There’s a #cleanchallenge happening on social media this week. Participants post a photo – or photos – of how they looked in active addiction and how they look in recovery. The transformations are astounding. Not one to miss an opportunity to celebrate or advocate recovery, I uploaded my own before and after shots. It was odd to visually return to that part of my life. I don’t know that person. I remember the darkness – and I can see it in her eyes – but I don’t live in it anymore.
The thing that struck me most is that none of my before photos were taken when I was actively under the influence. By the time at least one was taken, I had already been exposed to a recovery program and subsequently relapsed. The misery on my face was one hundred and ten percent related to my behavioral addiction.
I’ve never made any bones about the fact that I am primarily a behavioral addict with secondary substance use issues. It took me years to unravel this mystery. “What’s wrong with me,” I wondered. “Why is nothing helping me?” Abstaining from mind altering chemicals was essential to my success. It took two or three years without drugs or alcohol to become stable (or unstable?) enough to confront my other compulsions.
The paucity of awareness around behavioral addiction is killing people. The only reason I’m alive is because I stumbled into awareness by dumb luck. I guess I have to give myself some credit; I was willing to seek help. I have to give the Universe some credit, too. There was obviously a plan for me other than unbearable pain and suicide.
If you don’t know anything about addiction – behavioral addiction in particular – I highly recommend Dr. Gabor Maté’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Dr. Maté is my intellectual crush. If we implemented even half of his advice, we could avoid numbers like the staggering 72,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2017. Just to put that into perspective, over 58,000 members of the U.S. military died in the Vietnam war. So, last year alone, more Americans died of overdose than were killed in action in the Vietnam war. And yet nothing changes. How is that even possible? Moreover, why is it happening?
Dr. Maté writes:
“We despise, ostracize, and punish the addict because we don’t wish to see how much we resemble him. In his dark mirror our own features are unmistakable. We shudder at the recognition…Like the hard-core addict’s pursuit of drugs, much of our economic and cultural life caters to people’s craving to escape mental and emotional distress. In an apt phrase, Lewis Latham derides ‘consumer markets selling promises of instant relief from the pain of thought, loneliness, doubt, experience, envy, and old age.’”
I could brood over the need for cultural accountability for days but the topic on my mind at the moment is the mind-body connection. The more I learn about brain development and neuroscience, the more I am convinced that the key to many diseases lies in the brain. This has become important to me lately as I try to get to the bottom of why I’ve been sick. I have been sick – on and off – for most of my life. Now I partially understand why.
The first thing that was important for me to learn is that our brain development plays a much more significant role in our lives and so-called disease processes than we acknowledge. If an infant spends the first year of its life in a dark room, it won’t develop the necessary wiring for sight. This is true of our reward and attachment wiring as well. If we are not raised in ideal conditions (and, let’s face it, most of us aren’t), we often develop maladaptive wiring systems that help us self-soothe. We carry this maladaptive brain wiring into adulthood. (Hell, I would argue – and Dr. Maté might agree – that we’ve created an entire culture based on maladaptive brain wiring.) On top of that, we may not be able to naturally produce the brain chemicals/hormones necessary for emotional regulation. (Alternately, we may have too much of a certain kind of hormone). All of this is a recipe for disaster, i.e. a society of anxious, stressed adults whose only line of defense is to self-soothe via unhealthy means.
Let’s play this out through a concrete example: When Alice – a non-existent person I’m making up – was three months old, her mother died suddenly. Her father and grandparents did the best they could, but they were a stoic and emotionally unavailable family. Alice grew up to be a very anxious child. She felt insecure and compensated by becoming overly dependent on her peers. When social acceptance became problematic for Alice, she started eating sugary junk food to bury her feelings of loneliness, fear, and grief. Alice went on to do the best she could to hack it as a functioning adult. At the age of thirty, however, she began experiencing blurry vision and other strange symptoms. Alice’s physician diagnosed her with diabetes and emphasized the importance of diet in symptom management. Alice despaired at the idea of giving up the only reliable source of comfort in her life.
There we have it: Lack of attachment —> altered brain development —> environmental stressors —> maladaptive coping behavior —> physical disease. In this case, one could argue that not only does Alice have a physical illness, she also has a behavioral addiction – and the two are inextricably linked.
This is obviously an oversimplified example – and it certainly doesn’t apply to everyone -but it’s one illustration of how brain development and environment can impact behavior and lead to disease. These links can be made to countless other ailments, including heart disease, cancer, alcoholism, and drug addiction.
I’m not sure to whom I should attribute this quote, but it’s right on the mark: “Your wound is not your fault, but your healing is your responsibility”.
I definitely have some less-than-ideal brain wiring, and it has been helpful to understand that my anxiety isn’t occurring in a vacuum. Somewhere along the line, my growing brain didn’t get its needs met, and it compensated by creating the complex neurological system that defines me. There’s a reason I am the way I am – and there’s a reason everyone else is the way they are. However, now that I understand why I get anxious and sick, it’s my responsibility to find the best way to prevent and manage the symptoms – to rewire my system if you will.
I’m afraid that’s something I haven’t done very well as it pertains to my physical health. My body always comes last. Sure, I’ll go to a recovery meeting in search of some mental serenity…but see the Doctor? Hell no!
All of that is about to change. I am waving the white flag of surrender. I am tired of the pain and tired of saying “maybe someday” to all of the things that require physical healing. I want to hike a mountain and finish a 5k. I want to eat at a restaurant and not be forced to desperately crush Pepto Bismol tablets in the bathroom to survive the Uber ride back to the hotel. I’m tired of drowning under the weight of my healthcare to-do list, which only grows longer the more I ignore it. I started checking items off the list once before (in fact, I dedicated a whole post to it), and now it’s time to finish.
My tattoo artist is kind of a guru. We talk about many things during our sessions, but one of the things he asked me was: “What were you doing when you were symptom free that you’re not doing now?” WHAM. We talked about how every new level of growth requires a different version of yourself. I’m not going to continue healing while treading the same stagnant water… and, let me tell you, I LOVE treading water. Easy street (or stream, in this analogy) is my jam, y’all.
When I look at the women in those before and after photos – both me, but somehow still two distinctive people – I am inspired. If the recovery journey has transformed me this profoundly, further healing must be possible.
I won’t go into detail about all the steps I’ve taken since my tattoo appointment – I do have some sense of personal decorum after all – but the ball is definitely rolling. It’s going to hurt… but the only way through the pain is to feel it.
I’ll depart with one final thought. My wife likes to laughingly remind me that I am a cheeseball – a sentiment with which I don’t disagree. I more than just love quotes and clichés; I think the things that make us roll our eyes the most are usually the same things that save us. I recently read something that said: “As you begin to love yourself, you will find that pain and suffering are only warning signs that you are living against your own truth”.
I’ve spent nine years discovering my truth. As much as this most recent pain has been challenging me – and as much as I’d like to stay in my little pool of worn out water – I feel a childlike excitement as I approach the next bend in the stream.