Many of the folks who attend the groups at Sunrise Detox wonder about “people, places and things,” and question how merely seeing someone, or being in a particular place, can trigger a powerful desire to drink or use other drugs.
Maybe the best way of understanding this is to consider a number of recent experiments (update: no longer available on the web) that studied the brain activity of subjects while they were exposed to certain stimuli. Rats, rabbits, and non-human primates will seek the same drugs that we humans abuse, and will begin seeking them again — even after months of deprivation — when exposed to the drugs themselves or to visual cues that they have associated with drugs in the past. Along with these, brain-imaging studies on human addicts indicate that visual cues can cause the addict to recall the pleasure of drug* use, and can cause enhanced activity in areas of the brain that are associated with cravings.
This research shows scientifically what people in the rooms have known for a long time, often demonstrated in sayings like “If you don’t want to slip, stay out of slippery places.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you want to stay sober you don’t go into a bar, order a drink, and sit and look at it. There’s a technical term for folks who test themselves that way: relapsers.
It shouldn’t take a lot more thought to see how less obvious things can have similar effects. Ordering a club soda and hanging with our drinking friends, seeing our dealer in a crowded club, passing the shop where we purchased our wine, even sitting in front of the TV with our buddies watching a game — all of these thing can trigger a desire to use, the “just one won’t hurt” thought that has killed so many of us .
Consider that stress is one of the greatest causes of relapse, because it was one of our biggest excuses for using. Family arguments, the presence of people whom we believe disapprove of us, being around other people who are behaving the way we used to, animosity from people we harmed during our addictions — all of these things are powerful stressors, along with financial, legal and romantic complications. Some of these things are going to be parts of our early recovery, but it certainly makes sense not to complicate the problem with temptations and stressors that can be avoided. Of course these things are part of live, and of course we’ll have to deal with them eventually, but that doesn’t mean we should try when our brains are still in early recovery and the likelihood of relapse is at its greatest.
Thus, to the extent possible, we need to avoid the old people, places and things until we have enough sobriety under our belts to deal with the stress and temptation. Even then, smart addicts moderate periods of tension by attending extra meetings, calling people in the program, and generally stepping up their involvement in recovery.
Many sensible strategies, such as living in halfway houses, staying out of home areas, putting off jobs, relationships and other potential stressors can seem counter to the idea of recovery. After all, isn’t it about carrying on with life? That it is, but carrying on with life means doing so effectively, which means clean and sober, with some good recovery under our belts. Recovery is difficult enough without standing at the plate begging for curve balls. Trying to “make up for lost time” is an excellent way to lose even more of it, and perhaps our jobs, families, or even our lives along with it.
*When the writer uses the term “drug” he includes alcohol, which is simply a legal drug.