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.