Lizard Brain

The “lizard brain” or limbic cortex of our brain is the oldest part of the brain. It is responsible for many of our subconscious behaviors, and our emotions. It is also the source of our “fight or flight” response to trauma.

Impulse control is in another part of the brain, which doesn’t fully form until we are in our mid-20s. This is why small children have a hard time regulating impulses, including hurting their peers and blurting out exactly what they’re thinking, appropriate or not. They also have a hard time being able to understand reason and logic.

For addicts, the lizard brain is mostly responsible for your addiction. It stores information about how good using feels, and how your body “needs” a substance. It’s very difficult, almost impossible, to change how the lizard brain feels about addiction, which is why cognitive behavioral therapy is often used to treat addiction: changing the way we act in order to eventually change the way we think.

It’s important to remember that our loved ones that watched us in the throes of our addiction, and helping us through recovery and also in a sort of recovery of their own. And their lizard brain is programmed to detect lapses on our part.

Overnight last night, someone left an empty wine bottle and some empty beer bottles in a paper bag on the ground next to our recycling bin, which was on the curb for today’s collection. My husband’s first reaction was that it was mine. His lizard brain went back to a place where he would find bottles, or in some other way find out I’d been drinking again.

The bottles weren’t mine, and I deeply resent the person who left them there. Why not throw them in a trash can? In their own trash bin? Leave it on the curb if you must? Or even throw it in the damn recycling bin that was right there? I’ll never understand why some people do the things that they do.

Since they weren’t mine, I was tasked with trying to convince my husband they weren’t mine. But all the words I could think of, everything that was coming out of my mouth, was some excuse or cover up that I had used in the past. So it obviously triggered old memories in his lizard brain. With the exception of the fact that I am taking Antabuse, all signs pointed to a relapse. My husband didn’t see any other way.

The point of me telling you this story is for you to remember that you’re not the only one in recovery. Your addiction was drugs, alcohol, etc. Your loved one’s addiction was you. Taking care of you. Worrying about you. Watching you closely. It can be just as hard for them to give that up as it was for you to give up using. If this kind of situation arises in your relationships, be as patient as you can. And remember that you are still earning back trust. You are still under suspicion. They are still on guard. It’s one of the difficult truths of being in recovery. Just because you’re clean doesn’t mean the past has been magically erased, and everyone feels as great and accomplished as you do.

But don’t let it set you back either. You know the truth about your addiction and your recovery, and nothing will change reality, not even a little distrust. Stay strong and stay on the path to recovery, despite what others think. There’s a tendency amongst addicts to think, “Well, if they think I’m using even when I’m not, then why am I not just doing it anyway?” But, of course you know why you’re not doing it. It was ruining your life, it was ruining your health and it was making you miserable. A little bump in the road like this should not take all of that away from you.

The Role of Trauma

This week’s safe coping strategy is:

Link PTSD and substance abuse. Recognize substances as an attempt to self-medicate.

I don’t know if I qualify as having full-blown PTSD or not, but I don’t think that’s the point here. All I know is that my drinking picked up speed very quickly following my miscarriage in 2011. Then, it improved a bit. I went a long time without drinking, as I was pregnant with my second son from January to September 2012, and breastfeeding him after that. When I was diagnosed with melanoma in March of 2013, it started back up again, and was about 10 times worse than before.

These were two traumas I experienced, and I went into a sort of anxious shock after each. Though, I didn’t recognize it for what it was, either time. I didn’t recognize that I was in a pit of depression, and I didn’t realize that I was having full-blown anxiety attacks pretty much all the time. And I certainly didn’t recognize that I was using alcohol to numb myself to the anxiety and the pain. But looking back, I can see that’s exactly what was happening. I’m like a textbook case for self-medication.

Some people endure massive trauma: complicated military service, sexual abuse, death of a spouse, severe illness, loss of money or property, losing an important job. And these people often become addicts too, in response to their tragedy. But, “smaller” tragedies can have the same effect on us.

It can be easy to miss the signs as an addict. All you know is when you drink or use, you feel better. And at first, you think it’s no big deal, because you’re not really doing that often. But it soon begins to take over your life, before you’ve even realized it. In AA, they call addiction a “cunning and baffling disease” because it seems to creep in slowly and sneakily, and wreaks havoc before you even know there’s a problem. The people in your life can often see the problem right away, but unless they confront you, you rarely see it for yourself.

Ask yourself now if there is any trauma in your life you might have been numbing yourself to. It can often make you feel a little less shame and guilt to realize your response to your trauma was completely normal. And if you’re getting the help you need, and staying sober, then you’re doing the right thing and you’re on the rig

Paranoia

Have you ever been so paranoid, that you thought someone could see you, from across a city, through walls and buildings, and miles away? Well, I have.

There came a point with my drinking, when my husband asked me to cut back. And when that didn’t exactly work, we decided together that I would stop completely.

But, as a fellow addict, I’m sure you know how hard that was. I stumbled a lot along the way. A LOT. There were times I was drinking a lot, all day long on occasions. And every swig I took, I thought he could see me. He was miles away at work, but I was sure he could see me somehow.

Half my brain knew that was impossible, but the other half was convinced he would know, somehow. Did he hide cameras in the house? Did he never actually leave for work that day, and was lurking outside, watching me from the street? Was he going to come home early, and walk in the door, and catch me drinking, redhanded?

I also thought he could see all bottles I had hidden around the house. They were well hidden, and I rotated hiding spots to throw him off the trail. But the neurotic paranoid side of me was sure that he could see them. Like, there were bright, glowing orbs of light around each of them. Blinking on and off, like those arrow signs directing people to a rest stop. “Here they are. All her secrets and lies. Yours for the finding.”

When I was drinking, I felt free. Like I could do anything. And in that state, I figured other people could do anything too. Like seeing through walls and just knowing I was up to something. And of course, when you are up to something, you act funny. Suspicious. So, I always did get caught at some point. No matter how careful I was. At a SMART meeting once, the leader of the group said, “The longer you do something, the more likely it is that someone will notice.” And it was never more true than hiding my drinking from my husband. I was never successful, always got caught. It didn’t help that I was trying to be so sneaky and deceptive while I was drunk. Have you ever done anything like that successfully while under the influence?

Drinking also exacerbates paranoia. Especially the morning after, when you’re in recovery mode. Drinking heightens anxiety, and any paranoia and anxiety you were already feeling are magnified intensely.

When I stopped drinking for good, I felt so carefree and relaxed, and after a few weeks it dawned on me that it was because I wasn’t hiding things around the house anymore. And I wasn’t doing anything wrong, or suspicious, or deceptive. It was amazingly freeing to not have to lie, and lie to cover up the lie, and then lie some more. There were no hidden bottles to make me feel like Lady MacBeth with the burn that wouldn’t heal, that reminded her of the crime she had committed.

Think of how tied down, how bound you feel when you’re drinking or using in secret. How the bright, hot redness of fear and paranoia follow you wherever you go. And then imagine if those feelings could suddenly be lifted from your life, and how great that would feel.

Giving up your addiction of choice, getting the help you need to kick the habit and then sticking to it will do wonders for this. I still have bouts of paranoia now and again, even though I’m not drinking anymore. I think it’s an old habit. But certainly one that I can break. The longer I go without drinking, the better my chances are of getting rid of those feelings altogether.

 

Meetings

My counselor asked me to write about meetings and how helpful I have found them to be, for people who may be thinking of attending 12-step or other meetings, and are wondering what they are like. This week’s safe coping strategy:

Go to a meeting. Feet first; just get there and let the rest happen.

I think what the wording here is trying to say is just go. Even if you’re doubting the process and are nervous and aren’t sure if it’s for you, just try it at least once.

I went to my first AA meeting about a year ago, when I was first attempting to get sober, on my own. My husband urged me to join AA, and found meetings near us that were convenient for me to attend. He drove me to my first meeting, and waited outside for me while I was there. I was so nervous, I was visibly shaking and I felt dizzy. I didn’t know what to expect. My hugest fear was that I’d be forced to speak. And I didn’t know what kind of crowd awaited me.

When I walked in, I was only the third person to arrive. The secretary was there, setting up, and there was also an older gentleman there, dressed nicely, wearing a fedora. When he saw me, he said to me in an East Coast Italian accent, “Well, you don’t look like a drunk.” It made me laugh, and he introduced himself, and I felt a little more at ease.

When the meeting started, we all went around the room and said the line you know from TV and movies, “Hello, my name is … and I’m an alcoholic.” Other than that, I was not expected to speak at all. And I didn’t, not for my first two or three meetings.

It got easier, and I always found the meetings helpful. The topics of discussion were always relevant to me and there was a sort of kinship, being in a room full of people that are in the same boat as you–just trying to recover and feel better.

I went to meetings off and on for the next few months. After attending rehab and other recovery meetings, I have found that while AA is incredibly supportive and helpful, it’s not my favorite group. Mainly, they say in their literature that the only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop drinking.” We all have the desire, but not necessarily the action. I have been to many a meeting where an attendee is obviously under the influence of something. And I myself went to some meetings having had a drink before I went. This seemed counterproductive, to allow this to happen.

I have gone to what are called SMART recovery meetings. SMART stands for Self Management and Recovery Training. They help with the recovery from anything, from prescription drugs to behavioral addictions, such as gambling and sex. There, they do not allow you to attend if they can tell you’ve been using. People are not allowed to wear attire that advertises drugs or alcohol. And they do exercises, similar to the worksheets I did in rehab. This kind of environment was much better for my recovery and I found a higher level of success.

There are far fewer SMART meetings to attend than AA meetings, which is one of the downsides. And one of the reasons I keep going to AA, even though it’s not my “favorite.” AA is still useful, and much more readily available. It’s a good starting off point, if you are in early recovery.

Your first meeting will be scary. You will be nervous. But rest assured you won’t have to talk any more than you want to. And the people will be friendly. And you will belong. It will make you feel good to have attended a meeting, and that you have made progress in your recovery. And they call them meetings. So, if someone asks you where you’re going or why you’re busy, you just say, “I have a meeting.” Who can argue with or judge that?

I urge you to find a meeting close to you, and go. Even if just the once. It’s a great tool to have in your arsenal, and it will make you feel good. I know this, because even when I truly did not want to go, and I dragged my feet all the way in, I always left feeling good about the experience.

I once broke down and cried listening to another AA member share at a meeting I attended while in rehab. His story touched me to the bone, and I just couldn’t help but let it out. Afterward, several people approached me to find out if I was ok. They were truly concerned by my reaction and wanted to help in any way they could.

Meetings are the most supportive thing you can do for yourself. It will open you up to a whole community of people in recovery. People who have been where you are. People who are where you were before, that you can help with your experience. It’s amazing what human interaction can do for your sanity and your recovery.

Trinkets and Treasures

This week’s safe coping strategy:

Inspire yourself. Carry something positive.

I carry around two things from my time in rehab that are symbols of my sobriety.

The first is my 30-day AA chip. It is red and made of some lightweight metal. It is nothing overly special. But it reminds me of a time when I only had 30 days under my belt, and how scary and empowering that felt, all at the same time. It also reminds me of my relapse, and how I gave the chip to my husband and told him to give it back to me when I “earned it.” And I did. And now I have 160 days and it’s amazing to look back and see the progress I’ve made.

I also carry a small, smooth, light green rock. Towards the end of my first stay in rehab, a counselor put a pile of pretty little stones on the table, in all colors, shapes and sizes. She told us to choose one to represent our time there, and to carry it with us wherever we went. And that’s what I do. Every time I see it, I’m reminded of all the times I smiled in rehab, and all the positive things we did there. I’m reminded of the bonding I did with the other woman who stayed there at the time. We remain friends.

I carry both with me in my wallet, and see them nearly every day. And each time I see them, I am filled with positive thoughts and feelings, about me, my choice to attend rehab, my recovery, my future.

Choose something for yourself, something small you can carry with you to remind you of your recovery. Why you’re doing it, who you’re doing it for. It can be anything as long as it means something to you. A poem, a ticket stub, a pebble, a ring or necklace, a button.

Sometimes it takes something physical and visceral to remind us of what’s important. Something we can reach out and touch, rather than the abstract “recovery” or “sobriety”, or our feelings. This little trinket will serve this purpose for you. And it will also help you stay positive and focused. Positivity is extremely important in recovery, so why not take all the help you can get?

Do you already have a special memento you carry? Or do you have one in mind you’d like to use?

Fight For Your Sobriety

I remember in recovery being told many a time to “avoid triggers.” Which seems like an easy thing to do. Trouble is, there are triggers everywhere and I run into them quite often. Today’s safe coping strategy:

Fight the trigger. Take an active approach to protect yourself.

Just because triggers are coming at you left and right doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about them.

Some of them can be avoided. Don’t go into that corner market where you used to buy your wine. Don’t hang out with friends you used to party with. Ask your spouse not to keep alcohol in the house.

But some you can’t avoid. Like seeing a billboard advertising beer, or watching a show and suddenly someone is pouring themselves a glass of wine. Or the beer and the yogurt are in the same aisle at the grocery store for some reason. Or just having a bad, stressful day. Those kinds of things are going to happen to you.

But, what you have to do is identify the situation as a trigger. Tell yourself, this is a trigger. And then work against it. It wants to bring you down. It wants to burrow into your subconscious and pull you right off track. You need to fight it. See it for what it really is. Remind yourself of the consequences of drinking/using.

A trigger can happen without you even knowing about it. It’s really about getting that itch. Having that feeling that gee, a cold pint of beer would be awfully good right about now. The fleeting thought that you want something you used to have, but can’t have anymore. And maybe that’s all it is: a fleeting thought. But if you don’t hone in on that thought, and label it as a trigger, and an urge or a craving, then it can eat away at you until you cave in.

It’s unfortunate, but as an addict, you always need to be on your toes. You need to watch out for things like this. See the warning signs. Learn your individual triggers and avoid them whenever you can. Having an anxious day and maybe you want to take the edge off? Don’t go down that aisle at the store, no matter how bad you wanted the yogurt. In fact, avoid the store altogether. It can wait, nothing is more important than your sobriety.

Fighting the trigger means fighting for yourself. Fighting for you sobriety, your sanity, your safety. Nothing comes before that.

Do Something Fun

Through all of the important and difficult work you are doing toward your recovery, it’s important to always be aware of how you’re feeling about all of it. If you begin to feel bogged down or overwhelmed, you need to take time out for yourself. This week’s safe coping strategy:

Self-nurture. Do something that you enjoy (take a walk, see a movie, etc.)

The road to recovery is long and difficult. The work you are doing is extremely important, both for your happiness and your survival. But it is a lot of work, and you continue to struggle with it day in and day out in the name of sobriety. You are to occasionally be rewarded for that!

And, let’s be honest, even though you are surrounded by supportive counselors, family, friends and advisors, there are still times when you are the only one who can make you happy.

Take time out from your daily grind and do something just for you. Do something that brings you extreme joy, and that will have you feeling positive and motivated. The things you choose to do can be large, planned out activities that you schedule in advance, or simple outings you choose to do on the spur of the moment. Some examples of ways to self-nurture are:

–Talk a walk. Long or short, that’s up to you. Choose a location that brings you happiness, such as a hike in the woods, or a walk along a beach, or just a stroll through your neighborhood.

–Take yourself to a movie. It can feel strange at first to see a movie by yourself, but I’ve done it a few times and I think you’ll find it to be a very enjoyable experience. You don’t have to share your snacks with anyone!

–Take yourself to lunch or dinner at a nice restaurant. This can feel weird at first too. You might feel as if everyone in the restaurant is staring at you, wondering why you’re alone. But, odds are no one is looking at you at all. If it helps, bring a book or newspaper to read. Order your favorite dish on the menu, even if it’s the most expensive. And by all means, order dessert.

–Plan a weekend trip to participate in an activity you enjoy, such as kayaking, hiking, camping, fishing, visiting art museums, participating in a meditation retreat, antiquing or visiting friends. Just get away for a while. It doesn’t have to be a long drawn out vacation, just a day and a half or two days away from home to relax and refresh.

–Get “dolled up.” Go get yourself a new haircut or new hair color. Get a manicure and a pedicure. Buy yourself a new outfit, it doesn’t even have to be for a special occasion, just for fun. Buy a new lipstick color. Anything to change up your look a little bit, and make it feel refreshed.

–Do something good for your body that you enjoy. Take a fun class at the gym. Get a massage. Take a yoga class. You’re having fun but you’re also doing good by your body.

–Nurture yourself spiritually, whatever that means for you. Go to church or temple. Do a private Bible study. Spend some time meditating. Listen to a spirituality podcast, or read a book about spirituality.

–Do something artistic. Paint, draw, sculpt, craft, build something. Anything that’s creative and involves you using your hands, and really participating in the process. The creative process can be incredibly freeing and healing.

These are just a handful of ideas, you can come up with your own. Anything that’s fun and brings you joy, and is outside your normal daily routine. Take yourself on as many of these “self dates” as you can. The happiness it brings will be extremely beneficial for your recovery and your outlook on life. You’re dealing with an addiction, which is hard work. But you can have fun with life too!

Keep Your Eyes Open

I’m late this week with the safe coping strategy. Sometimes life is so darn busy! But, I didn’t want to put it off until next week.

I wanted to talk a little this week about getting comfortable with sobriety. It’s good to start feeling comfortable in your own skin again, and to feel confident in your sobriety. It’s definitely a positive thing to be happy again and moving on with your life. But, it’s very important not to get too comfortable and too confident, or you risk falling back into old patterns.

Never forget that you are still, and will always be, in recovery. And no matter how many days you get under your belt, the risk of slipping still exists. I’ve heard too many a tale of a person with years of sobriety falling off the wagon. You need to stay focused, and always be on top of your condition.

A coping strategy I feel relates to this is:

Prioritize healing. Make healing your most urgent and important goal, above all else.

This is one of those times it’s helpful to think of your addiction as a disease. It’s something that you will carry with you for the rest of your life, and you need to keep up with the treatment.

When we find ourselves getting too comfortable with any situation in life, it’s easy to get complacent. Like, if you lose the amount of weight you sought to lose, you feel comfortable going to the gym less often, and pretty soon you’re not going at all. Or, you get rewarded for doing a good job at work, so you feel comfortable slacking off a little bit, and your work actually begins to suffer.

Recovering from an addiction is like this too. If you start to get a little too confident in yourself, you might stop going to meetings. Or you might stop taking your anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. Or you might even start to think you can use again, because you’ve got it under control.

But these are dangerous things to do, at any stage in your recovery. As difficult as it is, you need to keep the fact that you are an addict in the forefront of your mind. Always be doing something that benefits your recovery. Keep going to those meetings, keep taking necessary medications, keep reminding yourself what your life could become if you ever start to use again.

And if you find yourself feeling down because you’ll never be “normal” again, remind yourself that you never really were. Your addiction took you to places that were certainly not “normal”. And though you didn’t know it at the time, you were always an addict. Now that you’re aware of it and have taken steps to correct it, keep up the good work and keep yourself safe, happy and healthy. Don’t let yourself become complacent. Your life is worth more than that.

Honesty

A huge part of my recovery has been owning up to my own mistakes and being fully honest with myself, my husband and my children. Once you get rid of the lies and the secrets, you feel free, and you can truly relax and be yourself. For this week, I have chosen the safe coping strategy:

Honesty. Secrets and lying are at the core of PTSD and substance abuse; honesty heals them.

No doubt, at some point during the development of your addiction, you began to tell lies, hold secrets and hide things from your partner or other loved ones, from coworkers and from friends. And you also told yourself lies to justify your addiction.

At some point, you were caught in a lie, which is usually the first thing that leads an addict to get help and enter the life of recovery. It might be a very long time between that first time getting caught and a life of sobriety, but it’s usually what gets the ball rolling.

As an addict it’s painful to wake up every day, participating in your addiction and wanting to stop, but not knowing how to stop. Knowing you’re causing yourself harm, but continuing anyway. But what can be even more painful is the guilt and shame you carry around from all the lies you’ve told to your loved ones, and all the things you’re hiding and keeping secret. Carrying all of that around is exhausting. Keeping up with your enormous web of lies, finding hiding places for those things you’re physically hiding, seeing the love and trust in your loved ones’ eyes as you tell them a lie, it’s a terrible feeling.

I hid alcohol all around the house. And I told my husband I hadn’t drank, even though I had. And I really thought I was getting away with something. But, eventually the guilt and shame caught up with me. And I was so paranoid, all of the time. It exacerbated my already serious anxiety issues to have to constantly be looking over my shoulder and making sure I covered my tracks.

When I went to rehab, and I put all my cards on table with my husband, I felt such a sense of relief. Feelings of guilt and shame lingered, but at least he knew everything now. I could just breathe, and be myself again, and not have to constantly fear being found out.

And over time I learned to be honest with myself. In SMART Recovery, we do an exercise called Refutations. You take one of your old excuses, one of the lies you told yourself to justify your using, and you come up with all the reasons that it’s wrong. For example, I used to tell myself, “I’ll just have one drink.” Knowing full well that it never ended with just one drink. Or, “No one will know.” But the truth is, everyone knew. It’s pretty hard to hide being drunk.

Being able to examine your thoughts, and to be honest with yourself about what you’re thinking is a big part of recovery. Knowing that you need to avoid your substance of choice at all costs, and stop that little voice full of excuses dead in its tracks when it starts up in your head.

The honesty doesn’t stop there though. It continues throughout your daily life from here on out. Be honest with yourself about how it felt to be in a group of people who were drinking. Be honest with yourself about how it feels to see that aisle in the grocery store. Be honest with yourself about how you’re doing day-to-day, are you having a good day or a bad day? Can you pinpoint why? Staying in touch with your feelings and opening yourself up to discussing these feelings with your partner or a counselor will help you a lot as you struggle through those first days in recovery.

Being honest with your partner will help you earn back all the lost trust too. Those wounds take enormous amounts of time to fully heal, but full, true honesty, and lots of talking things out, will help the process along. Think of honesty as a medicine that’s helping to heal all the pain and suffering your addiction caused.

But above all else, it really is an amazing feeling to be able to be truly open and honest with yourself and your loved ones. You will feel free once again, and relieved of the burden of guilt, shame, and lies. No more will they hold you down. Living a open and honest life can only lead to good things.

Live For Today

For this week I have chosen the safe coping strategy:

Focus on now. Do what you can to make today better; don’t get overwhelmed by the past or future.

As an addict, it’s effortless to let yourself get overwhelmed with guilt and shame about the past. It’s like a constant current running through us, it never goes away. But, we must learn to let go of some of those feelings, make amends, and move on. To be proud of the sober individuals we have become. The past cannot be relived and cannot be changed, and it’s best to let it go and start anew.

It is also very easy to be overwhelmed with thoughts about the future. I tend to think (more like worry) about the future. It’s something in AA they call “future-tripping.” There’s a lot of stuff to worry about when it comes to the future. We don’t know what will happen, and the unknown is very scary for most people. As an addict, you wonder, will I relapse? Will I ever be really cured? Will I be tempted? Will I be put in unsafe situations? Will I have to let go of friendships to stay safe?

But there’s a lot more going on in our lives for us to worry about too. Will I ever find a mate/will my mate ever leave me? Will I have children/am I doing a good job of raising my children? Should I change careers? Should we buy/sell a home? What if I get sick or hurt? What if my partner gets sick or hurt? When will my parents die? When will I die?

These are big heavy issues that weigh upon us, and take our minds out of the present. It’s important to remember that we have no control over the future. We cannot mold and shape it into what we want it to be, it simply happens to us. There are no guarantees we will even wake up tomorrow morning, so worrying about what will happen is pointless.

The only thing we need to concern ourselves with is here, now, today. This day, this hour, this moment. Focus on what’s important right now. Focus on the things we can control right now. Focus on making the right decisions now that will help give us the kind of future we want.

Keep putting one foot in front of the other, both literally and figuratively. Choose sobriety for today. Choose to set realistic goals for today. Be the kind of person you’d like to be today. And at the end of the day, celebrate yourself and your accomplishments.

Don’t get upset if you catch yourself mulling over the past or worrying about the future. None of us can really escape this, these are normal human thoughts. But, just remind yourself in those moments of the importance of living for the moment, and that you can’t do a thing right now about the past or future. It will help comfort you to know that you only need to take care of the immediate things in your life, the things that need your attention right now.

Keep making the right choices today for the path you want to go down, and tomorrow will be beautiful and bright.