The Difficulty of Doing)
Yesterday I shared about the studies that have been done on the minds of addicts, and how the prefrontal cortex has been shown to have diminished activity in their brains. Where in a healthy brain appetite can be ruled by reason, in the addict things go the other way round.
And this is true in so very much of the addict’s life. In fact, very few addicts have only one uncontrollable behavior. They might have their primary vice, such as drugs, alcohol, pornography, excessive eating, or gambling, but they probably have shades of several others as well. Once the prefrontal cortex is damaged by one behavior, then it is stunted in how it deals with all of the others. Maybe the addict isn’t as totally helpless in these arenas as they are in their main addiction, but things are probably getting worse on those fronts, rather than better.
This might seem a depressing fact, but actually there is a nugget of hope in it. The fact that the willpower has varying degrees of efficacy in the addict’s life means that it isn’t dead entirely. If the prefrontal cortex was totally eradicated, then all areas would be overrun by wanton excess. There wouldn’t be a difference between small temptations and large, they would all have their way entirely if the opposition was a total zero.
And this is a positive fact that every addict needs to appreciate. Yes they are damaged, yes their willpower is compromised, and yes they might be losing ground, but the war isn’t over yet. Their forces are not completely in retreat. There is still some strength left in them, and if there is some strength, then it can be exercised.
If you were to have the muscles completely removed from your arm, you would never be able to use it again, no matter how hard you tried. But if your muscles were only damaged and weakened, you could regain use of them through many repetitions of weight-lifting. By flexing your muscles against increasing levels of resistance, you would gain the ability to move your arm like you could before.
And it is just the same with the prefrontal cortex. The same studies that showed that this region of the brain is stunted by addiction, also showed that it can be restored again to its usual activity. Brain scans of addicts who have walked the path of recovery reveal that a once-damaged mind does heal back to its proper and powerful state.
For this healing to occur, there are two things that must occur. The first is what I have already begun to describe: the addict must exercise his self-control to make it stronger. The second is that the source of damage must be stopped. Let’s look at these criteria one at a time.
As I mentioned above, some parts of our lives are still active battlegrounds. We have smaller struggles where the temptation is still mild enough that our prefrontal cortex can still grapple evenly with it. This is our gym. This is where we can start exercising our mind and regaining control.
When I first began my addiction recovery journey, the counselor overseeing my group asked each of us to make specific goals every week and then follow up on how we had done with them. He told us that we should choose goals that were well within our power to achieve, but which would stretch us a little beyond our usual day-to-day behavior. He also insisted that we needed to take these goals as sacred commitments. We had spent years teaching ourselves that we couldn’t be trusted, now it was time to convince ourselves of the opposite.
Small, daily commitments often seem inconsequential in and of themselves, but so does lifting a small dumbbell repeatedly, and yet we all know that this serves a useful purpose. No one lifts the dumbbell simply for the sake of lifting the dumbbell. They do it to increase their strength and health in all the other areas of their life. They lift the dumbbell so that they can lift what matters later on. So, too, small, daily commitments that we consistently follow through on are how we do the weight-lifting of the mind.
So, take some time to identify some simple, regular practices that are not currently doing, but that you would like to implement, and make a solemn commitment to change. It might be something as simple as making your bed in the morning. Follow through on that commitment, whatever it is, over and over, until it becomes a matter of simple habit. Then choose an additional healthy practice to adopt and start working on that, too.
I do realize that obtaining sobriety so that your mind can recover so that you can overcome temptation might sound like a chicken-or-the-egg paradox. How can you obtain sobriety if you don’t first have the recovered mind to overcome the temptation? It seems an impossible riddle.
Fortunately, it’s not an impossible task, it’s just not immediately apparent how it can be done. Throughout the rest of this study, we will be examining the outside-the-box thinking that helps us to do just this. For now, though, let me explain the general idea of what these techniques will accomplish.
We are physically able to deny our addictions, we just are lacking in the willpower to fight against temptation. What we need to do is bypass the need for willpower altogether. If we let the battle get to the point of mental arguments, we are going to lose. Just as how our addiction is a matter of habit, we need to build new habits that circumvent the addiction. Then it doesn’t matter if our mind is compromised, because we won’t actually be putting any thought and reasoning into the matter. We want to make our sobriety become easy and automatic, based upon an already-made decision, so that we don’t have to try and remake the decision when in the face of temptation. Starting tomorrow, we will begin to explore how we accomplish this. I’ll see you then.