In the sobriety and recovery circles I’ve been hanging around for the past couple years, so many people talk about their struggle and setbacks with alcohol as a personal failure.
“I can’t get this. How can anyone be so stupid. I feel so ashamed. There’s something wrong with me.”
And that vicious cycle of desperately wanting to/trying to stop the madness and stay off the rat wheel, yet finding that so damn hard, has them lashed to a downward spiral of discouragement headed for the deep dark jungles of self-loathing and despair.
I’m here to say there is nothing wrong with you beyond being human—but that is, in itself, a mind-blowing complexity. You are a fully conscious being, capable of imagining unlimited possibilities and (at least in theory) capable of creating anything you can imagine. Take a moment to let that soak in. We can dream, create, accomplish, plan, collaborate, communicate, execute, inspire, motivate, catalyze, heal, transform, transcend, and defy all odds—including at times, the laws of nature and the boundaries of time and space. We not only have the power of thought, we can be the witness and observe our own thoughts.
In order to free up lots of bandwidth for all those super powers, our incredibly efficient brain wants to cruise-control through anything that no longer requires attention/thinking. The area of the brain that handles these off-loaded automatic responses is called the limbic system. Here is where we find motivation, emotion, learning, and memory along with survival instincts including arousal, fear response, and conditioned responses to pain and pleasure. This so-called “primitive” part of our brain connects us most closely to our animal nature.
Yup, in a very real sense, we are just like Pavlov’s dogs: We can be conditioned (or condition ourselves) into just about any non-thinking, automated, subconscious response through REWARD or PUNISHMENT. Most of us know that process by its nickname, Habit—our best friend and our worst enemy. In a perfect world our habits would all be positive. But we don’t live in a perfect world, not even close.
When such deep under-belly influences like memory, motivation, pain, pleasure, and survival are involved, no wonder unproductive or harmful habits are so easy to fall into and so hard to pull away from. We can feel stuck dealing with unresolved past/present pain, anxiety, and fear or we might feel dead inside because our brain got used to super-nova dopamine fireworks.
In both cases, the hijacked limbic brain starts screaming: YOU NEED THIS FOR YOUR SURVIVAL! WE’RE GONNA DIE WITHOUT IT! Of course that scream is on a frequency that only your subconscious can hear because even your primitive brain knows that your rational mind won’t buy that one! The voices in your rational mind are ever so charming and clever and convincing and inviting and captivating, like “You deserve this!” Or how about, “Just one drink tonight, it’s good to loosen up and not be so rigid.” I know that everyone out here can insert some lines of their own right here.
So let’s start by getting over any sense of shame in falling prey to addiction. I don’t care what terrible low you just hit or where you’ve been or how dark your story is. Maybe you slid into a habit that is becoming troublesome or maybe you’ve tumbled all the way into full-blown addiction, but your brain was doing exactly what it was created to do.
It’s so easy in today’s crazy, scary, stressed-out world for the brain to get hijacked by a substance or activity that helps us feel less pain or more pleasure or both. At least in the beginning it seems to “fix” something or represent some kind of upper or good time. By the time “good” has soured or turned into “terrible,” many of us are hooked.
And let’s face it. Anyone involved at all in modern life is bombarded by opportunities and media invitations to escape, medicate, tune out, turn on, calm down, get high. There’s nothing mysterious or unusual about ending up in battle with an addiction, the only mystery is finding your way out. Your path to freedom. What works for you.
Which brings us back to our beautiful brain and Pavlov’s dogs. Surely you know the experiment: Pavlov rang a bell each time he fed the dogs. After some time, he rang the bell and they started to salivate in anticipation of being fed—but no food showed up. The drooling and anticipation at the sound of the bell went on for a while, but eventually the “conditioned” association and physiological response faded completely.
Our sober journeys may vary greatly, but one thing we all seem to share is the misery of dealing with cravings and/or urges—and my personal favorite, related obsessive thoughts. It just might be helpful for some of us to visualize what’s going on as BELLS and DROOL.
The bells are anything that we’ve identified as a trigger, which is a pretty easy mystery to solve because it comes before the drool. I know the list can be long. Happy, sad, depressed, manic, bored, hungry, lonely, emotional pain, physical pain, bad news, good news, grief, celebrations—people, places, and things including time of day. Fill in your own blanks, most of us can do that pretty well. So much for the BELLS.
Planning for known BELLS is a huge part of this work: Changing up routines, avoiding some things, finding new activities and new associations. Seeking out alternative rewards or pleasurable distractions (or just effective distractions, don’t ask for the moon). That’s not all we have to do, but it does make the rest of our job easier.
The real work is learning how to BE WITH THE DROOL and not fall prey to the scream for the old reward. It’s uncomfortable for sure, no one likes the feeling of an itch they can’t scratch. How long will it last? How strong will it be? Who knows. That’s where your planning becomes pure gold. You can white-knuckle through anything, but why set yourself up for that? Life is going to toss enough surprises your way and blindside you now and then, so PLAN WHERE YOU CAN.
BEING WITH THE DROOL doesn’t mean resisting.
What we resist persists because it sinks us into internal conflict. No one enjoys wrestling with alligators. Being with the drool means just that, letting it BE there and staying as peaceful as possible as you observe all the thoughts and emotions and sensations bubbling up. If possible, grab a journal and write out every thought and feeling. If you are into EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), Tapping is another incredibly helpful thing to do with a drool. This is also the time to reach for your arsenal of tools and resources, to connect with your chosen social community like BOOM, and basically gather around yourself any and all support that strengthens your resolve.
If you think that being with the drool and just riding/tapping/writing it out sounds wildly impossible, IT IS NOT. This is nothing more than a practiced skill. And like any skill, results are not likely to be instantly perfect. When we were babies, no one questioned whether we would learn to walk, no matter how many times we crashed into things or fell down. They had no trouble trusting that we would eventually get the knack. We can trust that now.
And here’s some truly GREAT NEWS about our animal nature: Without the old reward, that drool is going to fade in length and intensity. It’s possible that a good 20 sessions of being with the drool without resisting or giving in might cut the strength in half. Why not test that theory out? Be curious, be full of wonder. SMART Recovery even recommends keeping a simple Urge Log with date, trigger, duration, intensity, and outcome.
It is a FACT that unrewarded conditioned responses will grow weaker and fade away. Hopefully in the meantime you are creating NEW incredible habit loops and conditioned responses based on the rewards of healthy food and delicious AF drinks, creative pursuits, productivity, true friends, and all the things in life that are bright and beautiful.
That’s right. Our habit loops and reward-conditioning works FOR US too!
Finding things that give you true pleasure and peace and happiness means that before long your urges and cravings will be for things like daily exercise, yoga class, the next creative project, new adventures, time in Mother Nature, meditation, connection, and quality time for your children or family or friends.
Just one more important thing to remember. Behaviorists have proven that intermittent rewards create the strongest, longest-lasting response. A conditioned response will die fairly quickly when the reward disappears completely. If you intermittently reinforce the reward, the conditioned response hangs around a LOT longer. That’s why being relentless in our quest for an alcohol free life is the quickest, easiest, most painless way through. Slips and stumbles are so easy to rationalize but they prolong that damn itch and can even make it more miserably stronger than it was before.
We all learned to walk for God’s sake. We can all learn the simple skill we need to dry up that dreaded drool for good.
Who out there wants to join me in “being with the drool” and watching it fade into nothingness? Bow! Wow! Ruff! Ruff! Woof! Woof! Let’s wag more and bark less!
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