There’s a specific issue that keeps coming up with nearly every addiction client I work with who is in early recovery. Regardless of whether they’re trying to stop unhealthy alcohol or drug use, sex or gambling behavior, or anything else, this issue keeps returning. It doesn’t even seem to matter if this is their first attempt at addiction recovery or if they’ve already been here many times before.
The issue: Shame about a desire to return to old behaviors and stopping their recovery.
At the Matrix Institute on Addiction where I see some clients, they call this “The Wall” suggesting that it usually comes right after a relatively easy period of recovery in which clients are self-assured and confident that they’ve got their addiction beat. “The Wall” is supposed to be marked by anhedonia, depression, severe cravings, irritability, and more fun stuff like that. After the wall is the promised land of long-term recovery. By identifying the specific stages of recovery addicts are supposed to gain more understanding of their process and experience less shame. I love the Matrix method, but I see things a little differently. The way I see it, “The Wall” is far from a single point in time, but is instead part of a larger pattern I like to call Rubber-band Recovery.
Rubber-band Recovery in Addiction
I’m sure everyone reading this has at some point played with a rubber band, stretching it and letting it snap back to its original state or pulling it between two fingers and playing it like a string (another name for this approach could be String Recovery, but that might get confused with theoretical physics and we don’t want that). When pulling the rubber-band one way, its internal structure pulls back, trying to get back to its natural state. The body can be thought to do the same when placed under chronic alcohol and drug use in addiction – it has a slew of internal processes that work hard to keep the body in its natural state, at homeostasis. Naturally, due to the pharmacological mechanisms of alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and many other drugs, these systems usually fail at setting everything back to normal especially during the use itself, which is why we get high. However, their work in a body that consumes drugs on a regular basis is obvious – reductions in the production of specific chemicals (like relevant neurotransmitters), changes in the structure of the brain itself (like producing less receptors or even removing some from the brain’s cells), and production of chemicals that combat the drugs’ actions.
All in all, the body and brain of a long-time, chronic, heavy user of alcohol and drugs are different from the body and brain they started with in important ways that specifically relate to their alcohol and drug use. They are like the stretched rubber band, similar but obviously not the same as it was in its relaxed state.
Individuals in early recovery from addiction essentially experience what happens when that taut, stretched, rubber band is let loose. Hurrying up to get back to its natural state, to homeostasis, it releases all that pent up energy and rushes through its original state, overcompensating and stretching a bit in the other direction. For the addict in early recovery, this is the process of withdrawal. As we’ve spoken about numerous times before when discussing withdrawal, a brain that has reduced its own production of dopamine because of large amounts of methamphetamine that flood its dopamine reserves will still be left with very low dopamine when the crystal meth stops coming in. Low dopamine will bring about many effects that look exactly like the opposite of a methamphetamine high – a large appetite, low energy, and reduced movement and motivation. For heroin addicts, the drug that’s caused them to feel no pain and become constipated will cause their bodies severe pain, diarrhea, and trembling when it’s removed from the equation. Some withdrawal is actually life threatening due to the extreme changes in body chemistry and structure that happen after long term use. In addition to all of the direct effects of the drugs and alcohol, those internal processes that have been working hard to counteract the effects of the drugs (they’re called “opponent processes” by some addiction researcher like Dr. Christopher Evans from UCLA) are still turned up to 10 and are going to take a little time to get back to their original state as well. All in all, that leaves addicts feeling pretty crappy to say the least during withdrawal, the worst part of early recovery from addiction.
But like that good old rubber-band addiction recovery than quickly turns around. Having overcome the worst part of withdrawal, addicts in early recovery often experience joy, confidence, energy, and clarity they probably haven’t felt in a long time. That along with the environmental influence of loved ones who are extremely happy to see an addict quit (especially the first time around) give those in very early recovery a feeling of great well being and happiness, like a nice pink-cloud they get to ride on for a bit. Remember, the rubber band is moving back in the direction it came from during active addiction and it’s likely that brain processes are doing a little overcompensating the other way now too, turning down those opponent processes and flooding the brain with the chemicals it’s been missing.
But alas, this little turn doesn’t last too long and back we go into the darker place of negativity, low energy, anhedonia, and more. But instead of calling this stage “The Wall,” I understand it as one of the inevitable turns in what is sure to be a back and forth, seesaw like trip of recovery ups and downs. Periods of confidence in our ability to overcome our demons are followed by others that make us feel week and irritable. The good news is that just like with a rubber-band, each successive cycle on this seesaw gets a little less intense, which means that confidence, elation, depression, and anger turn into comfort, contentment, and ease – our new homeostasis. After a ride like that most addicts really need a little rest and when we reach this stage (no matter what it looks like specifically for each person), long-term recovery feels like the norm instead of an effort. This is the real end goal of recovery – a state of being that feels normal and that doesn’t involve unhealthy alcohol or drug use, sexual acting out, or gambling.
At the end of the rubber-band game we get back to just a good old unstretched rubber-band, and it feels good. In the process, it makes little sense to feel guilty, or ashamed, at all the intermediate stages. They’re part of the game of recovery and they’re essentially impossible to avoid completely. Intense cravings come during specific parts because of internal, biological, and external, environmental influences. Being ashamed of that would be essentially the same as being ashamed of extreme hunger when you haven’t eaten in 5 hours and see a commercial for your favorite food – silly and useless. I can guarantee that the rubber band doesn’t feel ashamed about they way it behaves when snapping back…