Anatomy of a relapse part 4: understanding addiction

On September 6, 2014, I made a choice that could have cost me my life. In this six part series, we’re journeying back to analyze how I slipped into a DXM relapse and what I did to self-stabilize and avert catastrophe.

This is part four of six of a series.

Anatomy Of A Relapse Part Four: Understanding Addiction

The first night after my thwarted plans for inpatient treatment, I felt fairly stable.

Nervous, disheartened, and jaded, but stable.

Stayed at Mom’s that night, in effort to avert deeper delve into relapse.

Slept like a rock. A profusely sweaty, detoxing rock.

Plan was, follow through with the National Counsel on Alcoholism appointment a few days later. Get into SMART Recovery meetings, which did wonders for me in past years.

It was not until well into Tuesday, September 9, that I knew I would use DXM that night.

It was my secret.

Fed my mother a line, put her at ease.

“Mom, I am stable, I promise, I just want to sleep in my own bed. I’ll call you if I have any problems.”

I knew she would give me the benefit of the doubt. No mom wants to think her son is lying through his teeth.

Like my life depends on it

Right then and other times I’ve lied to perpetuate my addictions, guilt was sparse to nonexistent.

The addictive drive took precedence over almost everything. Overrode my sensibilities and rational desires. Disabled my moral compass.

Repeated use of mind-altering substances produces an anomaly in the brain’s survival instinct circuitry.

Getting a fix begins to feel like an actual need, essential to survival.

The brain’s logic center knows better, and this causes a clash between rational thought and survival instinct.

The reason addiction hijacks deep-brain survival instincts is because addictive behaviors tend to trigger our reward systems.

The feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine flood the brain. Pleasure ensues.

What else triggers our reward systems, releasing chemicals that bring about satisfaction and contentment?

There are several ways to release dopamine, and most share a commonality:

They pertain to survival.

Eating, for instance.

We’re wired to appreciate food. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t eat. Lot of good that would do us.

Also, our deaths would be swift in lack of compelling motivation to hydrate ourselves. What could be more refreshing for a dry mouth than fresh water?

Water is refreshing because we need it. We’re built to be refreshed and enticed by what sustains us.

Then, there’s sex. Legendary among physical pleasures. But why?

Imagine if orgasm felt like getting punched in the face. We wouldn’t be here.

Food, drink, and sex feel good.

Bodily nourishment and sex release happy chemicals in our brains.

The chemicals tell us we’re onto something good.

Nature’s way of perpetuating itself.

Drugs, alcohol, shopping, and winning money in a game of poker can catalyze dopamine too.

It is no coincidence that these activities are our most common addictions. Addictions people will readily lie about and conceal to ensure uninterrupted continuation.

We are wired to do what feels good. On a primal level, we associate what feels good with survival.

Most people on the verge of starvation probably wouldn’t feel terribly guilty about deceiving someone in order to eat.

I had no qualms about my “little white lie” in the name of a DXM fix.

Not at the moment, anyway. The guilt always sets in later.

Sorry, Mom.

It is useful to understand why people lie to protect their addictions.

It’s too easy and common to perceive these deceptions as character flaws, or personal attacks.

Most of us resent being lied to by those we love. We take it personally, we feel hurt.

Trust is interpersonally essential. Broken trust is difficult to repair. Being lied to need not be pleasant or appreciated.

But at very least, we can work to understand why this deception occurs.

Addiction is complex (because people are complex), but in the right light it can be made simpler.

Pleasure = survival instinct

Recommended reading on the biological and psychological intricacies of addiction:

Neuroscience of need – Understanding the addicted mind

The addicted brain

Understanding Addiction: How Addiction Hijacks the Brain

Going, going, gone…

After leaving Mom’s, my plan took shape in earnest.

Purchased three bottles of Robitussin gel caps. In my warped reality, that wasn’t enough. Went to another store for two four ounce bottles of cough syrup.

All the while, numb and zoned out. On auto-pilot.

My brain’s logic centers, fast asleep.

Driven by my malfunctioning survival instinct, all there was for me was the forthcoming fix.

I secured myself in my room.

Drank the vile syrup right away. To get it done with.

Consumed pills individually at first in some nearly comical attempt to pace myself.

Then in pairs.

Then by the handful.

Then they were gone.

No, not gone. In me.

All except one package. Twenty more gel caps.

I’d get to them later.

Dynamics of craving

My throat tightens as I write these words, as my brain is rocked by memories of that night.

My saliva warms and feels thick, just like it has every time a handful of gel caps has touched my tongue.

I detect a subtle gelatin-like flavor, at this very moment.

Stomach, uneasy. I feel nauseous.

I am only recalling, but my body doesn’t seem to know the difference between remembering and being there.

It braces itself for an onslaught that isn’t coming. This is similar to getting aroused by a sexual fantasy. It’s all in the mind, but the body responds.

As far as my body knows, my memories of relapse are equivalent to being right there. My stomach feels like I am locked and loaded, on the verge of dosing myself to oblivion.

(Don’t worry. I’m not on any such verge.)

The implications of this phenomenon are critical factors in understanding addiction. Part of what keeps many people hooked on what destroys them.

With DXM nowhere in sight, my body prepares for it regardless. Based on recollection.

Now, has your mouth ever watered during TV commercials for pizza, or whatever other foods you fancy? Could you almost taste it?

Did you feel compelled to consume it? To get your “fix”?

How about now?

Whatever foods you crave have already produced a desirable chemical reaction within you, several times over.

It’s the same with DXM for me, and all drugs people become addicted to.

This biological anticipation for a fix may even be true of every addictive behavior.

When our mouths water during commercials, the advertisements themselves are not the true cause of cravings.

The root causes are in our minds, our memories. Ads merely inspire mind.

And mind prepares body, lubricating for the fix. Perpetuating the craving.

A clearly imagined taste sensation of food that has brought pleasure on countless occasions can make it arduous to resist going for the real thing.

Addiction to drugs and addiction to anything else share plethoras of commonalities.

Addiction is addiction. A habit on a power trip, a cycle that dominates.

Darkest before dawn

You may be wondering, then, how can I choose not to surrender and slip into further relapse even now, as my body presently pulsates with memories of DXM?

The answer is exciting.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Soon, I’ll tell you.

Before we can apply proper context to this tale’s happy ending, we must traverse a deep, dark night of my soul.

Off I spiraled into my personal abyss on the eve of Tuesday, September 9.

Also published on Medium.