Dealing With Cravings
When a craving hits it can obliterate the best intentions, causing a form of amnesia that makes the mind forget its rational survival tools and the addict brain re-asserts its control. (For more on why click on Craving Explained). We’d need the help of others to remind us of our sobriety tools until we had enough experience to defend ourselves, they said. It would take a lot of time before we’d be able to cope on our own, one of the reasons AA was always described as a “we” program, meant to be done with others.
Rehab and AA also instructed that the seeds of relapse could start sprouting days or even weeks before an addict reaches for a first drug or drink. Unexpressed anger and resentment build to a breaking point. It’s a daily program, we were told, to defuse negative emotions every day so they can’t fester and boil over in the form of a seemingly uncontrollable craving.
But some cravings can’t be avoided, especially in earliest sobriety. Drug-taking reminders (rehab called them “triggers“) like a syringe for a heroin addict or a beer commercial for an alcoholic could prompt a craving nearly unconsciously and automatically. We had to anticipate these triggers and work out strategies for preventing them from inducing relapse.
We were told we’d have to shake up our old routines. If we drank right after work, (if?), we’d have to consciously substitute something else, like going to the gym, to take us away from environmental cues that could trigger a craving.
We also had to prepare for unexpected cravings. The first step was to recognize the craving for what it was, followed by taking action to combat them before we did something insane. That’s what phones and meetings and sponsors were for. If you picked up a phone, just that simple act could shift your mind enough to take some of the edge off a craving. If you reached another alcoholic you could get a reminder of the tools available, reorient yourself, and help sidetrack the moment’s impulse. If you went to a meeting, you’d be safe from using for at least an hour and you’d probably come out fortified.
We had to learn to disconnect the neural impulse to respond to every challenge with “that calls for a drink!” We had to understand, for the first time for many of us, that the mind is capable of recognizing the insanity of those thoughts and refraining from acting on them.
When a craving hit, we were instructed, there were multiple moments to intervene to uncouple the feeling of needing drugs from the action of taking them. Say you’d ignored all advice to the contrary and kept a bottle of sherry at home for cooking. To get a drink you have to rise out of your chair, take a first step, then subsequent ones to cross the room. You have to lift your arm, grab the bottle, twist off the cap. Each physical action offers an opportunity to interrupt the inevitability of bringing the bottle to your lips. Each instant provides another chance for our rehab training to kick in, to realize we needn’t follow through on this illogical and ultimately suicidal instinct.
It wouldn’t be easy, they cautioned. It would take time and lots of practice, but if you stick with it, I was assured, you could learn how. This form of mind training was portrayed as a continuation of “putting the plug in the jug.” First, you had to take physical action to stop drinking. Then came the mental part, the difficult work of disconnecting from addict thoughts and impulses.
“Think the drink” was the slogan. Think about how insane it is to go back to active addiction. Think about your last detox and how hard it was. Remember your bottom and how low you were. Consider the consequences of drinking. Then think about interrupting the urge. Weigh the immediate relief against the repercussions. Substitute the cry for chemical solace with rationality. Understand relapse re-embraces insanity and don’t go there. Think, think, think.
We were given endless suggestions for what to do to distract irrational thoughts when they inevitably arose. Take a nap, go to a movie, get exercise, read the Big Book, pray. Do service work, help a newer-comer than you. If all else fails, just take a deep breath and pause. Meditate. Be mindful. Understand that everything passes, including feeling bad. Even panic attacks end, we were told, if you wait them out. The slogan was, “This too shall pass.”
If we learned to apply these tools, we were told, we’d have a good shot a side-tracking cravings. It seemed like a very tall order.