There are some sober addicts who describe cravings as having been removed by a spiritual experience. They often say relief from cravings was precipitated by a bottom during which they thought or cried out something like “God help me,” with the sincerity known only by the truly broken and hopeless. They report that “the obsession was lifted” and they felt a calm acceptance that they could stop using. Some add that the obsession never returned.
For addicts like me, who didn’t have that cleansing spiritual experience, cravings continues to plague us in sobriety no matter how much we are convinced we have to stay sober and no matter how sincerely we might want to. For us, there are two different kinds of cravings: the ones that precede a first drink or drug and the ones that come after it.
In treatment facilities, the things that precipitate cravings for a first drink or drug are called “triggers.” They often come with uncomfortable emotions. Anger, fear, resentment and other negative feelings can result in cravings because of addicts’ emotional memory that drinking or drug use are reliable ways to medicate away the discomfort, the dis-ease, of those sensations.
Disappointment can trigger cravings. Perhaps paradoxically, so too can success or any other feeling that shakes up one’s mood.
People, places and things that remind you of drinking or drug use are powerful triggers as well: walking down the liquor aisle at the supermarket; passing a bar that used to be a hangout; smelling the wafting aroma of another’s booze-filled glass; seeing others enjoying a cocktail at a restaurant; a beer commercial on TV; the sight of a syringe for intravenous drug users.
Rehab helps you identify “known triggers” that can be anticipated. If the first thing you always did after work was to stop by a liquor store, for example, you can expect a craving to hit when your work day ends. And you can take action to prevent following through, like choosing a path home that doesn’t go past the liquor store. Rehab prompts you to plan what to do when you encounter known triggers (though a craving can be strong enough to obliterate the best-laid plans).
But not all cravings can be anticipated or avoided. They can take you totally by surprise. One morning when my shower radio played “Margaritaville,” for example, it was all I could do to stop myself from running to the store for a bottle naked and dripping. (This was beyond insane, since even in the deepest alcoholism, I never drank tequila and hadn’t since crashing a 5th-reunion party when I was a college junior, doing tequila shots and waking up under a tree three blocks from home.) On another occasion, I drove past a restaurant with a sign of a martini glass out front, something I’d done many times without it being a problem, but this time I had a grand-mal craving and nearly drove off the road. One clue that you’ve been hit with an unanticipated craving is the two-word reaction, “Fuck it.”
To maintain sobriety you have to guard against both the triggers you expect and those you don’t. You have to recognize the giving-up impulse, which is what “fuck it” signifies, and fight your way through it. If you can’t, you’ll relapse. (For more on this subject click on Dealing with Cravings.)
The second type of craving is after you’ve taken that first drink or drug. For most addicts, the first one induces a desire that registers as the deadly unconscious mantra, “More, more, more.” Unlike cravings before the first use, to which there may be a defense — recognizing what’s happening and taking action to counter it by calling another sober addict, praying for it to pass, getting your ass into a chair at a meeting — it’s nearly impossible to resist using more once drugs have made it into your addict brain. Drinking or using more feels automatic, instinctive. If my experience is any guide, it often doesn’t feel like anything at all.