This is the beginning of a series about the science of things that happen in recovery and the multiple ways to address them.
The first year I was sober, I was about 6 months into recovery, and I tell you, there was nothing fun about it. Everywhere around me, there was holiday music starting to play, people were getting the shopping bug, dressing up, singing as they came into meetings, and I would have preferred to shoot myself. No kidding. That pink cloud people talked about? I never saw it. Either it was floating too high above me, a short person, or it had vanished with the cold weather.
I thought I was destined to be depressed my whole life. Had it not been for a sponsor who kept saying, “It gets better, don’t leave before the miracle happens,” and “Don’t drink, don’t drug and don’t die, and you will get better,” I would have left the program. I saw all these happy, contented souls, and wondered, “Why not me?” I was hanging on by a thread. I went to two or three meetings every day, hanging on for the two or three hours between meetings. I brought up the subject at meetings, and heard all kinds of responses about building new traditions, taking it one day at a time, hanging with people in the program, just not drinking today. I honestly couldn’t make sense of it. I didn’t realize that doing all of these things, hanging with people (uncomfortably) at the diner after the meetings until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, was part of building new muscle for sober living. Not fun.
I did stay sober and clean. I had roommates who were trying to do the same thing. On the weekend after Thanksgiving we decided to have a sober Christmas party. We put up a tree, cooked a turkey and a ham and some other goodies, and invited others to bring a pot luck dish, an ornament and some music to play. It was my first sober party and I was scared to death. My roommates had more sober time so I just played monkey see, monkey do. It worked out amazingly well. I wouldn’t say I was happy, but I was smilingly numb. I wasn’t alone for a whole afternoon and evening. People hugged me whether I wanted them to or not. They brought amazing ornaments, mostly hand-made, some I still have today. I laughed, something I hadn’t done much up until then. This may have been my first burst of hope.
The next morning I work up as blue as ever. Maybe even more so, because I had convinced myself the blues were going to be over, and it was such a disappointment to awaken to find out I was the same me. Then and even sometimes now, I suffered from this fantasy belief system that this is all a dream, and any time now I will wake up and find it is all over, and I am back in that time-honored state of being high. I had a voice in my head that told me that. (It’s my disease talking to me.) It lies. The only chance I have of making it in this world is living in reality.
There are two or maybe more states that resemble the holiday blues that bear talking about. Many of us get the blues because we have lived through some horrific things over the holiday times with our families or other loved ones. Those blues really are easily remedied by creating new traditions, capitalizing on the ones we love; spending time with our bff’s, giving from our hearts, and making gratitude lists. Unless there is true trauma tied to those horrendous times. Then the holidays may trigger such bad memories as to cause bad dreams, terrible memories and flashbacks, and things that make us want to wish these times were wiped off the face of the earth. It makes it feel like it is impossible to survive the shortening of the days. In my case, I realized by the following year, as soon as the days begin getting shorter, my brain goes into an early warning system, “DANGER, DANGER, it’s THAT time of the year again!” I had to seek out extra help to sort it out!
Extra help came in the form of a terrific therapist (several over the years, actually) who I could share my stories with, puzzle out the triggers, and learn new coping skills to deal with the things that came up. Enough said about that for now. Depression and trauma work can be closely related, and as I unraveled my past, a lot of the depression alleviated. Addiction and trauma are often closely tied together and require psychological/therapeutic help to navigate.
That first year, there was this other thing that was looming as well. It was under and around everything I did. No matter good or bad, happy or sad, it was the thing that pushed down on all that I did. It wasn’t really a feeling; it was more like, well, a black hole of nothingness. I couldn’t tell you what I felt, because I felt nothing. I could lie for hours on the couch, and if I would try to get up, it was as if a hand was on my chest, holding me down. I could sit in one place for indefinite times. If I had a task at work, I would do it, maybe even do it well, but I would feel no pleasure at completing it. This is anhedonia.
It was a couple years before a psychiatrist said to me, “You have done so much damage to the neurons in your brain, that you may have caused permanent damage. You may have to be maintained on anti-depressants (he meant SSRIs) for the rest of your life.” It took many years after that for me to research and glean the knowledge that he was talking about the dopamine and other neuro-receptors in the brain, that had been so flooded by the junkyard of drugs and alcohol that I had used in my very young to young adult life, that I had shut down my brain’s ability to produce its own much needed amino acids. This doctor was well-ahead of his time, and I didn’t believe him. So I fought off the black holes of anhedonia on my own for another ten years, because in twelve step programs then, taking psychiatric meds was considered as though you were not totally clean and sober. It would take me a few more years to develop my own strength to choose what I needed for my own sanity.
Then, about ten years ago, I stumbled upon Julia Ross’ work, The Mood Cure, where I first heard about states of being caused by the neuro-receptors in the brain. I took her little quizzes and found out that I was depleted in the areas of serotonin and catecholamines – or dopamine centers. Reading on I realized that my psychiatrist friend from years ago had been correct – I had so over-flooded my brain with my drugging and drinking, that still, ten years later, my brain was struggling to function correctly. I learned that, while partially being helped by the type of anti-depressant I’d been on for years, there were problems with the functioning of my brain that could only be helped more by diet, exercise and supplements. I began to clear the junk out of my diet – less and less sugar and preservatives, more and more fresh, home-grown foods, healthy proteins and fruits and nuts where possible. I began to feel more positive about life. I began also to explore supplements that might help me escape the periodic dark holes that overcame me. I was desperate to find a release from the state of numbness that periodically grabbed me and pulled me down to the depths. I was tired of being held prisoner to this unwieldy state of paralysis that defied explanation and gave me no warning of onset or release. So, not knowing if I would be successful or not, I began an exploration into the world of the brain and its functions.
At this point I knew few people who were believers in this new science. In recent years, neuroplasticity is a new science gaining popularity. Scientists now believe that the brain is capable of growing new neurons and healing itself well into late life. When I was studying psychology in college, we thought development of the brain ceased in late adolescence. I began to realize that our knowledge of the brain was as limited as I was gaining sobriety, that who knows, there might be hope for my brain healing as well. Just the thought of this gave me more hope.
I’m going to continue to explore with you here, how the science of this works. For now I will say to you, think of how the tryptophan in the turkey you eat this Thanksgiving works: after a full meal, we all seem to be able to retire to the living room, with a full belly, intent on watching a game or a movie, and how many of us make it through all the way? How many of us doze, happily, in front of the TV or the fire, feeling satiated and satisfied? This is the supposed work of the amino acid, tryptophan, and precursor of serotonin. Isn’t it amazing, how universally workable that simple factor is, that almost all of us recognize and can joke about it? This is the magic of the aminos.
So as you are sitting at your Thanksgiving dinner, no matter how uncomfortable or enjoyable it is, stop to recognize the power of the brain and its neurons this year. Take comfort in how much more we know, and how much more we can do to change our situations! If you are new to sobriety, take comfort that it will not always be this way, and that no matter how awkward, change is good. Don’t drink or drug no matter what, and you might be the next miracle your friends get to see. Stick around!
What we offer here in substance use disorder treatment at Bridging the Gaps is an addition to traditional approaches. We treat your brain and your body as part of integrated an emotional, physical and mental and spiritual approach to wellness with addiction. We honor the healing process of the body, and utilize many components in that process. Would you like to learn more? This is a series of blogs that will teach you more about how amino acids are instrumental to brain healing. Addiction is primarily a brain disease characterized by a “brain reward disorder.”