Booze and Loss
Emotions are some of the primary triggers for substance abuse, whether or not one has been a chronic substance abuser. As humans we tend to avoid emotions. They can be slimy, hurtful, exasperating, and more. But they can also be pleasant, attractive, and positive. The latter emotions we pursue, the former we avoid.
When we sense something pleasurable – a special song, the touch of a loved one, a food like a favorite chocolate – the brain releases a natural chemical called dopamine, that essentially trains the brain and body to remember, “I like that, lets do it again.” Not only does the dopamine train the pleasure center – the limbic system and prefrontal cortex, but it also encodes the memory of where we found the substance or experience, how to procure it, and all the behaviors involved in reproducing the feeling the item incurred.
This process is a natural, neutral event. Our brains and body are programmed to react in this manner. Its the learning process. Over time we lean that this process will afford us the ability to pursue favorite people, things, activities, and other issues that compliment our lives. Its the process of gaining contentment, which is a better feeling state than happiness.
In the same vein, we can learn that negative emotions can be mitigated by using those substances and activities that create reduction of negative emotions. If we are able to focus on alternative behaviors we become capable of reducing the negative reactions to events. If we enter a state in which we increasingly focus on the situation that produces our discomfort we increase the negative. By replaying the situation over and over we continue to reinforce the negative feelings that are causing the distress. As we reinforce the negative feelings, we stop focusing on solutions and begin to look for means of decreasing the feelings.
At some point we try substances that impact the central nervous system – alcohol, opioids, meth-amphetamines, and others. The mind/body responds like it did to pleasurable events. The substances produce an upsurge in dopamine, but in degrees much larger than nature can. The more these substances are used, the less dopamine is available for other pleasurable events. The dopamine then overloads the memory, reasoning, emotion, learning, judgement, and self-control systems. Eventually we seek out the substance to avoid feeling down, not to get high.
Over the years of attempting to deal with my alcohol issues, its become apparent that my triggers boil down to issues of loss. The deaths of my son, my wife, money, residences, friends, prestige, jobs. The losses were many and varied. The current loss is that of a very good friend relocating permanently some 465 miles away. We were supportive of each other during our particular crises. I listened to her family issues and made suggestions, pointing out her current situation was counterproductive and the family members were not healthful. I was aware that she would return to the San Diego area a month or so before she decided.
Doesn’t make it any easier, by helping her to come to grips with the hopelessness of her situation and the positive aspects of moving, I actually gave her permission to move away. Today there is a hole where the relationship had been. In the past I would attempt to medicate that hole, the sadness that emanates from the void, and the feeling that what once was, can never be again. I would reach for alcohol as a sop, as a blanket to smother the feelings I would not like to address.
I have ignored my history. Ignored the urges and changed my behavior. I have reached out, even in the distancing we are employing. I have resurrected old relationships I had once abandoned. I have developed a series of new relationships, while not as deep as with my absent friend, but they are new and hold the possibility of continuing and deepening. These relationships began serendipitously. By being open to the possibility of these new relationships I softened the blow of my friend’s leaving. Although I do hope we can maintain our relationship over time.
So in the past I would have indulged in heavy alcohol use, followed by crazy behavior. But now I am committed to sobriety. If I allowed myself to drink I would have destroyed the friendship that I desire to maintain, as I have done so effectively in the past.
That she is now doing well and is with positive family reinforces my perception that her move was for the best. While that is a positive for me, it doesn’t remove the sadness of her moving. But I will overcome this without drinking. Just another obstacle to overcome. An emotional test that as I move on I can count as a victory.