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Learning to Walk, a Recovery Story
I was at my parents’ house last weekend and spent quite a bit of time watching my nephew navigate the novelty of learning to stand and walk. Incredible joy fills the hearts of family members when they watch the process of learning, growing, finding stability and walking for the latest addition to the family. Big smiles exude when standing happens and when steps are taken (for both adults and the child).
I paid particular attention to this process because, quite often, I refer to the process of recovery from a problematic addictive behavior (including substance use) as the equivalent of “learning to walk” in the world without, or at least with a changed orientation toward, the problem behavior. Many are learning how to navigate the world without a drink or a drug or a bet or a website or a toxic relationship or the like.
As I watched the process of my nephew standing, falling, getting back up and figuring out how to stand and walk, I watched with curiosity as parents and grandparents encouraged him in his process. At no point in time did they say he had a chronic, relapsing brain condition and shame him by putting the label “Crawler” or “Non-Walker” on his identity. They knew that he’d succeed eventually, even if it took 1,000 times to figure out.
The problem with recovery is that other people get hurt by the “falls” of the person struggling whereas the child learning to walk gets 1,000s of opportunities to figure it out. Why is this? Because a child learning to walk doesn’t hurt the parent’s sense of self. Addiction is not the same. In fact, it is often due, in part, to the learned models of the unreliability of parents, caretakers, and others that set the foundations for addictions to emerge. When others are experienced as unreliable, unsafe and lacking the tools to encourage growth and maturity, individuals create relationships with other things…safer more reliable things…like a drink or drug or behavior or fantasy. And when this happens, repeatedly over time, addictions emerge as forms of learned behavior that become surrogates for relationships with others.
I can envision Nora Volkow doing MRI scans of children who walk and don’t walk and taking the averages of where their brains light up and don’t on the scans to suggest that there are structural differences in the two groups. As Marc Lewis might respond, “Of course there are differences because learning changes brain structure and there are obvious differences between those children that have learned vs. those that haven’t.”
Some children never learn to walk (and we are quite concerned with those instances) but most do. Some children learn to walk quickly and some take a while but almost all figure it out eventually with repetition, encouragement, and practice. The same is true of recovery from addictions. Yes, brain changes have occurred due to what has been learned and what has been repeated in the past, often influenced by a particular person’s neurobiological make-up. Habit patterns get wired in. Children often create the habit pattern of crawling before walking and the neural activities associated with crawling get wired in. But the child does not stay stuck at just crawling, new activities can be learned, like walking, through practice, failure, repetition, and persistence.
The same is true of addiction recovery. Habits have been wired in (for some…severely wired in). Brain scans may show deficits in different areas of brain function but the brain is not stuck at that level. Neuroplasticity exists and can help the person in recovery to create new connections, new habits, new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that are more meaningful, useful and life-giving. The data shows quite substantially that the overwhelming majority of people who struggle with problematic addictive behavior mature and outgrow the behavior (with and without help). They learn what works and what doesn’t in their lives and they change. The process is rarely linear and often includes numerous times “falling down” followed by getting back up, learning and adjusting.
That said if a person is continually told he or she has a chronic, relapsing brain condition because of the existence of previous habits, behaviors, feelings, thoughts, attachment issues, etc., why do we not apply the same reasoning to the child learning to walk? The child falls countless times and the nature of the condition is one in which the child will continue to fall…countless times…until things click and the child is walking and then running (much to the chagrin of tired grandparents everywhere).
The truth is that for the vast majority of people struggling with addictions, they are in the middle of a learning process, of what works and what doesn’t, often in a social context (with self and with others).
On some level, the learning process is not much different than that which we’d hope for Charlie Brown to figure out when Lucy entices him to kick the football. Each time, he builds the fantasy in his head that kicking the football will be so great and because he wants to so bad, he is willing to believe whatever lies Lucy tells him that she will not pull the football away. But she always pulls the football away and Charlie ends up on his back. Addiction recovery looks like Charlie Brown learning that Lucy is not trustworthy and telling her that he doesn’t want to play her game. Perhaps Charlie Brown needs to go hang out with Linus and let Linus hold the football (Linus seems more reliable and less pathological than Lucy anyway). Addiction recovery is, in many ways, a social learning process…a “social learning to walk”, connecting to people and activities that are safe, reliable and life-giving (especially in the longer run).
Eventually, the vast majority of us learn to walk (literally and figuratively, psychologically and socially). And, once you’ve learned how to walk, why would you want to continue crawling?