When Your Brain Betrays You

Learning you have an impaired brain is like hitting bottom, violently, on both sides of a see-saw simultaneously. On one hand there’s finally an explanation for your breakdown. But on the other, the explanation is your brain is diseased, just a polite way of saying you’re insane.

A sense of betrayal surely comes with every disease. Your body, your unique way to participate in life, your heretofore reliable, if sometimes balky body, suddenly and without pity turns on you and won’t function. Or worse, it means to kill you. The more perilous the disease the more serious the betrayal. With betrayal comes uncertainty. Can you rely on you infirm body?

How much more devastating is the betrayal when the organ that’s double-crossed you is your brain? The source of all your thoughts, knowledge, memory, experience, involuntary actions, simple reactions, and complex planning, it’s all happening upstairs between your ears. Your brain tells you what’s safe, dangerous, possible, fantasy. It defines you.

When your brain betrays you, you don’t know it because you can’t conceive that the organ you use to make sense of everything you encounter is itself the problem. You don’t anticipate that your brain can betray you. Only once safely sober can you see the crazy things you did in obsession’s sway and take the diagnosis of drug-induced insanity seriously. As you begin to allow there might be some truth to what rehab or AA’s Big Book says, the mind reels. You muddle through uncharted territory trying to determine which thoughts you can and can’t trust. As the mind teeter-totters, so does your mood. One moment you’re convinced you’re sane. The next you’re sure you’re plumb crazy. Which is right? And how would you know?

Learning about the addict mind is tricky when you’re still under its influence. Sobriety can lift the cloud of denial, furnish an opportunity to consider there is such a thing as an addict brain and much harder, that your picture appears in the dictionary next to its definition. Still, the insanity doesn’t simply disappear. Thus, it’s necessary to learn to defend yourself from your brain.

The most important lesson may be that “the Disease” isn’t rational. It isn’t something you can think your way out of. Addicts under the influence can’t see the personality changes resulting from their irrationality, one of the key insights of AA’s founders. As the Big Book puts it: “(T)he … alcoholic will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge. This is a point we wish to emphasize and re-emphasize, to smash home upon our alcoholic readers as it has been revealed to us out of bitter experience.” Appetite overcomes intention time and time again. Obsession trumps reason.

So addicts have to learn they have a disease which renders them irrational. That doesn’t mean rationality is irrelevant. Sober addicts have to build rational defenses against addiction, retraining their minds to give up the belief that drugs or alcohol are their solution and replacing it with an understanding that they’re a fatal threat. Rehab told me that this mind retraining was akin to changing your dominant hand: if you’re right-handed, you could learn to use your left hand instead, but it takes conscious and conscientious thought and action to make this switch and it’s all too easy in moments of stress or powerful emotion to fall back on using the right hand. That’s why relapse is so common. Practice over time help makes it more natural to use your left hand, but you always have to be prepared for the right hand re-asserting its dominance.

But since addiction is played out largely in the brain’s emotional centers, intellectual acceptance of the disease, though necessary, isn’t sufficient. Stable, long-term sobriety requires both intellectual and emotional acceptance.

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