Speaking of relapse triggers, it happened that two or three days after I got out of treatment back in 1989, I went to the supermarket to buy some cat food. I was walking through the store, and just for the heck of it I turned down the beer aisle. (That’s what folks who work in the field call “testing yourself.” It’s considered to be pretty dumb.) After my stroll down memory lane, I was pleased to note that I hadn’t had even a twinge of a desire for my drug of choice. I was pretty proud. Yesiree.
The next day, at “day care,” I bragged about it to Ron, my counselor. He looked at me with disgust, and shouted, “You stupid shit! They don’t keep cat food in the beer cooler!”
I knew enough to understand immediately what he meant, and I never consciously did anything like that again. Some years later, after having worked with Ron at a different treatment center, I had the sad honor of telling that story at his memorial service. Everyone laughed and nodded their heads; they knew Ron, just like Ron knew me.
A big mistake that we alcoholics and other addicts make is believing that we are different; that only we know what’s best for us. In the rooms, we call this terminal uniqueness. The fact is that when it comes to addiction, our similarities are far more important than our differences. That’s because, in all of us, addiction works the same way: it causes certain changes in our brains that alter our priorities and put our drugs of choice first in every part of our lives, and every part of our lives that have to do with obtaining or using those substances become of paramount importance.
Recent studies involving addicts who viewed selected images while being scanned in an MRI revealed that certain stimuli can activate the portion of the primitive brain that controls cravings for alcohol and other drugs. We relate certain situations and places, along with certain smells, visual and audible cues, to obtaining and using drugs and alcohol. These associations take place in a part of our brain that we cannot directly control, any more than we can control our tendency to flinch at unexpected loud noises.
Walking down the beer aisle won’t always trigger cravings, just as driving past the corner where we used to cop drugs won’t always trigger them. But in all addicts, the wrong combination of trigger, mood, hunger, distress with life and a million other things can cause those synapses to go “click.” Then all of a sudden we’re handing the guy a twenty and he’s dropping a little baggie into our hand, or we’re walking out of the corner store with a bottle of Smirnoff’s.
That’s why one of the ideas that we pound into clients’ heads (or try to) is stay away from the old people, places and things until you have some sobriety — preferably, a lot of it — under your belt. Our families hard-wired our buttons for us, and we can play each other like a cheap barroom piano. Our drinking buddies make us think of those good times (we rarely remember the bad ones), and may themselves not have our best interest at heart. They (and our families) may find that they prefer the old us to the newly-sober variety. And it should hardly need to be said (if it does, we’re in trouble already) that we don’t keep a six-pack or a baggie of blow around “for guests,” or hang around the corner bar because we like to shoot pool.
Simple ideas. A little rough on the “Me, me, me…I want, I want, I want” part of our addict brains, but really not complicated. Relapse triggers: If you want to stay on your feet, stay off the slippery places.
Next to People, Places, and Things, relationships and physical stress are the greatest relapse triggers. More about them to come.