When you have developed an addiction, you (and your addiction) have laid down very powerful, abnormal pathways in your brain. These pathways take time to fully establish. Imagine a pristine field of corn, and that this cornfield, is your brain as it was when you were born. As the child gets older and learns how to function in the world, it makes lots of inter-connecting pathways, criss-crossing through that cornfield – in other words, it lays down lots of new neural pathways in their brain, that allow it to survive and function successfully in the world, without the protection and guidance of parents.
Now imagine that the owner of that cornfield, gets a bit older, and starts to regularly walk through one specific corner of their ‘cornfield’, because it’s really fun to do, and it makes them feel really good. It gives them a great deal of pleasure when they take that path. They might know that walking too often down that path can sometimes have harmful effects over time, but they might tell themselves, that it‘s their field of corn, and anyway, one little pathway will cause no real harm, so why not? Lots of other people do it, and no harm’s done. Maybe……..
It starts slowly at first, but as time goes by, some people find that they love walking down that particular path more and more. They start to feel drawn to go back to it whenever they feel they need cheering up, or they cannot cope with life when they are not on that path. They might even be aware that this desire to find the comfort of going down that path is becoming difficult to control. They might notice that although other people walk through the same corner of their own cornfields, in the same way, the other people don’t seem to enjoy it quite as much as they do. Also, the other people don’t seem to need to walk down that path as much as they do.
They start to rely on this pathway whenever their life is not going so well. There is something about that particular pathway that is different from all other pathways – it starts to exert an increasingly powerful attraction, and provide much more pleasure and relief than it used to before – and certainly, much more pleasure and relief than any other pathway can.
By now, the path that used to be small, has become a road, and what’s more, there is a huge reward waiting for them if they give in to the desire to go down that path. They start to rely on this pathway more and more. Now the path has become a highway, and they run down the road whenever they can, because they now ‘need’ the reward that always lies waiting for them at the end of that road. They find that they cannot do without it – the temptation to keep running down that path is constant, and impossible to resist, even when they try.
Now they are obsessed with that road – it’s all they ever think about, and they find they care more about running down that highway than anything else in their life. They can see that what they are doing is hurting their family, but by now the need to run down the road and get the promised reward, is so strong, their infatuation with the highway, outweighs every other aspect of their life.
Finding The Road to Recovery
Suppose this person decides to reach out to someone, and ask for help in regaining control over what they cannot stop doing (running down the highway) – in other words, to stop obeying the cravings of their addiction – to get off the Highway to Hell. In most cases, the way that a health professional will help this person – to treat them – will be by using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – sometimes known as ‘the talking therapy’.
But don’t think that because it’s ‘just’ talking, that CBT is not a powerful therapy for many problems that involve how the brain works. Why?
Because at the heart of any addiction, the drugs, or sex, or gambling are not the real problem – it’s those pathways that have been progressively laid down in the brain, and have become ‘abnormal’ – it’s those pathways that are driving the abnormal, intense compulsion to seek out and satisfy the addiction. It makes little difference which type of addiction they might have developed – it’s the same type of neural pathway in their brain that has been hijacked by addiction, and has become their own personal Highway to Hell.
How Does CBT Get Rid of the Highway to Hell?
Unfortunately, as yet, nothing can get rid of those abnormal Addiction pathways laid down in the brain. Perhaps in the future, there may be medications that might reduce the power of those pathways, and there are some studies that look promising, but they are not yet widely used. CBT is successful because it tries to deal with the real underlying problem – the abnormally distorted pathways in the brain that have been laid down, and then hijacked by an addiction.
Addiction & The Power of Retained Memories
Successful Recovery involves learning how to lay down new, non destructive, pathways in the brain. The old Highway to Hell will always be there – it is known as Retained Memory, and once established, it never goes away. But the goal of rehab and CBT is for people with an addiction to learn how to lay down new pathways on top of the old ones, until the new pathways become stronger than the old ones. It’s not easy.
At first, the new pathways are tiny and unattractive, compared to the old Retained Memories of addiction, and the temptation to give up the task of building new pathways, and revert to the old ‘easy’ ones can be overwhelming.
Addiction has become a ‘habit’ over the years – it’s no accident that addiction is sometimes called ‘A Habit’. A habit is a behaviour that has become so ingrained and ‘habitual’ that it is hard to break. But why is a habit so hard to break? The reason is the strength of those Retained Memory pathways. They took years to fully develop, so they are not going ‘to go quietly’ or even, ever go away, altogether.
The task is huge – it’s to overlay new patterns of thinking, feeling, reacting and behaving so that in time, and with practice, these new pathways can be the pathway of choice for addicts in recovery.
There will always be that choice – there will always be the temptation to take the ‘easy’ road, and return to the old Highway to Hell, but with the insights gained through CBT, and with new hope, new confidence, and the support of friends and family, many people can make that difficult choice of deliberately refusing to go down that old ‘easy’ highway to addiction.
In the early days, that deliberate choice might need to be struggled with, many times a day. With time, in many cases, the need to make that decision occurs less often, and is possibly less powerful. But situations (‘high-risk’ situations) will always crop up that ‘trigger’ those old Retained Memories – and suddenly…it’s as if all the hard work you’ve done during your recovery counts for nothing.
The Retained Memory takes you right back into your past, and you experience the full force of temptation to run down that addiction Highway to gain relief. The triggering of Retained Memories fires up all the old thoughts, feelings, and cravings that you hoped you had successfully buried.
At high-risk moments like these, many people in successful recovery can ‘fall off the wagon’ in some way, and all the old hopelessness, and sense of failure, can return. It’s a fact of life – it happens. But hopefully, with the knowledge, insight and experience already gained in rehab, CBT, and during successful recovery, it is possible to re-assert control again, and be able to make healthy choices again, and regain recovery.
It might be necessary to return to rehab, or perhaps you can turn to your friends in AA or NA or another support group, but in most cases, recovery can be restored, and life can return to a more stable situation again.
There will be more information about what CBT involves in future articles.