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Can We Recover… From Addiction?

Can We Recover… From Addiction?

Can We Recover… From Addiction?

I want to say firmly and without any hesitation that we can 100% recover from addiction. The statistics are grim, but I know it’s possible because I did it. After spending decades of my life hopelessly addicted, I’ve chosen a new way to live. To understand how, which I will fully explain, I need to adjust the conversation. Recovery isn’t about not using – it’s about love, connection and trauma. Strange right? What do those things have to do with addiction? I want you to remember three words – Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Dopamine. We’ll circle back to these, but also know that I’m no expert on neuroanatomy or the Limbic System. Those who are all say there’s still a LOT more to learn. This is just my experience.

My understanding of addiction started with a serious trauma I experienced when I was three years old. My father, a Marine Corps infantryman (0311), stepped inside a sleeping bag with a shotgun, secured the bag’s drawstrings around his neck … then he pulled the trigger. This left a bowling ball-sized hole in his chest and fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life. My mother fell into a savage depression that fueled her already existing addiction, leaving my brothers and I largely neglected. She would be gone for days sometimes longer, leaving me and my siblings – all under the age of five – to fend for ourselves. This lifestyle created countless opportunities for different abuses to occur – and they regularly did. How did this affect me?

I needed a parent but didn’t have one. Fear stepped in, cultivating an incredibly strong fight-or-flight response toward people – specifically anyone claiming to love or want to protect me. Life had proven these things were dangerous and my brain was trying to protect me. I developed a very insecure attachment to life, avoidant and/or ambivalent toward other people, and was left with a sustained fight-or-flight response that never took a day off. I felt constant social anxiety and was safe only when isolated. I knew these feelings were abnormal. I could see happy families enjoying life and each other, but I wasn’t able to feel the same. This caused added sadness and confusion leaving me completely numb and detached. I had questions.

Why do I feel fear when others experience love? Why do I feel numb when others experience happiness?

Remember Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Dopamine? Turns out they’re important. Here’s what I learned. For a person to experience positive emotions such as love, trust, connection and long-term connection, there are certain things the brain MUST do. Among them, Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Dopamine production. If you ever felt intense or a sincere form of love – that’s Oxytocin. It’s also important in feeling things like trust and empathy. Ever cuddled or felt committed love? That’s in part because of Vasopressin. It enables pair-bonding and establishes permanent emotional bonds between people. Most people know Dopamine, which is associated with reward and general pleasure. In short, they are great things!  Unfortunately, early childhood trauma can disrupt the normal production of all these things and fundamentally alter the brain chemistry, leaving a person in a near constant state of emotional turmoil and starved of these needed elements. Especially during times of sustained trauma. So, what does any of this have to do with addiction? Well, if only there was a substance or combination of substances that produce these missing elements … something like, say, narcotics.

I was 15-years old when I took my first narcotic. It was a Vicodin and prescribed for pain. I didn’t feel anything at first, but then suddenly, there was an intense decrease of anxiety followed by a noticeable increase in my general happiness. I spoke more confidently, was worried less about the possible outcomes of things, and I just remember feeling … unafraid. My clothes didn’t need to fit tight against my skin, my need to be perfect subsided and all the maladaptive behaviors I had cultivated to avoid the fear of abandonment simply weren’t important. I felt free. I felt normal. At first, I didn’t relate it to the opiate. I tried to recreate what just occurred, and I couldn’t. It came time to take another Vicodin, as prescribed, and boom! There it was again. The anxiety drained, and life was easier. Navigating choices free of fear was intoxicating, and I was wholly addicted. Not to the substance but to how the substance allowed me to connect to life. I experienced joy, general happiness and a deep appreciation for this reality. The next opiate I took wasn’t to reduce pain. It was to change my mood and the way I felt – the definition of addiction according to Narcotics Anonymous. I would continue this path for the next few decades, taking a combination of things to avoid certain feelings or access feelings out of my reach. I didn’t care how it was happening. I could function like the rest of the world. I could fit in, talk to women, speak confidently in group situations. I was addicted to living a life free of fear. That was addiction in my life. I wasn’t chasing a substance because of a deficit in moral fiber or due to a weak character. Childhood trauma had interrupted my ability to feel and express love. It left me numb and detached. Substance use was the ultimate cheat code to experiencing love, happiness and connection to other people. It was as unnatural as it was effective – and I was all in. Unfortunately, this was no way to live and the longer I avoided dealing with my trauma, the worse things got. I needed more and more to avoid the fear and when the substances stopped working, I was left with a sense of hopelessness I had never experienced. Emotions are like taxes. The longer I avoided dealing with the trauma, the greater the penalty … and that penalty came due.

Christmas Eve 2018 should have been my last day living. I parked in front of a pizza joint in Austin and took 30 days of prescribed narcotic medication. It was enough to kill me, and if not for the paramedics who found me slumped over my steering wheel, it would have. I woke up under a coiled heating blanket with nurses asking me what year it was, and if I knew my name.

God didn’t let me give up, but He did want me to surrender. My journey had begun.

After years of voluntary psychiatric visits, counselors, program after program … a series of mistakes led me to the PTSD Foundation of America’s Camp Hope – and they lived up to their name. I was broken, void of love and had a deep seeded sense of unworthiness. I was met by a combat vet, like me, who would become my mentor through the program. He insisted that I trust him. He said that’s all that was required. A willingness to choose a new way to live and that HAD to start with trust. There were no guarantees. By this time, I was homeless, had walked away from my family and sold all my possessions. I was at rock bottom and was ready to try but … how could this help my brain produce healthy amounts of Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Dopamine?

The brain is an incredible machine, and it can heal. Through Camp Hope’s program, I spent thousands of hours doing one thing – reconnecting to my trauma and processing the associated feelings. This slowly disengaged my fight or flight. Then one day, during a situation where I would normally feel fear – I just didn’t. Instead, I felt a small degree of happiness, which continued to build. The balance was shifting, and my fight-or-flight response was needed less and less. Within seven months at Camp Hope, I could experience a full range of positive emotions. I was recovering.

I addressed the trauma that fueled my addiction which allowed my brain to heal. That healing allowed a healthy, typical production of Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Dopamine to occur along with other healthy biological responses to myself, other people, and my environment. That’s recovery. That’s how it looks in my life.

My dad left a bowling ball sized whole in himself that I carried with me most of my life. It was a void I tried to fill with all the wrong things. I was arrogant and made his actions about me. I needed to accept a simple fact. My father was mentally ill and not capable of loving others. Accepting that allowed me to forgive him and love myself enough for the both of us.

So, can we recover from addiction? Yes. We most certainly can. Life can hit us pretty hard, leaving us all with voids we try filling with all the wrong things. The most abundant source of consistent love is from a power greater than us that lives outside of us. For me, that’s God and that bowling ball sized hole I spent my life trying fill … it was a God sized hole. Since that realization, I have lived a life blessed with clarity, humility, and love. That’s how I recovered … and if you are like me, you can too.

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