Brain Networks in Early Recovery

On the topic of brain networks in early recovery, I have often been asked, "Why does the recovery process work for some people and not for others?" In order to gain a better understanding to the answer it is beneficial to first understand the framework that develops in the brain where the addiction process takes place.

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Many individuals go through an experimental stage where they try alcohol or a mood altering substance. Some people have a genetic make-up that makes them susceptible to a more intense or pleasurable experience than others. They may also have some high risk environmental factors that make them want to mood alter more often. The more they do it the stronger the neural network develops for dependency.

When I was 14 years old I experimented with alcohol and it created a very likeable feeling, and so I continued to pursue that activity. Then I introduced it to my best friend but she did not care for that intoxicated feeling at all. She said she felt out of control and it was not a pleasurable experience. That was something I could not understand! The more my relationship with alcohol increased the more of a separation our friendship experienced. I began to gravitate towards people who drank and she did not.

In my family of origin there is a significant drinking culture compared to my friend's family. I do believe that certain environmental factors play a part in the development of dependency in addition to the genetic factor.

As I continued to increase the amount and frequency of my drinking the neural networks became more developed and embedded in the reward center of my brain. I learned that if I didn't like the way I felt, I could take a drink and it would change immediately. During this process of increased consumption there was a shift in my thoughts and opinions about alcohol and drugs. I began to rationalize and justify my drinking. I also began to trust and rely on it.

After several years of accumulating negative consequences due to my drug and alcohol use the suggestion was made that I go to treatment. I certainly didn't want to loose my job and I had a sneaky suspicion that I had a problem, although it was very difficult to face that reality.

Once in treatment they educated me about the disease concept of addiction and alcoholism and explained how my brain had been 'high-jacked.' They provided me with a set of guidelines that I could implement in order for me to remain clean and sober. Well those new behaviors and new ideas were very foreign to me and I felt very uncomfortable trying them out.

I like to use the analogy of bowling in comparison to the process of new recovery. When I was a young teen I saw people bowling on tv and also had some friends who bowled and it looked like fun and pretty easy to do. I went to our local bowling alley and signed up for some lessons.

First thing that happened was I began to feel very uncomfortable because did not know anyone there. Next, the instructor helped me pick out a ball that would fit my hand. He showed me which fingers to use, but that really felt awkward and I wanted to use different fingers. I continued to try and do it my way. Next came how to position myself, take some steps, drop my arm and swing it back and then release the ball with the hopes of not getting a gutter ball. This was not as easy as it looked! After some practice I went out with my friends to go bowling and got teased a bit for my inability to knock over very many pins, I kept trying, but didn't become very successful at it. I decided it wasn't much fun.

I experience almost the same kinds of feelings when I started a recovery program. I felt awkward and it was uncomfortable because it was unfamiliar and I didn't know anyone there. They gave me suggestions which seemed difficult (just like with the bowling!) so I decided to do it my way. My sobriety lasted about 5 months because I was unwilling to follow the suggestions of the program.

After my relapse I decided to follow directions, no matter how much I wanted to resist, I just did it - and it worked! And has continued to work for the past 18 years. I kept going until a network developed and I began to feel some relief, get comfortable and learn new coping skills on how to deal with myself and life. I also needed time to make new friends and eventually have some fun.

It has been my experience that individuals who say recovery doesn't work for them, many times haven't really gave it much of a chance in order for the brain to develop a new system geared towards being clean and sober.

I am glad I stuck around long enough for the new networks to develop in my brain so that I can be free from the chains of alcohol and drug addiction. As for bowling... well let's just say I haven't been in a very long time.

About the Author

Angie Carter, CRADC, SAP is a certified reciprocal alcohol and drug counselor and DOT certified Substance Abuse Professional. She is in private practice at Carter Counseling & Consulting Services. Angie is available for telephone coaching and/or consultation. Click here to contact Angie with appointment requests, questions, or feedback.