-By A. Scott Roberts
M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling, Addiction Specialist
If you have ever been to AA, you may hear people talk about how they “hit bottom.” Bottoms are a deep emotional and traumatic experience that impels one to become sober. In AA they call it “incomprehensible demoralization.” It is usually ushered in by something like the loss of a loved one, a near death overdose or extreme financial hardship.
There are scientific reasons for these “bottoms.” Experiences that are either very frightening or terrifying, creates an “emotional memory,” which is a memory that is permanently stamped on the brain. This memory overrides the normal learning process, long-term potentiation (LTP). What this means, is that this memory is easier recalled than others and may even stamp out other memories.1
When a “bottom” happens, the survival part of the bran (the limbic system – same system activated by drugs) is now your friend. But instead, it is now awakened and takes a hard look inward at primary survival.
The people that hit “bottom” start to view addiction in a whole new light.
This psychological switch results in addicts finding a “moment of clarity,” as AA calls it. In some cases, addicts realize they must get sober, or die. And they have learned this principle the hard way. Sometimes we have to hit bottom to realize the only way is up.
But do you have to experience this “bottom” or substantial losses from your addiction in order to get sober?
Addiction is game of diminishing returns. You have an increasing desire for a diminishing pleasure. There’s no winning.
But what if we could realize that addiction wasn’t an option before you undergo substantial loss? Fact is, we use this construct a lot, but don’t realize it.
Let me explain it this way. Imagine that you are a male driving down a busy road. You pass by, what you believe, to be an attractive female walking on the sidewalk. Naturally, this female has grabbed your attention. You start to stare. The reason you stare is because your brain has begun to flood with dopamine. The visual stimuli (the sight of the woman) sends a message down to the amygdala (limbic region) and your body has actually begun the initial stage of getting it ready for sex.
In the first few seconds of seeing this female, you may not consciously notice that you are staring. You don’t notice it because it is automatic and works at a subconscious level. This same subconscious limbic system reveals itself when you step outside in freezing temperatures and your body begins to shiver. It also controls the beating of your heart. You do not consciously control these things, they just happen.
Eventually you come to your “senses.” When this happens, the decision-making, frontal lobe part of his brain steps in and sends a strong signal back down to the limbic region and says “focus on the road!”
This whole process can happen within a few seconds.
But what you, as a man in this scenario, may not fully realize, is that your brain has begun the process of preparing you for sex. It is biologically wired within our brains and nervous system at a subconscious level to increase in sexual responses at the sight of a potential partner.
This same process happens to those addicted to drugs, alcohol, tobacco or pornography.
Science reveals that at the sight of a needle to an addict, an empty bottle to an alcoholic, a cigarette pack to a smoker, or a pretty woman to a man, spikes dopamine in the brain.2 From there, the limbic system tries to dominate and “hijack” the brain, dampening the planning and reasoning centers.3
One researcher found that addicts reported tasting their drug in the back of their throats when “triggered.”4 This is because our somewhat strange brain, starts to mimic our drug of choice and give us a “primer.” It’s like taking a small piece of the drug itself.
But lets go back to the man in the above scenario. What switched the man around at the sight of the female? Why was he able to take “control” after his body started the initial processes of preparing him for sex?
Obviously, the man realizes that he cannot go mate with this woman (even if he wanted to). It is not an option. He is in the middle of driving. He may be busy, or running late to work. He also knows that this woman doesn’t know who he is. The chances of the female immediately “jumping in the sack” with him is very, very unlikely. All these obvious reasons enter the man’s mind.
He knows it isn’t an option to pursue this female, even though his biological responses tell otherwise.
Let me put it this way. If your an alcoholic, you become stranded on a desert island with nothing other than fish and bananas to live on, you probably realize that drinking is no longer an option. It is when we know that our drug of choice is available, that the mind will become preoccupied on “using.”
You must be okay with never watching porn again. You must be okay with never touching alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. Sooner or later, you will find that your addiction is no longer an option. Better realize this now, rather than when experiencing substantial losses.
When you no longer make addiction an option in your life, you act as if it doesn’t even exist. You forget about it and move on.
You don’t struggle everyday fighting urges. You won’t be trying so hard to overcome anything. You may stay up all night because you couldn’t sleep well, not because you needed a “drink.”
-A. Scott Roberts
M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling
1 Grady, Denise. “The Hardest Habit To Break: Memories of the High.” New York Times, October 27, 1998.
2. Brain Study Illustrates Intense Pull Of Cocaine, Associated Press, April 11, 2003.
3. Blakeslee, Sandra (2002). “Hijacking the Brain Circuits with a Nickel Slot Machine.” The New York Times (February 19), Sec. F, 1.
4. Brain Study Illustrates Intense Pull Of Cocaine, Associated Press, April 11, 2003.