As much as we might like to have it otherwise, healthy pleasure isn’t constant. Pleasure is the body’s way of rewarding us for doing things that benefit us: survival of our offspring and ourselves. But when pleasure becomes the norm, rather than the reward, the system breaks down. We begin to pursue pleasure for its own sake, to the neglect of nature’s original intentions.
Because pleasure can blank out reality for a little while, its pursuit can become more far-reaching than occasionally feeling good. Whether we are indulging in chemicals or stimulating our neurotransmitters in other ways, feeling better becomes the objective. Most addicts have myriad things that they’d like to feel better about (or forget) and deadening the pain surrounding them is a major reason for our indulgences.
Unfortunately, we become so accustomed to the stimulation that it no longer makes us feel good after a while. We need more, and soon we need our hits in order to feel what we perceive as normal. At that point we have become dependent on whatever we are using to maintain the illusion of normalcy. Remember when you could “take it or leave it,” but always chose to take it because you felt uncomfortable if you didn’t?
Acute withdrawal occurs in the first week or so of abstinence for most addictive behavior, although some things take longer. After that we usually feel pretty good for a short time, at least in comparison to the previous few days. This doesn’t last forever, because we have come to depend on the stimulation provided by acting out. The pleasure centers of our brains need those neurotransmitters, but their usual production has been short-circuited by the artificial stimulation that we provided for so long.
The result is a rebound effect. Because we are no longer producing normal levels of stimulation naturally, we may experience anhedonia, becoming unable to feel pleasure in things that would normally be pleasurable. This may happen off and on while our damaged reward system slowly returns to normal. As we recover it comes and goes: good days, followed by days that really, really suck, then good ones again for a while with the good periods slowly becoming longer and the sucky ones shorter.
That’s Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, or PAWS. It is aggravated by habits that we have not yet replaced with healthy behavior, damage to our bodies stemming either directly from our addiction or physical neglect, and the sudden return of the “stuff” that we were trying to suppress.
If you’ve been wondering why early recovery is such a bitch, there’s your answer. We can’t feel normal until the damage is repaired, and we have trouble enjoying life until the fixing is well under way. Fortunately, there are some things that can help the process and reduce the discomfort.
1. Seeking a quick fix is out. That way lie substitute addictions that can range from chemicals to gambling, sex, shopping, eating — just about anything that can stimulate our pleasure center and/or seem to be filling up that empty place.
2. No, a little pot is not okay! If you’re addicted to caffeine, cut down. If you are a nicotine addict, don’t worry about it for the time being, but stop when you’re able. Recovery requires abstinence from unnatural stimulation. Full stop.
3. We must have an organized system of recovery, with full use of supports like meetings, sponsors, a peer group, phone calls and so forth. The clinical term for addicts who just test the waters, picking and choosing what seems to fit their own ideas of recovery, is “relapsed.”
4. Taking care of ourselves in such a way that our bodies and minds have what they need to do the repair job is totally necessary! This doesn’t mean a program found on the Interwebs or in the hundreds of quick fix books available. Go to the reputable sites like Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, MedicineNet and the US Department of Agriculture and learn about scientifically validated ways of self-care.
Learn about good nutrition from reliable sources, and stick with it.
We tried the quick fix for years, and it was so successful that it nearly killed us. Listen to the qualified experts, not the get-rich-quick scammers! If that stuff worked, it would be standard medical practice all over the world.
5. Stick to moderate exercise. The endorphins associated with strength and endurance training will only slow your recovery, because they stimulate the same neural pathways as opiates. (That’s why exercise feels good.) Sure, they’ll make you feel better — that’s why we have exercise addictions. Walk, walk-run, a bit of tennis, swimming and similar exercise is for you, and stay out of the gym. You need fresh air, sunshine, and time away from superficial relationships.
6. Avoid getting any tats for the first year or so. Pain and the anticipation of pain stimulate endorphins and give us addicts a hit. There’s plenty of time later to memorialize your recovery, your mother, Jesus, or your dead using buddy. You won’t listen to this, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
Now the good news: it gets better. Every sober person has gone through the same stuff, suffered the same misery, overcome the same obstacles and survived. So you can too, but you have to work at it.
Quick fix = addict behavior = relapse. Remember that.