the problem at hand. Taking the time to understand what is really going on will guide me on how to handle my recovery, how not to let the fire burn me, and to know which snakes will kill me.
P.S. If you are looking to do your own research, which I encourage, start with this:
1. YouTube SciShow The Chemistry of Addiction
2. Alcohol and dopamine addiction
3. Psychology of addiction
Author © Chuck S.