I am a behavioural neuroscientist, an alcoholic, a mother, a wife, a teacher, a student, and a mentor, among other things, not necessarily in that order. I have thought for a while about writing this blog, and now I have a little time, so here I am. Going through the process of recovery from addiction is often a deeply intense personal journey, and I am no exception. For the first time in so many years I have actually thought about why I feel the way I feel, or think the way I think etc, not just from the perspective of what the underlying neural substrates of those feelings and thoughts are, or how they are behaviourally expressed, as I had for so many years prior through my work.
Prior to entering recovery, I could tell you all about the reward circuit in the brain and how it is hijacked by the use of drugs (hint, it is extremely complicated, there’s still a lot we don’t know, and it doesn’t just involve dopamine and serotonin, although they are involved of course). I could have told you the same information when I was actively drinking, but it didn’t stop me. What I couldn’t have told you is what it felt like to go through the emotions of recovery, things that the recovery community have a pretty good handle on. The initial ‘pink cloud’ during which you come out of the fog of addiction and start to see clearly, then you feel like you can change the world! Then the inevitable wearing off of the pink cloud, and the way in which everything seems to be guiding you towards relapse. The way that social connection is so vital to recovery. This is something I could never have guessed, although I knew very well that taking naltrexone would partially block the pleasurable effect of opioids in the brain and was a relatively effective treatment for alcoholism.
Like most things in life, my discovery is that things are not black and white, but endlessly nuanced and individual. There are, however, so many things the two sides I have been exposed to could learn from each other. Behavioural neuroscience, in my experience, is primarily focused on finding medications that can treat addiction, without much thought to behavioural modifications or interventions, despite these being relatively straightforward to study in the lab. By contrast, the recovery community can be quite narrowly focused on alternatives to medication, particularly ideas derived from alcoholic’s anonymous (AA) and other anonymous programs, although I have noticed that this has started to change a little more recently. In any case, it is clear that the vast wealth of information we have gathered in basic neuroscience research has not made its way through to practise, and by the same token, there is a lot of wisdom in the recovery community that isn’t even considered in the scientific community. This blog is my attempt to bridge that gap.