Monday, May 20, 2013

Addiction gypsies steal your brain.

The addiction gypsies sneak up behind the focused, recovering addict. The Victoria & Albert Museum
You know that "follow the cup" game where you mentally track a concealed ball being shuffled around by a Fagin-ey hustler? And as you stand there tracking the ball, his two gypsy kids sneak up, saw the straps off your backpack, lift your wallet and run away laughing? And then the cups lift and no ball is in sight? Addiction is just like that.

A recovered alcoholic can spend years vigilantly guarding herself from booze, only to learn she has diabetes because of secret, frequent chocolate binges. A recovered heroin addict could dedicate his life to helping other users get clean, but live miserably tangled in an obsessive search for the perfect emotional and sexual mate. A recovered compulsive overeater may finally reach her goal weight, and celebrate by adding another grand to the fifty thousand in debt she's accumulated since getting abstinent. They could all focus so much on avoiding their addictive substance, they forget to pay attention to their addictive personalities and leave themselves open to being mugged of health and peace.

Too often addicts win recovery over their main addictions only to have their lives torn down again by new ones. It's comfortable, as an addict, to almost blame the substances for our addictions, as if the substances were containers of a disease that has nothing, really, to do with us. We want to think, "It's the alcohol, the drug, the sugar, the porn. It reacts in my body and mind. Without it, I'm fine." We think if we just avoid it, the rest of our lives will handle themselves. But this is a half-truth.  

Drugs, alcohol and addictive foods do stimulate neurochemicals that create addiction. Addictive behaviors, places and thoughts also activate neuropathways leading sometimes inevitably back to addiction. But many addicts also have the ability to look at our drugs and behaviors across a span of recovery -- knowing deeply that they cost us spouses, children, careers and health -- and still think, "That would be so good."

That's us. Not it.

Before we pick them up, addictive substances and behaviors have no magic magnetism. They are not the Borg, drawing us toward themselves with tractor beams against which all resistance is futile. They're a can. A bottle. A needle. A pill. A box. A bag. An image. A room. They're nothing. That's why they're so easy to swap for something else. 

What draws us into addiction, before we pick up, is what we're using it for. What emptiness it's filling. Ex: We have no self-esteem. Gambling's easy potential for victory was our drug. We gave it up, but still every time we lose a girlfriend we feel our self-worth grind into a fine powder. We can't live without her. Or: We never felt loved. Food comforted us like nothing else. We gave up binging, but still we obsess into tears over our pets and kids, sacrificing romantic, social and personal time to make sure they love us. We can't live without knowing they care.

We're dependent. We're hooked. We're still addicted, on new drugs now. The risk of this is, what happens to us when our new drugs leave? When she dumps you again? When your pet dies? When your kids go to college and forget you exist? Is it back to web poker and the junk food isle? Or is it endless revisions of your eHarmony profile, two new dogs and bi-monthly vacays to the kid's new school? And then what? What if eHarmony's a fail, you can't afford the vet bills and your kids tell you to get out of their life? Where are you in all of this?

Withdrawal. That's where. A hard, brutal one, fueled by every year, month, day and hour spent dependent on your drugs. Old and new.

Real self-care and recovery is a tough but worthy challenge to keep one eye on each side of the healing game. We have to drop our primary drugs, avoiding all their Fagin-ey tricks. We also have to watch ourselves, keeping our inner addictive urchins from sneaking up on our backs, and ideally parenting them with enough love and attention to reform them into abstentious little Oliver Twists.

If we don't do both, we risk someday really needing our recovery, reaching in to get it, and finding it gone.

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