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.


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.

Keep On Truckin’

Today marks my 90th day of sobriety. A milestone I never in a million years thought I could achieve. But, I am here and I did it! And I have faith that you can do it too. I did not achieve this on my own. Although it was up to me to change my behavior, and change the way I think, and to stop drinking, I could not have done it without the love and support of my husband, my family and all of my counselors at rehab. I have already blogged about the safe coping strategy, “Attend treatment.” But I thought another good strategy that was appropriate for my 90 day anniversary of sobriety was:

Trust the process. Just keep moving forward, the only way out is through.

The first days, weeks and months of sobriety are difficult. I won’t sugar coat it for you. You are angry, you are sad, maybe even a little resentful. The idea of life without your substance of choice seems impossible. Absurd. Unbearable. I had to be away from my husband and children for 30 days. And I thought, my problem can’t possibly be bad enough to warrant this. I constantly yearned for home. But then when the day finally came, I wondered if I could manage away from rehab. If I could battle the constant triggers and stay strong. I left feeling accomplished and strong, but a little shaky.

And just when you think you might be starting to get the hang of the sober life, along comes a trigger so big and so scary, it sends you in a tailspin. At first it’s just one drink here, one drink there, but before you know it, you’re worse off than before. I’ve been told lapses and relapses are the rule, not the exception. It happens to the best of us. This is not to excuse the relapse, but only to let you know that you can pick yourself up again. You don’t need to, and shouldn’t, stay down. You can file it away in your “learning experiences” folder and use it to make you stronger, rather than let it keep you down.

And even if you don’t relapse (congratulations on persisting and staying strong), you must contend with an outside world that still sees you as an addict. You have changed, inside and out, but they are going to treat you as they did before, at least for a while. No one is throwing you a parade or awarding you a medal, which is what it feels like you deserve. They’re treating you the way they always treated you, and that can be extremely frustrating. It seems unfair at times, but you need to remember you’re earning back their trust. Trust is so easily lost, but so hard to get back. It takes a lot of time and patience. And, some people will treat you as if you are going to fail at some point, they’re just waiting for it. You’ll feel like a bird in a cage. But, you can use this to your advantage. Use it to fuel your desire to stay sober and get your life on track. Prove them wrong.

It’s important to persist. To trust the process you’re in. To keep putting one foot in front of the other and getting through each day feeling more positive than you did the day before. I’d not be the person I am proud to be today had I not gone through the whole process, up to this point. There’s still a lot of process ahead of me too. But, there’s no way I’d have made it to 90 days sober without just trusting that moving forward was the only way out. That not drinking was the only way to feel better. That counseling was the only way to identify my root triggers and problems, and deal with them accordingly.

The process is long, difficult and painful. And sometimes you wonder if anything’s really happening, if you’re really changing. At times you will wish for and try to find an easier, simpler way to feel better, to feel changed. But there just isn’t one. As it says, “the only way out is through.” Not over, not under, not around, but through. And through is hard, really hard.

But you must trust that if you keep going forward, stay on the right path, that eventually you will see the benefits. The fruits of your labor will be revealed to you: a healthy body, a prosperous career, mended relationships, a happy sober existence. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen, if you do the work.