Don’t ask me what to do when you become sober. I’ve yet to successfully give up anything. Rather, I’m a “replacer”. I gave up nicotine last year, I replaced it with walking and eventually I replaced it with food. Now, I’m struggling with what to replace my poor eating habits with and it’s looking like I’m replacing it with research on how to eat better. I don’t know if I’m actually eating better, but I sure can tell you a lot about it.
An old friend suggested I write about how a recently sober person can manage the first year of sobriety, how to manage the discomfort and emotion that comes up when one gives up their drug of choice. First, let’s review the difference between use, abuse and addiction. We also need to clarify that drug use, abuse or addiction is all about dopamine and that our drug of choice can be prescriptions, weed, alcohol, heroin, sugar, coffee, sex, porn, exercise, even a person or relationship!
“ In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine systems, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Most types of reward increase the level of dopamine in the brain, and a variety of addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity. Other brain dopamine systems are involved in motor control and in controlling the release of several other important hormones.” (Desai, Vishal. “Role of Copper in Human Neurological disorders”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Retrieved 15 Aug 2015.) Basically, whatever your drug of choice is, you are searching to increase your dopamine levels. The danger of some drugs is that when consumed, you are increasing your dopamine levels to unnatural states that are impossible to duplicate without the drug.
So, what makes an addiction anyway? Last night I had 2 drinks. I used alcohol. Five years ago, during my divorce, I was consuming a bottle of red wine a night, I was likely abusing alcohol to avoid uncomfortable feelings. When you “use” your “drug”, you get some personal enjoyment, a nice dose of dopamine, but no one gets hurt because all returns to normal and you are back to living your life and your brain is accepting of that. Abuse is shakier ground. Likely you are seeking out that dopamine to avoid feelings, thoughts or responsibilities. When you abuse a substance, you may be doing it unconsciously, but it truly is a choice, on some level. When we “abuse” our “drug”, we begin to suffer some negative consequences. This IS the crossroads. This is the moment one does or does not cross the threshold into addiction. I’ve never crossed the threshold of addiction with alcohol or anything else I may have dabbled in throughout my life, with the exception of nicotine. Nicotine, taught me ALL about addiction. Nicotine is almost worse than other drugs because although no longer considered “sexy” and even with the grim reaper effect, one doesn’t suffer social consequences like jail, so it makes it much easier to continue the addiction.
Addiction, in a nutshell, is the dependency on the dopamine one gets from their drug. It’s the continued use regardless of the consequences. Addiction is controlling, relentless and has no regard for feelings. Addiction IS a disease both socially and physiologically. Dopamine is pretty powerful stuff.
If you are lucky enough to break free of your addiction, to give up the surges of dopamine that bring relief, what next? I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m just celebrating 1 year free of my daily dopamine dependence. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had conflicts, I’ve gained weight, changed employment, I’ve been depressed and I’ve been beside myself with emotions and I’ve attempted to replace my addiction with healthier and unhealthy behaviors.
As a professional, I would tell any newly recovered addict, to find new ways to spend your time, have a network of people you can call if you’re feeling vulnerable, exercise, journal, find a support group either online or in person, read, pray, distract yourself with healthy activities…..
As a recovering dopamine addict, I will tell you, it truly is One Day at Time. It is uncomfortable. There are natural consequences that come with the getting addicted and giving up your addiction. Every day is a learning experience – an act of remembering how to live before you loved dopamine. Professionals give good solid advice that is not always easy to take because we have crazy internal barriers. These barriers are our life’s spiritual work. Because I believe this to be our spiritual work, my final piece of advice is to be gentle with yourself, don’t expect too much too soon, honor your courage, and forgive your shortcomings. Love yourself through it and then love yourself a little more.