How My Unbroken Brain Began To Understand Addiction

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How My Unbroken Brain Began To Understand Addiction

By Anne Giles 06/16/16

Becoming addicted to alcohol seemed to break me. But, thanks to the wise words of Maia Szalavitz, the evidence is in: I am not broken.

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How My Unbroken Brain Began To Understand Addiction
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Trying to confine wine to a glass measuring cup before I poured it into my wine glass didn't help. Eventually, I poured more wine directly into the glass. I had begun the shift from social drinking to frequent drinking when I was 48. On the evening I drank my last glass of wine, three days away from turning 54, I was drinking a bottle of wine a night.

For the three and 1/3 years since that last glass, I have been trying to figure out what I did wrong to make myself "an alcoholic." I am known as a determined person. What I intend to do, I do. No matter what I tried - deciding, choosing, vowing, committing - I could not invoke my will to stop drinking. I was broken.

In a small, rural, U.S. town in 2012, no one was talking about - probably even knew of - the power of medication-assisted treatment to address substance use disorders and the mental illnesses that can accompany them, often fueled by trauma - in my case, in part from community violence. I did what my culture taught me to do. I hid my secret shame and went to a support group. (Per its tradition, I do not mention the name of the support group. In a small town, what's a girl with a drinking problem to do? I'm a cohort of one—a 57 year-old woman with three years of sobriety. If I'm shunned, I lose the only social support I have.) I didn't tell my individual counselor for weeks and didn't tell my primary care physician for months.

Abstinence plunged me into an incomprehensible state of anguish. What was happening? How could this be? I had stopped drinking. Why wasn't I feeling better? What else was I now doing wrong?

Desperately, I began to study the literature on addiction. What had I given myself? How could I reverse it?

Watching me flail and suffer, my father hired a team of researchers to join me in scrutinizing what the literature said about the causes and cures of addiction. We wrote up what we found and published posts about anhedonia and emotion regulation on our small blogs. I did my best to write posts for my personal blog to express my experience in the dim light of what the research seemed to reveal.

The lack of consensus we found on what addiction is, why it happens, and what treats it deepened my despair. I became increasingly convinced there was nothing I could do to save myself. I felt helpless, hopeless, powerless, unremittingly alone.

When I read these words in Maia Szalavitz's Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction: "I felt utterly stripped of safety and love. And so, what tormented me most as I shook through August of 1988 wasn’t the nausea and chills but the recurring fear that I’d never have lasting comfort or joy again," I stopped reading, put my face in my hands, and cried.

I wasn't alone anymore.

In Unbroken Brain, Szalavitz, in a dialectic of gentle compassion and ruthless incision, uses her personal experience with addiction and over a quarter century studying and reporting on addictions research to unequivocally state what's really going on with addiction.

For those moving from experience-based and belief-based addictions treatment to evidence-based treatment, i.e., for those familiar with the research on addiction, Szalavitz's book is not controversial, but masterful. (For a glimpse of how addiction is debated, check out the comments on Seth Ferranti's review of Unbroken Brain for The Fix.) In her weaving of personal narrative, scholarly knowledge of the evidence, logic that feels like she has intimate knowledge of how the reader thinks best, skillful, artful writing, and sheer, awe-inspiring intellect, Szalavitz jettisons the foolish and unfounded and, from the remaining discord of what the science says, creates a treatise on addiction as concise, exquisite and moving as poetry.

I read every word of Unbroken Brain's 288 pages, of its 33 pages of notes, and of the index's 14 pages. Yes, that's what I feel and think! Yes, there's the study that backs that argument! Yes, those are all the disparate vocabulary words one needs to be able to use in a single sentence to make meaning of addiction!

My inability to stop pouring wine now makes sense. Like Szalavitz, I live acutely. I feel everything intensely. I still cut out clothing tags (see Unbroken Brain, page 52). It's a story for another time, but I experienced chronic stress in childhood. As Szalavitz puts it, the "volume" of my emotions and senses was already turned way up, predisposing me to addiction. When I experienced trauma in 2006-2007 and additional losses, the "volume" was beyond bearing. Wine felt like mercy, mother love, kindness. My brain learned, against my will, that alcohol was more than a want. It was a need. And that's how it all went wrong...

Szalavitz introduces her book describing her experience lying on her back in a brain scanner as part of an addictions research experiment. I, too, attempted to contribute to the science of addiction by having my brain scanned while making choices for a Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute study. I was given a CD with pictures of my brain when I finished, which I appreciated. I won't spoil it (page 284), but Szalavitz was given much more by her researcher. When I read what she was told, I was moved, again, to tears.

Becoming addicted to alcohol seemed to break me. As I stand at three and 1/3 years of abstinence, the shards of my shattered former life still feel dangerously sharp beneath my feet. But, thanks to Szalavitz, the evidence is in: I am not broken.

Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., is the founder of Handshake Media, Incorporated, publishers of addictions recovery smartphone app New2Recovery. She blogs at annegiles.com, is a part-time addictions counselor, and, as of this writing, has been abstinent from alcohol since December 28, 2012.

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