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Many people look at addiction in terms of a kind of personality split, the A (addicted self) and S (sober self). I sometimes refer to the reptile, which is my way of verbalizing a similar sort of split. This is how I identify and separate the part of my brain that is responsible for pleasure, pain, love, anger, panic, desire, all the emotions that I can't really control. For some people, alcohol and other drugs stimulate the reptile directly, so your reptile says, "Alcohol is good, drink more!", or it enjoys a nose blast of cocaine. Some drugs stimulate the reptile more than others, and it seems to vary between people. For example, I do not enjoy opiates at all, and I have only ever taken them for pain relief after breaking bones, but some people are addicted to them. On the other hand, one big whiff of hand sanitizer and, for a few seconds, I completely forget about recovery.

Copyright, 2011, JeffK

We humans also have great big frontal lobes that we use for higher thoughts, and we can also use this part of the brain to over-rule the reptile, or at least to make conscious choices despite what the reptile wants. So you want to have sex with the woman you just met who's encouraging you, but you know your wife would object and the negative consequences are too great, so you smile and say good night. You love ice cream, but you know it's fattening and will make you feel sick if you eat too much, so you chose to moderate consumption. You enjoy the feeling after exercise, but you know that too much will wear out your body, so you moderate. You enjoy the feeling after drinking some amount of alcohol, but you chose to moderate because you know that if you continue drinking you'll do stupid things, fall over and pass out, and wake up feeling sick.

With some of us, at some point that frontal lobe control erodes, and we can't seem to help ourselves from becoming slaves to the reptile. Our brains become dependent on the chemistry changes that our behavior produces, and we lose the ability to easily stop the behavior with our frontal lobes because our brains aren't working normally anymore. So, we do have sex with that woman, and with the next one we meet the next night. We eat the entire gallon of ice cream, and the next day we supersize our burgers and fries. We run for hours in the morning, and the next morning we do it again. We pass the pleasant buzz stage after drinking and continue until we black out, and the next day we do it again.

For some of us, control evaporates until we are deeply addicted and the negative consequences just hit us in the face, and by that time it can be a monumental struggle to re-assert frontal lobe control. The reptile is very powerful when it is well-fed, and it can lead our frontal lobes into all kinds of crazy thinking in order to keep getting what it wants. So, we convince ourselves that we can fix the problem through "moderation management", we aren't really addicted, we "need" to keep feeding the reptile, we aren't capable of abstinence, the negative consequences aren't so bad after all and we don't really care, on and on. I used all these rationalizations, and many more, at different times in my own recovery process. And by this point, when we do stop the behavior, stop taking the drugs, or stop drinking the alcohol, brain chemistry withdrawal sets in and makes it even more difficult to make it through without relapsing after convincing ourselves that it's o.k. to relapse.

My own eventual rock-bottom bounce-back required me to isolate the reptile in all ways. I don't know if I could have bounced back until I reached the point where I could see the darkness farther down the road that signified the point of no return and a miserable death, I know I could not have bounced back without help, particularly from a handful of key people, but certainly that isolation eventually became my own foundation for rebuilding. Alcohol is horrible and destructive, it's an evil substance, starve the reptile and re-assert frontal-lobe control. Don't give me any more useless advice, don't tell me what to do, don't tell me there's some sort of step-by-step path, I don't want to hear it, and don't cross me or I will walk away and have nothing to do with you. I'm going this way, nothing will stop me, nothing else has worked and so now I’m doing it my own way and that's the way it is.

Everyone has to find their own way, but this in a nutshell was a big part of mine. I know that the world isn't black and white, but asserting that it is black and white was empowering for me, and above all I needed to rebuild my own personal power. Feed the lobes, starve the reptile.

I've gradually backed off from this kind of militant, zealous stubbornness as I've gotten deeper into recovery. I have rebalanced in many ways, but I have still maintained a frontal-lobe/reptile split, and in particular I have still maintained the attitude that alcohol is horrible and destructive, nothing good can come from drinking it, and people who do drink alcohol just don't get it. And I hadn't really given this a lot of thought until recently, especially since yesterday.

Two things got me thinking. First, a fellow traveler who I like a lot and is very intelligent and wise told me that she doesn't like to think of herself as two parts, she prefers to think of herself as a whole. Six months ago I would have considered this for a millisecond, dismissed it, and tossed it into the mental circular file, but I didn't dismiss it, and instead I thought about how this could be reconciled with my own view.

Second and most profoundly, a Kaiser counselor who I absolutely cherish and adore, and who looms perhaps largest looking back at my own recovery process, gave a seminar yesterday on the topic of grief and loss. The writing assignment was to write a letter to help with the grieving process - a goodbye letter, a thank you letter, something, on a topic of your choice but possibly directed at your drug of choice. I had written "letters to alcohol" several times in Kaiser groups, and in every case the letter had been, basically, "Goodbye evil substance, you aren't worth any more thought than what it took to write these words". But I totally trust this lady, and I feel very comfortable and safe with her, so I took it farther this time and looked for a way to express something positive instead of just focusing on the negative.

Watershed. I was really a bit stunned, but the words came pretty easily, and soon I had a couple paragraphs that rambled and were full of partially-formed thoughts, but for me they opened a door to reintegrating the reptile and moving beyond feeling split. I'll be pondering all this for some time, on and off, but blogging helps crystallize my thinking even if it too is full of partially-formed thoughts.

Maybe reality is closer to this: Alcohol really is just a tool, a key to open doors. It is neither wonderful nor evil, it is an object that humans use as a tool. It provides some measure of pleasure to many, in the same way that sex or a nice dinner does, by stimulating changes in brain chemistry that our reptile perceives as good. As long as the frontal lobes intervene and limit us to moderation without negative consequences, it is a benign tool. But it's not evil, and neither is the reptile. The reptile, after all, is where pleasure comes from, exhilaration, love, wonder, pride, emotions of all kinds that just come up without us consciously willing them into existence. Starve the reptile too zealously and we lose other things in life. Treat the reptile as separate from "I", and we are split in two.

The reptile is a crucial part of me that differentiates me from a computer or Mr. Spock, and that part of me can't be held responsible for the damage it caused in response to alcohol. It was just doing what it's supposed to do, reacting to chemicals by triggering the production and manipulation of other chemicals in the brain. Why alcohol caused this part of me to gradually grow so strong, I don't know - some combination of genes and upbringing, I suppose - but it did. I really don't miss alcohol at all, and I only occasionally get cravings, usually brought on by things like whiffs of hand sanitizer or table wine, but in any case I cannot drink it ever again because it stirs up a powerful part of my brain that can cause great harm if it isn't controlled and limited in it's ability to drive my actions. Pleasure can come from many other things, relief and peace can come from many other things, and those feelings are good and should not be denied. It's only alcohol and similar drugs that need to be denied, because they cause my reptile to grow too strong.

Love the reptile, he's part of me. And, here is the hard part to swallow, maybe in some ways I should be thankful for the wisdom and the experiences and the growth that came from the process of me becoming a drunk and then climbing back out of the hole. This could sound like the start of a relapse, romanticizing the alcohol use, and perhaps this is why I was unwilling to let my brain go to this place until I was deep enough into recovery to think these thoughts without risking that recovery. Other people in the seminar, mostly early in the recovery process, read their letters to their drugs of choice, and a couple reminded me of my own letters from eight months ago. I think demonizing alcohol is safer, especially earlier on, and it certainly has worked for me so far, but I also sense that for me, over the long haul, it is limiting. And so this time my letter to alcohol was different. And in some ways, I feel more at peace with myself and my past for having written it. How I’ll feel in another year or five, I’ll have to wait and see.

I see more clearly now why this all is important for me, and the first thought is the folly of externalization. I tried to externalize my own recovery for a long while, tried to follow some kind of step-by-step process that relied on things outside of me, and it never worked; in fact it gradually made things worse. Follow the steps, admit I am powerless and insane and throw all my hopes on a god or my cat or another person or a group, I am defective and have wronged all these people, only the power of my cat can remove my shortcomings if I humbly ask her to, and so on. I tried to reinterpret this dogma in ways that made sense to me, but I just spun around and continued to drink. For a while I was convinced that antabuse was my salvation, but that was another externalization; rely on other people to give me a drug and verify that I was taking it in front of them, so I don't have to rely on myself. I considered inpatient treatment, which would also have relied on external powers to force me to abstain for as long as I stayed. None of this worked, none of it ever would - it was hopeless, though not a waste of time because sometimes it is necessary to see what does not work before you can grasp the concept of what might work.

Externalizing my recovery did not work and never would have worked, but externalizing the problem is also limiting. I cannot blame my alcoholism and all the negative consequences that accompanied it on alcohol itself, because alcohol is just a chemical; it is as ridiculous to blame a chemical as it is to thank it, it's just a dumb purposeless chemical. Nor can I blame the part of my brain I refer to as the reptile, because that part isn't responsible for anything either, and because that part of my brain is not separate from me, it is part of me. The only person responsible was me, and moving on means forgiving the reptile - which is the same thing as forgiving myself. And by forgiving myself, I can begin to forgive other people who may well have meant well but in fact caused damage to me during my struggles a year ago. It all turned out well.

Of course, I cannot hold myself responsible, in a conscious thinking way, for becoming a drunk - alcohol gradually takes away our ability to make rational choices by putting the reptile in charge, and the reptile does what it wants, damn the consequences. And I could not have crawled out of my hole without help, I know that for sure; the right kind of support can make all the difference in the world. But I own the whole problem, as much as I own the whole solution.

The second thought is Dad. Dad apparently had a traumatic experience when he was about 15, when his mother died of cancer. His father insisted that his wife could never know she was dying, and therefore her children had to smile and pretend that everything was going to work out fine - which is just about the worst way I can imagine to have to deal with the death of a parent. My aunt told me this story some years after Dad died, and said that the experience changed him forever - gradually, little by little, he turned into a bitter old man, angry and spiteful and inconsiderate, emotionally stifled and unable to express or apparently even acknowledge his feelings about anything, estranged from most of his family. He apparently never dealt with his own family of origin issues, and externalized his problems by blaming his father - he put up those walls, kept them high, and lived on anger and bitterness for years until it ate his soul.

Maybe this is where externalizing your problems takes you. If you cannot forgive and move on, you cannot move on; and those protective walls grow larger and larger until they block out everything good as well as everything hurtful and damaging. And then you turn into my Dad.

Or into my old girlfriend, who was totally estranged from everyone in her family over things that she never clearly explained to me. More anger and bitterness towards external factors, people and situations that she could not change but could not ever deal with. She pretended it all didn't exist and tried to wipe it all out of her mind, forget it and move on - but by burying it, she could not move on, and she couldn't really forget it either.

There were reasons I started smoking pot and drinking as a teenager, there were slightly different reasons why I continued and got into other drugs, and there were reasons why I eventually, much later, became an alcoholic. If I bear, as a conscious thinking person, any responsibility for the negative consequences of those actions, it is because I failed to understand the forces that drove me in that direction before I became an addict. And, if I fail to dig deeper, forgive and move on, I put myself at risk in the future of falling back onto my old reliable coping mechanism.

The third thought is confidence. Making peace with the reptile means acknowledging that I have made it through hard times, sometimes really hard times, without faltering, and that perhaps I don't need to worry that there is danger around every bend, that some situation will arise without warning and rile up the reptile to the point that he takes over and drives my actions again. I've been in many potentially risky and triggering situations over the past 10 months, but each time it's worked out fine; if I know what is coming, I can anticipate it and I can make backup plans in case I start feeling really uncomfortable and triggered. The surprises are what can be upsetting, like unsuspectingly taking a whiff of hand sanitizer and getting bowled over by a massive chemical craving, but those moments don't last; if I wait them out, they go away.

Counselors in treatment programs, particularly 12-step-leaning counselors, will sometimes gasp and recoil when you use the word confidence with respect to recovery. They will think you need to redo the steps, or go to big-book study sessions to learn humility and prepare for step 7. This is diametrically opposed to my core beliefs; I cannot go through life without confidence, believing that I am one trip away from relapse and living in fear that I have somehow failed in someone else's idea of a stepwise program. Overconfidence, to me, is not really possible; what is possible is denial, a lack of confidence that is masked by the same walls that I'm trying to tear down or at least breech.

It's actually really simple. No matter what the circumstances, don't drink alcohol and hand power over my actions to the reptile. Do that, and the reptile and I can get along. And, the better I understand him, the safer I'll be in the future, and the happier I'll be in the process.