So you think I'm crazy, using a headline like that? Maybe, but I've been reading a couple of great books and they got me thinking ... there are benefits to addiction. These benefits are only attainable if you become addicted and then get over it (as I'm told most people actually do).
Cravings have fascinated me. I’ve always thought that if you are wrestling with cravings when you try to break a habit or addiction, you’re pretty much doomed to fail. But I think it’s possible to overcome an addiction without cravings.
When I was in my twenties, I smoked 50 cigarettes a day (I know! I never do things in halves). It was a serious habit. I used to watch the clock to wait 15 minutes between cigarettes — you could smoke at your desk in those days. Continue reading “Managing Cravings”
I used to think my addiction to drinking had control over me, that it ruled me. I saw it as an unsavoury force in my life, dictating my behaviour. It was something to curse when I woke up in the morning with a hangover. It was almost as though I’d personified it … identified it as something external.
[Qualifier: I manage my ‘addiction’ within acceptable social boundaries. Many would argue I’m not even ‘addicted’. I believe I am though as drinking is an almost daily practice, it’s challenging to stop for a period, and I find it hard to imagine stopping all together.]
Last December I read a book called Be by Design, How I be is up to me by Christine McKee. I don’t normally read self-help books but I happened to meet the author and we exchanged self-published books. I’m so glad I did, because reading that book changed my life.
It made me realise that my addiction was not some external force controlling me. ‘How I be is up to me.’ I have an addiction, bad habit, whatever you want to call it, because I want to have it. I drink because I like it. It’s great social fun, relaxing and tastes good. There is no external force controlling me. I’m controlling myself.
The good thing about this shift in perception is that it is the first step towards change … taking responsibility. If I have this habit because I choose to, then I can choose not to have it. Simple … or is it?
My research into neurology for my second book Mind Minders taught me that addiction is a learned habit, a series of neural pathways well-developed, matured and strongly defined. The brain gets used to the influx of foreign particles, the drug, and neurotransmitters become reliant on the chemical transaction, making them lazy and unproductive on their own.
When you stop consuming the chemical, whatever drug, your body still demands it. It must be coaxed, persuaded by another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. If commitment to change is strong enough, the prefrontal cortex will override the cravings, enabling us to endure the transition to health again.
In time the neurotransmitters recover and begin to produce their own dopamine and serotonin, restoring the feeling of well-being and satisfaction with life. But that takes time and many addicts relapse before this transition occurs.
The longer we desist in the behaviour/habit, the stronger other neural networks become, including the network which enables us to say ‘NO’.
There is always hope for change if we can just click the override button into gear and when we do, the neurological transition can take place. The really great thing is that we all have this neurological capacity!
I think it helps to understand the mechanics … it gives me hope.
In recent years my daily drinking has caused me concern … increased health risks, trigger for migraines, occasional hangovers or slow morning afters. But despite these concerns I haven’t been able to stop.
Emory University (who recently ran a course The Addicted Brain via the www.coursera.org platform) defines addiction as a behaviour you are unable to stop despite distressing negative impacts. While the impacts I’m concerned about can be a little distressing at times, for the most part I do manage my addiction within acceptable social boundaries.
Not only that, many of my friends and colleagues exhibit similar behaviours, making it even more difficult to find the impetus to change. Isn’t my drinking pretty normal? I’m not an “alcoholic”. It’s not that bad … etc. etc.
After listening to an interesting podcast (interview with Jill Stark, a Sydney Morning Herald journalist, who wrote a book about her year of sobriety), I became aware of how we boast about our excessive drinking exploits, such as a particularly bad hangover. We talk about such experiences like they are a badge of honour, marks of a hero status. Interesting when you step back from it.
Anyway, I decided to take a “harm reduction” approach. I didn’t want to stop drinking altogether. I just wanted to reduce the harmful affects and reduce other risk factors as I progress into my senior years. Critics of the harm reduction approach believe such an approach fails to address the underlying dependence. Alcohol free days for example, are really just all about waiting for the next time you have a drink.
While I found this to be true – there is always a risk of over-indulgence, the first day drinking after a period of abstinence – I still felt it was better than doing nothing.
The problem with the addicted brain is that if you partake in regular consistent consumption of a drug (such as ethanol in alcohol) over a long period of time, your brain builds up resistance. This means you have to consume more to get the same effect. Alarmingly, I’ve found this to be true, with my 1-2 drinks gradually developing into 4-5 (eek!) over the last 2-3 decades.
So where am I now? Still very much on this journey. While I have had some success in alcohol free days and reducing my intake, I know that my brain has not yet come to terms with this reduced intake. I’m sure this topic will be returned to in the coming months/years as I try to find a way to take responsibility for my lifestyle choices and the impact they have on my health as I age.
Love to hear what you think.