We hear it very frequently:
Why do Quitters who don’t seem to have problems with alcohol need to stay away from it anyway? Why can’t a nicotine addict have a few drinks?
There are really two reasons:
- Alcohol reduces our inhibitions and increases the likelihood that we will make bad choices; and
- Just as they say in drug rehabs, “A drug is a drug is a drug.”
Number one is pretty much self-explanatory, and can be attested to by anyone who has regretted something he or she did while they were drinking. The parts of our brains that are responsible for taking in information and allowing us to make reasoned decisions are among the first functions to be depressed by alcohol, along with some motor skills. Essentially, booze makes us dumber while convincing us that we’re smarter.
But there’s a theory out there I’ve been seeing pop up a lot lately called trigger exposure. Supposedly you’ll do better in the long run if you hang out with instead of avoid your triggers. So pal up to your smoking friends while their smoking, drop in on your old smoking haunts, expose yourself to those actions that really make you want to light up – and resist! You’ll be stronger for it!
HA! Whoever came up with that one either wasn’t an Addict or wasn’t a Successful Quitter! It’s neurologically unsustainable and here’s why…
We just as much as any other Addict are vulnerable to cross-addiction. Cross-addiction refers to how we addicts, once addicted, are far more likely to get hooked on other drugs or behavior in addition to our drugs of choice – in our case Nicotine.
Why did we suck smoke into our lungs? We may say we like the taste of tobacco, but the fact is that we liked it because we associate it with the way tobacco made us feel. Sickerettes made us feel “good,” or they “relaxed” us, or they (insert own reason here). But most of us smoked because it distracts us from reality. The escapism I spoke of earlier today. Trouble is, the Nicotine always wears off, and we’re always there, wishing we still felt that dopamine rush! It doesn’t take us long to figure out how to make that happen. Have another Sickerette!
Certain activities stimulate the production of dopamine in the brain that made us feel pleasure. Generally, dopamine relates to things that are mostly beneficial: seeing a loved one or good friend, eating, exercising, playing games — especially if we win — fun, daydreaming, getting a good grade in school, a compliment, sex and so forth. It is literally our bodies’ way of insuring that we keep on doing things that are good for us. We refer to the portion of the brain that is stimulated as the reward center.
Nicotine also stimulates the reward center, and it does it extremely well to begin with. When we start smoking, the feelings are phenomenal. They are much stronger than the normal sorts of feelings, because nicotine replaces natural acetylcholine neurotransmitters with nicotinic transmitters as well as produces a flood of dopamine. Now that’s a powerful reward for smoking instead of our natural system of feeling good. Doing it again seems like a very good idea!
But the goodness doesn’t last. As our reward centers become accustomed to the higher levels of stimulation, they become pretty much immune to the natural reward chemistry. We begin to need nicotine in order to get any sense of pleasure, and eventually just to feel normal. As we increase the number of Sickerettes, our brains attempt to compensate for the high levels of stimulation in two general ways: first by reducing the production of the natural feel-good chemicals, and also by building new receptor sites to deal with the excess dopamine floating around. It does this in an attempt to keep things to something like normal, but it’s doomed to lose the contest. Eventually, we have to have even more nicotine in order to function at all. We’re — guess what — addicted.
So what does all this have to do with a Quitter having a drink? Everything! At the end of the day all drugs, including alcohol and yes, nicotine, act on the reward center. We get our good feelings from the reward center, and the reward center doesn’t know the difference between one drug and another. We can tell the difference in our conscious mind, because we feel the physical changes in other parts of our brains — stimulation, depression, whatever those effects may be — but the reason we enjoy them is because of the effects on our reward center, which operates mostly below the conscious level.
So, when we take a drink, our reward center is like, “Hello? This feels good, and we know how to make it feel even better, don’t we?” If we’re in early recovery — the first two years or so, say — our brain hasn’t even gotten back to normal yet. It has to deactivate all those extra receptor sites that it created to handle the extra stimulation, and it also has to have time to reactivate the systems that make the natural neurotransmitters. During that time we’re sitting ducks for relapse. Even after the repairs, the receptors are still there waiting to be reactivated by the presence of nicotine.
That means that the name of the game in recovery is avoidance of all mood-altering substances — okay, not caffeine (in reasonable quantities) — and excess in other areas of our lives. Fun is fine. Pleasure is fine. But when the feelings become the reason for what we’re doing, to the exclusion of the activity itself and the people involved, we are headed for trouble.
The aim of recovery is not eliminating fun, it’s moderating our behavior and learning to live without mood-altering in unnatural ways. That may require redefining fun. But just go to the EX Café Sun 02.05.17, Freedom Train 2/5/2017 New Year's Bonfire is now beginning!!! or if you’re lucky enough the Reunions and you will EXperience lots of FUN!
If you decide to experiment with trigger exposure, be my guest. It’s your Quit Journey but you can’t argue with neuroscience! The brain is what it is. Addiction is what it is what it is! And our goal is to learn to Live Addiction FREE!