Neural Ghosts

When I first came into recovery I always noticed that when I felt bad about myself it was often accompanied by the thought of a drink?

I always thought this curious. I would be feeling negative, self loathing, in shame or guilt about some past behaviour and all of a sudden my brain would go “to hell with this, let’s go for a drink!?”

Initially I thought well I guess I drank on negative emotions quite a lot when I looked back. I drank  when I felt bad about myself all the time. I rarely drank when I felt good about myself as I rarely felt good about myself?

So in some way this feeling bad about myself and drinking must have been forged together somehow in my brain. In other words, I must have felt negative about myself and the urge to drink to not feel bad about myself must have simply  accompanied this feeling until it become a habitualised response –  feel bad, thought of drink; a sort of internal stimulus/response.

It was like alcohol had taken over the job of regulating/controlling/dealing with my negative emotions about myself.

I feel now that I probably found alcohol extra stimulating when I first drank because not only did it appear to make me feel great, it also relieved me of negative emotions and anxiety, right from the start of my drinking in fact.

This is a negative self perception that became  entwined with an alcohol use schema. Feel bad drink, repeat.

So in early recovery and before I did the 12 steps which removed many of these feelings of uselessness, worthlessness and negative self perception I would be caught up in this response of feel bad about myself, thought of a drink!

The thing is when I thought of a drink it wasn’t of the last time I drank. I didn’t think of the violent shakes, the vomiting, the DTs, hallucinations.

No, I thought of sunny lit bars, with sexy barmaids, and people drinking, laughing and having fun.  Music playing, people dancing etc. It had been some years since this had been my drinking experience but this facsimile in my head of what a drink looked and felt like would play like a film across my mind.

Then one year in recovery I came across a study which looked at euphoric recall – i.e. this feeling of elation around memories of drinking which kinda delude you into thinking that drinking would a a great idea while simultaneously ignoring the last years of alcoholic hell when drinking wasn’t much fun to put it mildly.

Some people say euphoric recall is a memory or a feeling reactivated in your brain somehow and may be the feeling alcohol or drugs gave you when they were still euphoria  inducing, how they used to make you feel way back in the day when you enjoyed drinking and drugging.

It is a weird thing euphoric recall – it is like a neural ghost, embedded in the brain.

It has accounted for many alcoholics relapsing, thinking that drinking will be like the good old days to find it returns them to a living hell, worse than the last hell they dragged themselves out of.

So this euphoric recall is like a siren calling you to the jagged rocks of elapse, it is essentially a deluded message your brain sends you that has nothing to do with the last years of your drinking.

So why does it occur?

I partly reconciled the bit in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous where it says alcohol is “cunning, baffling, powerful” in reference to an  an article I read a while back by Rex Cannon(1).

His observations about a possible role for negative self perception in relapse was based on a study he conducted  on recovering alcoholics.

It found that by measuring their brain frequencies, when thinking about drinking and when in a negative self perception that there was a change in the frequency of their brain waves.

In both cases, thinking about drinking and also when in a state of negative self perception, created a widespread alpha power increase in brain frequency in the frontal part of the brain the prefrontal cortex, commonly seen by use of certain chemicals.

So this frequency was also present and in the same areas of a common neural circuitry  during alcoholics’ reports of ‘using’ and ‘drinking’ thought patterns as well as in negative self perception.

So thinking about drinking provokes a similar brain frequency as drinking which is also quite similar to being in a negative self perception.

In terms of the alcoholic brain being out of balance in terms of neurochemicals, which it is, this is like negative emotions/distress prompting a need  to  restore balance in a way it used to temporarily, i.e. by drinking.

To the alcoholic brain this is how we survived before, when we felt we had to  rink to restore a transient “balance or homeostasis” which relieved our negative emotions.

Obviously  these negative emotions were soon be replaced by chronic drinking and the cycle of trying to correct an out of balance brain got worse with the brain becoming more and more out of balance via more and more chronic drinking.

The author suggest that “‘using’ and ‘drinking’ thought patterns as well as in negative self perception which appeared to bring the brain into synchrony, if only for a brief period of time, was the euphoria addicted individuals speak so fondly of and one possible reason for difficulty in treating alcoholism.

It is as if this euphoric recall  “lives” like a neural ghost in our brain networks, ready to haunt us when we are feeling negative emotionally or distressed.

He also suggested that “if the brain communicates and orchestrates the affective (emotional) state of the individual in response to contents and images relating to self and self-in-experience – it is plausible that a large scale feedback loop is formed involving not only perceptual processes but relative automatic functioning.

“This process reinforces the addicted person to become habituated to an aroused cortical state (i.e. increased alpha/beta activity) and when there is a shift to ‘normalcy’ (or recovery/sobriety) it is errantly perceived as abnormal thereby increasing the desire or need for a substance to return to the aroused (perceived as normal (or desired)) state”.

 

It may be that indulging in one’s negative self perception recreates a neural based virtual reality. One is almost bodily transported back in time. Back to a drinking period. In a neural sense, back in the drink and not fully in sobriety, however fleetingly.

It does leave a neural taste for it, a torturous transient desire.

I remember it, particularly in early recovery, when the ‘recovery’ script was not written yet and I did not have a habitual recovery self schema to automatically activate, to pull me out of this neural reverie, this bio-chemical vicarious pleasure.

The problem is that it happens to you without you asking it! You can be invoking a negative self schema automatically without wanting to reawaken this  ghost.

I see people relapse because they have no emotional sobriety and they seem to be emotionally drunk before they are actually drunk. Emotionally drunk seems to be like a virtual drunk, brings up the similar feelings or neurochemical reactions as actual drinking.

Reference

1. Cannon, R., Lubar, J., & Baldwin, D. (2008). Self-perception and experiential schemata in the addicted brain. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback,33(4), 223-238.

Euphoria Re-experienced not Recalled?

I never, never want to drink again, I would rather kill myself.

This does not mean I will not drink again however.

A possible relapse is thus not down to desire for a drink, it is because something in my brain and in my heart goes awry.

I remember being in early recovery and thinking the following line from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous was very strange  “Remember that we deal with  alcoholcunningbafflingpowerful! Without help it is too much for us”

What did they mean, alcohol was cunning, baffling, powerful? Surely they meant, alcoholism was cunning, baffling, powerful? Right?

Alcohol itself has not got magical powers? It isn’t a ghost or a spirit that can come and get you lured you back into drinking? Why be wary of a substance?

I suffer from alcoholism not alcohol, don’t I? ISM – I, self, me, the internal spiritual malady treated formerly by alcohol. Right? Alcohol was symptomatic?  “Bottles were only a symbol”

Now what is it to be?

In AA, I used to think alcohol got off light, considering the damage it causes to the brain. I always felt alcohol and it’s comprehensive deleterious neuro-toxic effects on my brain have greatly contributed to my difficulties with emotions and thinking and memory and perception etc. The list does go on and on.

One only has to look at a brain image from a fMRI scan to realise  that the damage to the brain wrought by alcohol is extensive and some of it irreversible although there is extensive repair in certain regions of the brain in recovery. I have felt for some time that alcohol gradually help change, over years,  how I felt and thought and perceived this world.

Alcohol literally moulded my brain. If I emotionally reacted or  thought in the same distorted way as I did while drinking or perceived this world in the same jaundiced way I did while drinking ,but while in recovery, then the same behaviours would soon follow.

I would drink.

Like a lot of alcoholics, I had a terrible sense of self, a very negative self perception in other words. I thought I was the lowest of the low, that I had screwed up my life and squandered my talents, that I didn’t even deserve recovery or to recover. I was not even worth that. It was this shame and guilt-fuelled lack of self esteem, this devalued sense of self that helped drive my drinking and which threatened to ruin any chances of recovery.

But what does this have to do with alcohol being cunning, baffling, powerful I hear you ask? Lots, is the answer. This negative self perception, I have had since early childhood,  well since I could reflect on my self and the product of emotional and mental abuse and traumatic parenting is ingrained in my brain.

Even now when I reflect on myself I have a tendency to think negatively or poorly about myself and my achievements, I have a negative bias in my thinking about me. It could depress me even, if I indulged in thinking about me for too long.

Again what does this have to do with alcohol? Well these negative perceptions, ingrained in neural structures in my brain have had more than a helping hand by alcohol. Alcohol has helped reinforced this faulty image of my self.

Alcohol had helped colour this jaundiced view of my self and this can has serious repercussions in recovery. This distorted view was partly the result of staring at my refection on the warped  glass of a wine bottle or on a glass of beer.  It cemented this view or “concretized” it in my self perception neural networks. Every drink helped dig the grave of my self worth.

I have seen many people in recovery relapse after a period of negative self reflection, after not thinking they are good enough to recover. It is immensely sad, tragic but nonetheless true. That is why they need love more than anything when they come into recovery. Not orders or dictats but love, plain and simple, make them feel part of, that they belong, that they have found their place, their surrogate home.

I have seen countless people who were so severely abused that they could not face the self disclosure at the heart of the 12 step program of recovery. I have seem than unconsciously “choose” to drink rather than take the steps. Part of this is something deep inside whispers a barely audible solution. To drink again.

Why is it barely audible? Because it is. It doesn’t actually have a voice. It is the whisper of a neural ghost (1). It is ghost that lives in the machinery of the brain. As alive as you are. It will probably remain to haunt you as an alcoholic  in some form  and at some time of weakness. Never think otherwise!

It is like a euphoria recalled but also it isn’t!? It may be worse than that; it is actually to a very great extent re-experienced.

Euphoria re-experienced not simply recalled.

Euphoria wasn’t just the pleasure you received but also relief from…negative emotions surrounding the self. Negative self perception, emotional distress and so on. It appears that negative affect (emotions, mood, anxiety) can automatically prompt thoughts of alcohol or drugs (2) and that the neural circuitries of affect, reward, memory and attention are taken over or ‘hijacked’ in the addiction cycle and often prompted into activation by emotional distress so that attention is directed to alcohol to relieve distress, with the resultant ‘craving’ coloured by numerous memory associations ingrained in the brain linked to habitually drinking to relieve negative emotional states.

Also, pertinent to this blog, negative self perception may also prompt relapse. I partly reconcile alcohol being cunning, baffling, powerful and alcoholism by reference to an article I read a while back by Rex Cannon(3).

His observations about a possible role for negative self perception in relapse was based on a study conducted  on recovering alcoholics. It found that by measuring their brain frequencies, when thinking about drinking and when thinking about self perception that there was a change in the frequency of their brain waves. In both cases, thinking about drinking and negative self perception, Cannon et al observed that widespread alpha power increases in the cortex, commonly seen by use of certain chemicals, were also present and in the same areas of a common neural circuitry for his study group during their reports of ‘using’ and ‘drinking’ thought patterns as well as in negative self perception.

These reports of ‘using’ and ‘drinking’ thought patterns as well as in negative self perception which appeared to bring the brain into synchrony, if only for a brief period of time, suggesting this to be the euphoria addicted individuals speak so fondly of and one possible reason for difficulty in treating these disorders.

In relation to using thoughts they suggested that “if the brain communicates and orchestrates the affective state of the individual in response to contents and images relating to self and self-in-experience – it is plausible that a large scale feedback loop is formed involving not only perceptual processes but relative automatic functioning.

This process reinforces the addicted person to become habituated to an aroused cortical state (i.e. increased alpha/beta activity) and when there is a shift to ‘normalcy’ (or recovery/sobriety) it is errantly perceived as abnormal thereby increasing the desire or need for a substance to return to the aroused (perceived as normal (or desired)) state”.

This would surely have a profound impact on addicts attempting to contain normal negative emotions when there is an automatic desire state suggesting, unconsciously, an alternative to wrestling with these torturous sober realities.

I have seen a similar process but over a much longer time frame in some alcoholics in recovery who relapse. They seem to disappear into themselves, right in front of you, like they were being lured by some internal, inaudible siren, into a self drowning.

Letting go of the life boat trying to keep them afloat. I have seen it many times, the dimming of the eye’s light, the turning inwards to the alcoholic darkness. A submerging into this illness.

It may be that indulging in one’s negative self perception recreates a neural based virtual reality. One is almost bodily transported back in time. Back to a drinking period. In a neural sense, back in the drink and not fully in sobriety, however fleetingly.

It does leave a neural taste for it, a torturous transient desire.

I remember it, particularly in early recovery, when the ‘recovery’ script was not written yet and I did not have a habitual recovery self schema to automatically activate, to pull me out of this neural reverie, this most bio-chemical vicarious pleasure.

The problem is that it happens to you without you asking it! You can be invoking a negative self schema automatically without wanting to reawaken this  ghost.

But that is alcoholsim in a nutshell. It happens to you without your express permission. It takes over the brain step by step, while impairing ones’ ability to observe this progression.

That is why we are are the last to know. It is not just denial, it is brain impairment and limited ability to reflect on what has happened to one’s self.

The self has been ‘hijacked’ so it is nigh impossible to figure this out without the help of others.

It is others that lead you out of the fog, as one has become lost to oneself. If nothing else, in early recovery especially, before the steps are done, it is a dangerous place to visit, the self and it is safer to spend as much time as possible outside of it and working with others!

It is a horrible, frightening experience, the limbo between addicted self and recovery self schemas. It is fraught with danger! I remember bumping into people places and things from the past and experiencing the most excruciating cognitive dissonance of literally being caught in between two worlds and not knowing if I was a drinking or a recovering alcoholic; the sense of self as a drinking alcoholic was much stronger than the recovering self. I would hurry to my sponsor or wife to help pull my sense of self as a recovering alcoholic to the surface, out of the neural swamp of my drinking alcoholism.

But it felt alien as Cannon observes, this sober self.  All new, awkward, pained, exposed and frightened.  A constant vacillation between two worlds, that of active use and that of recovery. Recovery had not become “concretized” in my neural networks!

This left an oscillating experiential schism, with one caught in two realities almost simultaneously.

I see people relapse because they have no emotional sobriety and they seem to be emotionally drunk before they are actually drunk. Emotionally drunk seems to be like a virtual drunk, brings up the similar feelings or neurochemical reactions as actual drinking.

The best way to stay sober is to act sober and develop this habitual schema so that it can be retrieved instantaneously, automatically, without thinking. We achieve this schema through our actions, so in a sense is also an action schema. Tiffany (4) states that alcoholics and addicts are prompted to relapse by automatized schemata surrounding drug and alcohol use rituals, so we must have automatized schemata surrounding recovery rituals. Such as ringing a sponsor, mentor, friend, doing a  step ten, praying, meditating, working with others, letting go and letting God, re-appraising distress, regulating emotions, putting thoughts of others before thoughts of ourselves, living outside self.  There are so many automatic schemas in AA and other therapeutic regimes.

Either way, whatever path you choose, make your recovery  tools automatic, so that they come to hand without yourself having to think about them.

 

 

References 

 

1.  Zack, M., Toneatto, T., & MacLeod, C. M. (1999). Implicit activation of alcohol concepts by negative affective cues distinguishes between problem drinkers with high and low psychiatric distress. Journal of Abnormal Psychology108(3), 518.

2.  Cannon, R., Lubar, J., & Baldwin, D. (2008). Self-perception and experiential schemata in the addicted brain. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback,33(4), 223-238.

3.  Tiffany, S. T. (1990). A cognitive model of drug urges and drug-use behavior: role of automatic and nonautomatic processes. Psychological review97(2), 147.

4.  Adinoff, B. (2004). Neurobiologic processes in drug reward and addiction.Harvard review of psychiatry12(6), 305-320.