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May 13, 2020

S2|E3: Why It’s So Hard to Stop Drinking

S2|E3: Why It’s So Hard to Stop Drinking

Why can't we just stop at one drink? A common belief is that if people dependent on substances just "tried harder," they could gain some control over their addictions. But the neuroscience shows why the path to recovery is so much more complex.

In this episode, Janice explains how a person’s brain becomes addicted to alcohol (or other addictive drugs), and how there’s actually a rational explanation for the seemingly irrational behavior of people who become dependent on drugs. She also gives an update on her current journey exploring her relationship with alcohol, and the pros and cons of going AF (alcohol free) during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Hey fam, what's going on? We are back for Episode 3 of The Soul's Work Podcast, Season 2. How are y'all doing? How is self-isolation, sheltering-in-place, staying-at-home life treating you? I know it is super hard some days, if not all the days. So totally feel ya if this is just one big struggle.

For me, I feel like I am just starting to crawl out of a string of days when I was continuously feeling these waves of sadness and a bit of grief, as I mentioned in the last episode. And I do find that every day I'm feeling super exhausted, getting terrible sleep, and also feeling very, very antisocial. So basically a bundle of joy, but ya know, I'm kind of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and hoping for a little bit of normalcy soon.

So, today is 31 days alcohol free for me. I have this app called Sober Time that's been tracking how long I haven't had a drink for since that fateful night I mentioned in the Introduction of Season 2, when I basically got drunk by myself at home. And I actually don't get very obsessive with checking it, because early on I was hearing from people who have been on this alcohol free journey way longer than me that at some point, counting the days sort of doesn't become as rewarding as it feels at the beginning. And if that's the only thing you're looking at as a measure of success, it can potentially feel like a let down at some point.

For one person, that might have been hitting their 5-year mark, for someone else it was their 1-year anniversary, and some people have experienced those milestones with a feeling of deflation. Like, okay, now what? Because they were so focused perhaps on just counting the days. And it's not just about counting the days, although that can still be super important for some people, and that’s cool. But ultimately, I feel that it's about how is being alcohol free improving the aspects of your life that alcohol was taking away from?

So I've been trying to keep that in mind and think about what are the things in my life that I'm doing this for, ya know? And I will share more about those things in detail in another episode. But today, I really wanted to get into how addiction works on the brain. Why it is so fricking hard to not have that next drink when you have become caught up in the cycle of addiction or dependency. 

Going alcohol free during the pandemic

And by the way, something I just wanted to mention was that it’s interesting to have started this journey during COVID times. Now, I actually don't think it would have even happened if I hadn't been in this situation of self-isolating and being worried about my drinking as I was going into that self-isolation mode.

I had already had this feeling that me being by myself physically alone every day, having alcohol in the apartment, that there was a likelihood that I might start slipping back into a routine of frequent drinking. And that I could emerge from this whole thing, months later, quite dependent on alcohol. And I recognize that I am still dependent on alcohol to some degree, but I was concerned about how much more that would be reinforced during this time. 

And, you know, it had actually already been on my mind even while I was digital nomading in Central America before COVID hit – that I'd like to try being sober for a few months when I returned to Toronto. I felt like I wanted to challenge myself, to know that I could go without alcohol for, I was thinking, four months. But honestly, that thought was really uncomfortable for me. Four months.

I mean, I can’t recall a time since my early teens, when I started drinking, going longer than three weeks without drinking. And the only two times I can remember being alcohol free for three weeks was when I had bronchitis for three weeks, and another time when I was preparing for a show where I was singing and wanted to keep my voice in check. But you can bet that I was ready with a glass of wine as soon as that show was over. So, honestly, the fact that I can be here now at 31 days and not feeling completely deprived is pretty impressive, not gonna lie.

And I think that if our social lives were status quo when I returned to Canada, it would have been really difficult for me to not give into my triggers and cravings and be alcohol free for more than a few days at a time. So I actually don't think that this would have even come about if it wasn't for this self-isolation situation. And there are other good things about my journey happening now during COVID, like that I get to start it without all of those external temptations of going out and socializing and going to the bars or even going out to eat, which I always associate with having a drink.

I can't even imagine how much harder this would all be if I was always having to be confronted with that just at the beginning of this journey. And so, because I'm in this very controlled environment, by myself, and I'm kind of holed up in this condo apartment, immersing myself in the education and all of that stuff, I feel like that’s been helpful to get to day 31, as long as I'm cognizant of what does happen when we do start socializing again. You know, how do I prepare for that so that it doesn't all fall apart when I'm getting back out there?

So, I'm thinking about that. And on the other hand, doing this alcohol free journey during COVID times, when there's so many hard and difficult feelings coming up – as we were talking about in Episode 2 – that maybe wouldn't have been so intense if it wasn't for the pandemic, you know, that can make it more difficult to not be relying on my coping mechanism of drinking.

So, it's kind of like this balancing thing, where there's some pros and some cons. But I'm going to go with it being more of a pro, because I'm definitely feeling more empowered by it versus feeling deprived by it.

Am I quitting drinking forever?

Also, in case you're wondering if I'm planning to go alcohol free indefinitely, I haven't actually made that a goal up to this point. And that's very intentional, because I believe that if I had said that at the outset of this, 31 days ago, and I said I'm never going to drink again after that horrible night of drinking, I don't think I would have made it this far.

Because that is such a black and white, absolute, intense statement that for somebody who has not yet internalized in her subconscious that that is something that she would even find desirable to do, but also possible to achieve, it would probably just make me want to give up, to be honest.

At some point when the going got tough – and the going has already gotten very tough – I probably would have been like, fuck this shit. I don't even believe that it's possible for me to never drink again, so I may as well just give up and give myself that relief right now. So, it's been strategic for me to not give that as the big goal. 

Now, I'm very much open to the possibility of anything being possible. So if it got to the point where I felt that given everything that I'm learning, that that is what I need to do, then we're gonna cross that bridge when we get there. And I just don't want to be disingenuine and tell you that, oh, yes, then at that point I will make the decision to never drink again, because how do I really know, right?

I just want to keep this podcast super honest, super transparent, and I want you to know all of the struggles and doubts, and also the highs and the victories, that I'm going through in this journey. Because it's already been up and down, it's been both challenging and rewarding, and I imagine that it's going to continue to be that way. And if that's what it is, then that is what it is. And it's important to show both sides of that, I think.

Reducing shame while taking responsibility

So, I've alluded to this concept of the subconscious mind of a drinker, and I wanted to dive a little bit more into that today, actually getting a little into how addiction works on the brain, without getting, hopefully, too science-nerdy. But I find that even if you're not a science nerd – and I'm not – this stuff is still really fricking fascinating.

And I think if you are a drinker or somebody who has a dependency on alcohol or other addictive drugs, I think it's really important to know, because it really explains in a logical way something that seems so insane and nonsensical. It actually provides a rational explanation for what's happening to produce these seemingly very irrational behaviours.

So, I think that just demystifies a lot of the things going on in our own selves, and I think in doing that, it allows us to have some self-compassion. Because as we learn more about how alcohol almost hijacks the brain in someone who has become addicted to it, we are able to give ourselves a little bit of a break in terms of how much real control we have over it.

Now, I say that without implying that we shouldn't be taking any responsibility. I never, ever want to imply that. Because I 100% feel that I should be taking responsibility, and that's what I'm trying to do right now. And I also want to just acknowledge that there are a lot of harmful things that do come from alcohol addiction, drug addiction, and it doesn't just affect the person, but it often affects other people around them. I know domestic violence often gets fuelled when alcohol is involved, and kids growing up seeing that with their parents.

These are really, really serious things, and it's absolutely not to be understated, it's not to be forgotten, and I just really want to acknowledge that. And so, the point of me explaining this is not to take responsibility away from the person who is drinking problematically, but it's just to get us on the same page about what is actually happening.

Because the dominant narrative or understanding in society has been that addicts are just inherently bad people and they're just fucked up, and a lot of times the solution is just to punish them for what they're doing. And this is kind of why, for me, learning about the neuroscience of addiction is so empowering and helpful in my journey to not drink problematically, because it's helping me to understand at which level the problem needs to be addressed.

If I just thought that being dependent on alcohol was something that was happening at the conscious, rational level of my mind, well, then maybe I would agree with the typical response or advice that just having more willpower or really harnessing the power of the rational brain to overcome alcohol dependency might work.

But as I'm learning – and as I always kind of knew through my work in the criminal justice field, which was my first career – it doesn't work that simply. It's a lot more complex than that. And now that I really understand the exact subconscious patterns that are at play here, I also understand where the solutions have to be targeted at.

So, that's why I think this is really important to clarify, and for people to understand. And it honestly does allow some level of compassion for ourselves, which I think is important too. Because when we are wrapped up in a lot of shame, which we often are, anybody who has gone through this or is going through this understands what I'm talking about in terms of that feeling of shame at our behaviour – when we are wrapped up in that, it is really difficult to take action on the actual issue at hand, which is underlying the shame. So, if we can kind of remove that shame at least enough so that we're not overwhelmed by it, so that we don't feel broken by it, then we can get to what actually needs to be looked at. 

The dopamine reward pathway + how addiction develops

So, I'll try to make this kind of simplified and brief. I don't want to get into anything too complicated here, but the key to understanding the addicted brain is to learn a little bit about our dopamine reward pathway.

It's this pathway in everyone's brain that evolved through natural selection so that the brain learned that things like food and sex were desirable, and in turn, humans would continue to do these things that benefited our survival as a species, right? Eating and procreating. Now, there's other kinds of natural stimuli that signal to the brain that this thing is desirable, keep doing it, like hearing a beautiful piece of music or eating chocolate or giving a friend a hug.

And basically, whenever we experience these things, the dopamine reward pathway gets activated, our dopamine neurotransmitters are released into the reward center of the brain, which then leads to us experiencing this sense of pleasure and the brain learning that this thing you just did was highly rewarding. And this whole process motivates us to continuously seek out that same thing in order to get the dopamine hit. 

But with addictive substances, all addictive drugs basically co-opt that dopamine reward pathway. And instead of just this sort of natural release of dopamine, it dumps a whole bunch of dopamine into that reward center. It's this rush of dopamine, and that's why it feels so fricking good. It feels better than anything else that you would just experience through a natural stimuli.

And it doesn't just have to be drugs. It can happen with certain addictive behaviours, like gambling, sex, watching porn, if you've become caught up in that cycle of addiction with those specific things. You'll get that same intense rush of dopamine that teaches your brain that this is a very desirable thing and you should keep doing it.

And so, this is what happens, and what was happening for me when I was starting to drink in my late teens, and then doing it continuously, frequently, heavily throughout my earlier to mid-20s. And with every time the brain is making the connection between the act of drinking and the dopamine rush it will experience as a result, that dependency gets more and more strongly reinforced. 

So, the other thing that happens is that the brain starts to remember the things that are happening around this event of drinking the alcohol, whether it's seeing the liquor store or the smell of the wine or the bar that you always frequent and drink at. It could even be the time of day – that maybe the brain starts to learn that every time it gets to just before bedtime, you have a scotch or two or three, as I eventually started doing, the brain knows it's getting the alcohol.

It could also be internal cues as well. Those are environmental cues, but it could also be feelings of anxiety or depression or loneliness, or whatever, that if you always turn to alcohol in those moments, then the brain starts making the association that every time you feel anxious, the alcohol is going to come. 

And so, y'all know Pavlov's classical conditioning experiment with the dog? I learned this in Psychology 101 in undergrad. So Pavlov would ring the bell, and then give the dog food, and the dog would, of course, salivate upon sight of the food. Pavlov would ring the bell, give the dog food, the dog would salivate. And after doing this so many times, the dog came to associate the ringing of the bell with receiving the food, so that when Pavlov would just ring the bell, the dog would already be salivating because it was anticipating that the food was coming.

So, it's kind of the same thing. The brain starts to anticipate that the alcohol is going to come when it sees those environmental cues, or feels the internal cues that is has, through conditioning, come to associate with getting the alcohol, and therefore the dopamine rush. 

So, understanding these cues also becomes important later in my explanation. But the other thing that happens – the very unfortunate thing – is that the brain also, in response to the dopamine rush, in response to the other effects that the alcohol will produce, like feelings of relaxation ... and every drug, as I said, produces dopamine, but it might also act on other things as well – like, opiates, like heroin, will relieve suffering and pain because it acts on our opioid or pain receptors. So, any effect that the drug is producing in the brain, the brain will respond by producing the opposite effect.

And it's doing this in order to maintain stability – "homeostasis" being the scientific term. And you can probably understand this intuitively, because we all sort of know that even just within the body, our body is always trying to maintain this homeostasis. So, we have a certain body temperature that is our baseline that we want to keep in order to stay healthy, and if we're too hot, then our body will start to sweat in order for us to come back down in temperature. 

And it's the same thing with the brain. The brain is receiving these very abnormally high levels and rushes of dopamine, and it doesn't like this. Because imagine that the brain kind of sees this as a lot of background noise, it's a lot of chaos happening that's very out of character with what it knows its baseline to be.

Now, if the brain is like that, then it can't detect when something really important is really going on in the environment, like if you're getting a signal of some sort of threat, for example, because there's all of this sort of craziness happening on the brain. And so, the brain wants to protects us and to come back down, level out, so that it can be alert to cues in the environment that are important. 

Unfortunately, the way that we experience this is as uncomfortable, sometimes painful withdrawal symptoms. Like, if alcohol produces relaxation, then we're going to feel anxiety afterwards and insomnia. The pleasure that we get from dopamine, the brain is going to produce that opposite effect – which is not depression, but anhedonia, which is basically like the inability to feel pleasure, and so life just feels very like meh and meaningless.

And when we get to that state, obviously what does our brain think is the solution? Well, it's learned that the the response it should give when you're feeling those things is to drink alcohol. And it becomes an incredibly vicious cycle. 

And the thing is that the brain doesn't come to connect that it's actually the alcohol that is also producing those feelings of anxiety and whatnot, because that happens much later on in time. Whereas, drinking and that experience of pleasure happens very close in time, and so the brain can make that connection really easily.

It's not until later in the cycle that those withdrawal symptoms or those opposite effects actually start happening before you even drink. And that's because the brain has become so good at adapting and learning how to deal with this situation, that when it experiences those environmental or internal cues I mentioned earlier, it has learned that alcohol is coming next, then the dopamine rush is going to come and all of these other unnatural effects in the brain, and then the brain is going to have to counterbalance that with, for example, producing chemicals that will tamper it down, which then produce the withdrawal effects that we feel.

So, the brain knows the whole chain of events that it's been subjected to over and over again. And what it eventually learns to do is to bring on those counterbalancing effects as soon as it experiences the cue, whether external or internal, before the alcohol even comes.

And this just reinforces the addictive cycle even more. Because number one, if you are experiencing the cue – let's say for me, it's smelling wine, or seeing people drinking, or feeling loneliness; I have lots of different cues – that is going to tell the brain that alcohol is coming. So I'm going to be like Pavlov's dog and starting to anticipate it and getting the craving and expectation for it.

But also, if the brain is also bringing on the counterbalancing effects, which I ultimately experience as anxiety or a lack of pleasure, then I'm gonna want that relief even more. Because now I feel crappy and my brain has learned that alcohol is going to be the thing to solve that problem. So, it is just such a strong, strong pull to go into the direction of drinking, once again, in those moments. 

And you can imagine that for someone who is trying to get or stay sober, if they haven't yet been able to repair that subconscious learning, that pull is always going to be there making them have intense cravings to drink. And that is why I am glad that I'm not starting this journey while having the opportunity to be social, because I think the majority of social situations I would be in would act as environmental cues and trigger me to want to drink. Of course, if I go out to a bar, even if I go out to eat at a restaurant, I mean, our society makes it really difficult to escape seeing alcohol around us. The cues are everywhere.

So the way that alcohol dependency or addiction or abuse – however you want to refer to it – works on the brain is why, even if on a conscious level there were so many times I told myself that I really need to stop drinking problematically, I really need to cut down, I really wish I could find a different way to deal with life, these were all conscious thoughts, and they were very valid, but they were no match for what was happening at that very deep subconscious, neurobiological level.

So, I hope that little summary – and it really is just one part of the picture, there's a lot of other things that happen in the brain with addiction – but this thing about the dopamine reward system is kind of the key thing to know. And I think just in understanding this process alone, it kind of shines a light into why it is so difficult to fight those urges, because it is happening literally at a chemical level.

And the thing is if you are becoming addicted to alcohol at a young age, when your brain is still very plastic and still developing ... and things don't really get set in your brain until your mid-20s, and so, for me, drinking heavily and frequently during my late teens and mid-20s, that was still very much a vulnerable time when abusing alcohol set my neural circuitry and pathways in a different way than if I wouldn't have drank.

And so, I think that's why even now, because I have never really given myself a break from drinking all these years, even after I stopped drinking as heavily, that those connections are still part of the way my brain works. And that is honestly not an easy thing to hold.

Final thoughts + resources

But I'll end this with some good news: that I have learned that you can actually change the way that your brain works on a subconscious level. But it does take work, it does take time. From what I understand, it'll take probably at least 6 to 12 months without drinking alcohol for the brain to sort of normalize and detoxify.

And I don't know if that means it will look the way that it did before drinking ever occurred in my life. I somehow doubt it, but even if it doesn't, even if it repairs itself some percentage of the way, I feel like that in itself is enough to fight for and to push on with this. Because I don't want to be trapped in that cycle – I don't. And I want to be able to experience genuine joy more often, because that's honestly not something that I've experienced very much of in my life, particularly from when I was a teenager onward. I'm not generally a joyous person, I have to say.

So, yeah, that's kind of my hope and motivation with it. I hope this was interesting, educational. I mean, I tried to explain this the best way I can, but honestly there are other people out there that are doing an amazing job delivering this information. Annie Grace from This Naked Mind has a podcast where she does little 10-minutes clips answering people's questions, and I've learned a lot of this stuff from her.

Judith Grisel has a book called Never Enough, and I've started listening to that. But I also just listen to her YouTube videos, where she gives lectures on addictive drugs and how it works on the brain, and it's honestly so, so fascinating. So, I highly recommend that if you want to dig more deeply, that you check out those resources, and I'll be sure to put those links for you in the show notes. 

Alright y'all, thank you so much for listening. I hope you all have a great week ahead of you. Take care, stay healthy. Lots of love and self-love. Peace.