Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Science of Cross Addiction

Matte glass cork next to cilindrical tube
 (Photo credit: Horia Varlan)
Consider this story: A man who is a heavy marijuana smoker knows he needs to stop because of court ordered probation for which he will take drug tests. This individual abruptly stops smoking marijuana and, instead, starts drinking a couple or more beers after work during the week to “unwind” after a hard day. After he takes his drug tests and has completed his probationary period, he abruptly returns to smoking marijuana.
This story demonstrates how cross addiction works in a general way, though the chemicals may vary greatly from person to person. It is relatively easy to gain a similar level of relief from different chemicals. As with our story, the man felt he needed to relax from a hard day but could not smoke marijuana, so he turned to beer, a more socially acceptable and legal alternative.
In the throes of addiction, it is easy to move from one compulsive behavior to another. Some people manage to stay clean for a period while indulging in compulsive sexual behaviors or turning to gambling to get their fix and satiate the gnawing hunger that comes with drug and alcohol cravings. Even with the less addicted, where the gnawing hunger isn’t quite as powerful, substances are quite frequently substituted when the choice chemical is not available.
Cross addiction is exemplified when a drug addicted individual uses another chemical such as alcohol, or another substance beside the drug to which they are primarily addicted. This is why we often encounter many drug addicts who insist that they are solely drug addicts and don’t have a problem with alcohol. Upon relapse, the individual discovers that he is also alcoholic.
A Psychology Today article offers that cross addiction stems from the mental component rather than the physical addiction.
This statement must be true; otherwise, treating addiction would simply be withdrawing an individual from the addictive behavior or chemical. There is much more to addiction treatment because of this strong mental component. It’s largely about retraining the brain. Scientists believe the chemically addicted receive a kind of chemical reinforcement for their behaviors when drinking or using, often relieving stress or helping individuals to cope in other ways. The reinforcement comes in, not only by providing relief from the stress, but also on the chemical level through a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine produces the good feelings in our everyday life that we experience after eating, having sex, exercising, or even accomplishing a task. One physician, writing for recoverytoday.net, cites these reward centers in the brain are the same structures that provide us with survival instincts. These neurotransmitters cause the drive to replace drugs of abuse with other substances or behaviors. This goes far in explaining the ease at which a “true alcoholic” can become similarly addicted to prescription drugs or sex.

When in recovery, the addict learns methods designed to re-teach the brain; this can be a taxing and sometimes painful process which requires a lot of redirection. It is quite similar to training a full grown dog not to urinate on the carpet when he has been doing so all of his existence. In the addicted brain, the person has been coping with stress, pressure, and other uncomfortable emotions for a very long time with drugs and alcohol. Now, the brain must look for new ways of coping. In early sobriety, it takes a lot of diligence and effort to resist the urges to cope as one has become accustomed. This is why cross addiction is prevalent in those trying to recover from alcoholism and drug addiction. The instinct of turning to something that is not specifically the drug of abuse can be powerful and sometimes overwhelming for the addict. The urge/idea may be as seemingly benign as indulging in excessive exercise or sex, as devastating as drinking beer instead of smoking marijuana.

When it comes down to it, addiction is addiction. Some addictions are much more destructive than others. Even so, there is a solution. Recovery is not easy. Yet, even after slipping into various addictions, one may always have more chances if he still takes breath.  Recovery is a process, sobriety is earned.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Recovery and Social Media in the Digital Age

In dealing with addiction, social support is one of the key elements that helps bring addicted individuals out from the depths of a hopeless state. New advances in technology have aided the ability to find social support in one of the most unorthodox places, the internet.

A medley of networks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With the rise of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and other such sites, the nature of social support is changing. Where it used to be that one needed to have access to a phone to talk to another person, now, all that
is required is a computer. This has a huge impact on the way that we stay connected with one another, being able to communicate without even saying a word. These types of networking sites are connecting people from all over the globe with one another, further broadening the social horizon.

Recovery specific websites exist, such as InTheRooms.com. Here, an individual may remain anonymous while partaking in an online community. He creates an alias, a profile, and links up with his community to gain social support. This is huge for the recovery world. Previously, twelve step meetings were confined to face to face interactions. Now, an exceeding number of people are meeting online to access a regular dose of recovery. While most of these meetings are held through chat rooms, there are recovery related meetings available through Skype, an interface system which utilizes cameras to have digital face to face interactions. Lists of digital twelve step meetings are available here, including AA, NA, Al-Anon and even a weekly Self Mutilators Anonymous meeting.

Not only are online meetings available, but, more importantly, social support is available 24 hours a day. When one is not able to access a meeting, he may gain the support through social networking sites and online recovery communities. For some, it is easier to log on to the computer than it is to pick up the telephone in times of crisis. In fact, in the recovery community, members discuss the metaphorical “1,000 pound telephone” when describing what it feels like to reach out by phone when an emergency or troublesome situation arises.

Even with this progress, one website describes the down side to these forms of media. An article in Social Work Today describes how the role of social networking websites in the recovery community can be over-emphasized. In fact, one person interviewed stated that these forms of social media may actually serve the same function as drugs in the recovering person’s life by pulling him or her away from the relationships that really matter. In essence, this social worker is describing a cross addiction to the internet which, in reality, is not unfounded. Newly sober drug addicts often try to fill the void from drugs and alcohol with other things.  However, this fact does not suggest that, on the whole, social networking is harmful.

Even though there are potential negatives in this new technologically advanced world, I say that the online recovery community still has its place. After all, it can serve an essential function for those who cannot physically get to a meeting or do not have access to a telephone.

As far as the ramifications go, I am going to leave that up to you, dear readers. What do you think the significance will be of digitizing recovery? Will there be a day when face to face twelve step meetings become obsolete? How does the internet affect personal relations on a whole? Please let me know what you think, as for now the only perspective I have is my own.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Knowing Is Half the Battle

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1985 TV series)
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1985 TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a little kid, Saturday mornings were meant for one thing: cartoons. I remember waking up early and watching all the favorites; He-Man, The Smurfs, Thundercats, and G.I. Joe, the real American Hero. At the end of G.I. Joe, there was always an example of things kids usually did wrong. One of the Joes would be there to help ‘em out and explain that "knowing is half the battle." Now, I very rarely paid attention to this part, but somehow those words would stick with me.

  When I was entering into treatment a little over 8 years ago, my understanding of recovery and sobriety was very limited. I knew that what I was doing was wrong and I needed to stop, but I had no idea why I was doing the things I was, or, what it would take to stop. Sure, I knew I liked to get drunk, or stoned, but why had it gotten to this point? Surely, there was more to it. After I had finally accepted the fact that I needed the help and was truly willing to put in the work, my counselor started giving me packets to read. I didn't necessarily want to study these, but he assured me it would help. As I started to read them, then understand them, I slowly started to see the connections. I learned things like all the ways I had become dependent... not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically as well. I discovered how my thinking patterns had changed, how feelings like anger, guilt, shame, and fear had begun to rule my world. I recognized how, despite all my best efforts, I could not do anything about these problems alone. I felt as though I was beginning to know my disease... and like the Joes said, "knowing is half the battle." Armed with this knowledge, I was able to put together a plan to battle my disease, to confront it head on. I developed a sense of worth that was vital to my recovery. I now knew what my disease had done to me, and what I had to do differently to combat it. Day by day, the fight wore on, as it still does, and will for the rest of my life. However, strengthened with the understanding of what it takes to win, it seems like at least now it’s a fair fight.

   In my experience, it's never okay or time to quit learning. As we enter new phases and areas of life, we are faced with new challenges and difficulties to overcome. The more we come to know about these challenges, the better equipped we will be to face them and persevere.

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    - - Written by Brock Self, head of the Utilization Review Department

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Sponsors and the Twelve Steps

Erasing addiction is less easy than anyone thought       (Photo credit: Alan Cleaver)
When an addict enters into recovery, it is easy for him or her to become lost and confused. It is a brand new world for the recovering addict, much different from pre-sobriety, where regulation of emotion and stress was controlled by consumption of drugs and alcohol. Without this chemical crutch, the ensuing confusion can be a dangerous state. Twelve Step (12 Step) programs suggest that someone new to sobriety get a sponsor, someone who can help the addict navigate through these new waters.
Sponsors are invaluable to the recovery process. They provide much needed guidance, and act as a mentor in recovery. An essential function of sponsors is that they provide much needed social support. This is a vital role, as newly sober individuals are often plagued by difficult emotions and irrational thinking. By bouncing ideas off of their sponsors, addicts are able to reform their thoughts to meet this sober way of life. 

As the addict begins to grow into his or her new found sobriety, sponsors serve another essential purpose. They help the recovering person work the 12 steps. These steps are the primary means of recovery utilized in more than fifty-four (54) 12 Step based fellowships around the world. A list of these fellowships can be found here.

In 12 Step programs the steps are used to change individuals from the inside out. The power of these steps has been proven by the millions of people worldwide who have suffered from addiction or other compulsive behaviors and have since recovered through active 12 Step work.
The sponsor utilizes his or her history in addiction and compulsive behaviors as a resource to help the newly sober individual work through the 12 steps and to provide support in hard times. Indirectly, the sponsor acts as a role model for the addict/alcoholic and paves a way for success. Through utilizing this support, the addict can recover from a seemingly hopeless state and be set on a path of freedom from his or her addiction.

Who serves as a role model in your life? There are plenty of examples of people we turn to for guidance, weather in recovery or outside of it. Who do you turn to in time of need?  We want to hear from you!

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