My favorite scene in the movie Jurassic Park doesn’t end well. The Australian park ranger is hunting raptors and one of the creatures rattles the fronds in front of him. While he prepares for the kill shot, another raptor sneaks up from behind. The ranger is eaten alive, but not before uttering the unforgettable line over his shoulder, “Clever girl…”.
Why (you may wonder), am I thinking of raptors as I write about contemplating a change in the addictive brain? Probably because on my journey to sobriety, I tried to quit no less than ten times. And every time I stopped drinking alcohol, my clever addicted brain circled behind when I wasn’t looking and came up with a really “good reason” for me to start drinking again. Clever brain, clever girl indeed.
Stages of Change – Addicted Brain
The Stages of Change Model developed by researchers DiClemente and Prochaska addresses readiness and motivation to stop using alcohol or other drugs. The Contemplation Stage is characterized by a willingness to consider there is a problem. This is the phase where you wake with the sneaking feeling something “bad” happened last night, but can’t remember what it is. Or you begin to worry that your behavior is compromising a job or a key relationship. You might even start researching treatment options or quit your drug of choice for 30 days.
But thinking about change is not making change. I call this “fence sitting” and it’s possible to perch on the picket for a few weeks or a lifetime. Especially if your clever brain is playing tricks on you. Or if your risk/reward analysis indicates you might be able to get away with it.
The Clever Addicted Brain and the Reward System
We are all exquisite reward detectors. It’s our evolutionary legacy. Anna Rose Childress
According to National Geographic, “The Science of Addiction“, The reward system, a primitive part of the brain that isn’t much different in rats, exists to ensure we seek what we need, and it alerts us to the sights, sounds, and scents that point us there.
It’s complicated, but once the brain gets a flood of pleasure from our drug of choice, it will continue to seek that rush of pleasure. Every drug affects brain chemistry differently, but they all spike dopamine levels beyond the pleasure we get from, for example, watching a movie about errant dinosaurs while eating buttered popcorn. So it’s not surprising that the first thing one thinks of when contemplating difficult change is how to beat the system. How to find the loophole. How to reclaim the pleasure.
“Good Reasons” to Start Drinking/Using Again
The most difficult thing for me to imagine in the early days of my recovery was NEVER DRINKING AGAIN. My wine glass was an affectation like Charlie Chaplin’s cane. I’d try out sobriety, but there was always a good reason I must toast, sip, brandish, swizzle, or guzzle another glass of plonk.
My recovery had a sell-by date…
Now I know my brain was doing it’s best to supply me with the rush of chemical pleasure I needed. But in those days, the tiny devil perched on a shoulder-pad won every argument. And it was frustrating and humiliating. I’d start with a glass of wine at dinner. And within three days the recycling bin was full of magnum empties. I covered them with a newspaper or hid them in the bottom of the garbage, feeling like I should climb in myself.
In my role as Marketing Director of a treatment center (and a longtime writer of a sobriety blog) I have communicated with folks from all over the world who are contemplating change, thinking about getting sober, and miserable in their lack of progress.
These are the top 6 excuses I have heard when listening to clever addicted brains talk themselves out of recovery… and my responses.
1. I’m not sure I should tell my family/spouse/friends I am thinking about recovery…
Why not? Your recovery is no one’s business if you want to keep it secret. However, when it comes to close family or those you live with, this secret means: If I don’t tell them, they won’t hold me accountable. And if I decide it’s too hard I have an easy out… It was vital for me to “fess up” and engage my family and best friend in my decision to quit drinking. Choose a few people you trust and let them know. Ask for help.
2. I don’t want to go to a therapist… I don’t like them…
Why not? In the Contemplation Stage, a therapist or other addiction professional can help you properly uncover negative behavior and its consequences without judgement. Change is hard and a strong advocate with tools to help can move you in the right direction – toward action.
3. Never mind, I think it’s under control now…
Oh boy. This is what we say when it’s been a couple of weeks since a serious “incident”. When we are keeping a journal of successes and only drink or use on (long) weekends. For some people moderation works, but for those who have stepped over the addiction line, things will always escalate to uncontrolled and dangerous overuse.
4. But I have that cruise vacation, graduation party, Thanksgiving dinner, wedding, etc. I’ll slow down or quit after that…
There is never a “good time” to quit your drug of choice. There is always a holiday or special event that feels like it needs something to “take the edge off” or a little “liquid courage”. I drank white wine, but whenever I quit drinking, my clever addicted brain would find the escape clause. I can’t sit at Thanksgiving dinner without a glass of red wine. It would be rude…
5. Oh, sure you want me to go to rehab… I guess we don’t need to pay the mortgage… I’ll just go away for 30 days and if I lose my job that’s fine…
Irony is the best friend of contemplation. And actively amassing wealth is a great way to get out of making a difficult change. The high functioning alcoholic/drug addict insists that they cannot take the time to seek help. (And if I’m such a mess, how come the dough keeps coming in, huh?) The excuse that involves an important job, advanced schooling or child rearing is just that – an excuse. And when coupled with anger and sarcasm it can be the biggest deterrent to getting needed help, because dependents will back off.
In the above scenario the job, schooling and child rearing might already be compromised. And a 30 day respite could be good for everyone involved. But outpatient therapy, Intensive Outpatient Programs, and addiction education or prevention classes are available in most cities and provide treatment without large time commitments.
6. My drug of choice is cocaine – I’ve never really cared about drinking – so I’m thinking I might have a drink in the evening now that I’ve stopped doing coke…
Oh, that seems like a great idea – not... This excuse takes different forms. A person with an alcohol use disorder may consider recreational cannabis, for example. We are not talking about legitimate, medically assisted treatment here – this is the brain’s attempt at circling around with the second raptor to bite your head off. The reward system is seeking what it needs.
From Contemplation to Action…
I do not know what made me finally decide that I could never drink again. There were so many factors. But science shows us that hangovers, dope-sickness, failed relationships, scrapes with law enforcement, and even the threat of death may not motivate a person in active addiction to stop taking their drug of choice. Once the brain is hijacked, the drug of choice is the only source of pleasure. And like the Jurassic Park ranger, I can’t help but be a little impressed by the tenacity of the addicted brain. Even when, after more than five years in recovery, I have moments of vulnerability.
I try to avoid regret. But I spent most of my twenty-five years of living dangerously in the Precontemplation Stage. The stage where one “does not see their behaviors as a problem and therefore sees no need to change”. If I could change one thing about my road to recovery, it would be to have started sooner. To have listened to those who challenged my risky behavior. And to have found the help I needed to stop the self-sabotage, and move from contemplation to action before addiction had me in its ravenous grip….