Memories are a major source of drug and alcohol cravings for those in recovery. Our minds play tricks on us: we remember the good times, and forget the bad ones. Our brains attach a powerful sentiment to a particular event we experienced in the past under the influence of drugs and alcohol. When we recall the sensations we experienced, we yearn to relive those sensations in their entirety, especially the highs we felt from mind-altering substances.
The fact of the matter is that we all had fun during the early stages of our addiction and alcoholism. Lots and lots of fun. In fact, we had more fun than the laws of both man and nature will allow. We broke the laws of man by doing things like possessing controlled substances or driving drunk, and we broke the laws of nature by putting substances into our bodies that allowed us to experience sensations of pleasure beyond anything that normal rewards like sex or food could ever provide us.
We had more fun than the laws of both man and nature will allow.
And we remember those highs… in fact, by tampering with our brain’s reward system in such a manner; we create memories that last a lifetime. We may not always remember exactly what it was that we felt under the influence, but we will always remember the fact that we experienced it, and enjoyed it.
This is the essential mechanism that memory plays in reward, reinforcement, and addiction. Most people are familiar with the function of the neurotransmitter dopamine: the brain’s “reward” transmitter. Dopamine provides us with sensations of pleasure and enjoyment… from natural rewards like sex and food. Drugs and alcohol tamper with the brain’s reward system by triggering the release of unnatural amounts of dopamine, thus yielding unnatural amounts of pleasure.
Beyond dopamine, another lesser-known neurotransmitter is involved. That neurotransmitter is glutamate. Glutamate is involved in learning and the formation of memories. In order for a stimulus to be reinforced, it must be more than just rewarding. It must also be remembered so we continue to crave it. In other words, dopamine tells us something is good. Glutamate tells us to seek it again.
Dopamine tells us something is good. Glutamate tells us to seek it again.
What does all this science talk mean for us in recovery? It means we are pitted against our own memories. Even if things are going well for us in our recovery, a single memory can shift our focus away from recovery entirely, and redirect it toward sentimentality for self-destruction. Dwelling on memories from our drinking and using days can create overwhelming cravings to get drunk or high. We want to relive the parties we attended, the nights we spent looking at the stars, the concerts we can hardly remember, and the adventures we went on.
This is when our memories play tricks on us. We tend to remember the good times and forget the bad ones. Memories are often distorted with time. We remember having more fun than we actually did at the time. We long for the parties and the adventures and the highs, but we conveniently forget the times we spent vomiting, paranoid, nervous, scared, or in the back of a squad car.
For me, this gives rise to a powerful contradiction: how can I live with the fact that I had those experienced them and enjoyed them, but not allow them to create cravings and desires that threaten my recovery? I can never forget many of those memories. Does this mean that I will forever be haunted by craving-inducing memories of good times?
I reconcile these two ideas with logic and reason. Yes, I had those experiences, and I enjoyed them at the time. But, after enough time repeating the same behavior, I crossed a threshold where my actions become uncontrollable, and got myself into trouble. I balance out the memories of good the times I remember easily with memories of the bad times I used to try to avoid. For every good memory from drug and alcohol use, I remember a consequence.
For every good memory from drug and alcohol use, I remember a consequence.
We can never escape the past, the same way we can never escape our memories. But we never have to let our memories create cravings that threaten our current well-being and our recoveries. We just have to find balance between remembering pleasure we experienced in the past, and reminding ourselves of the high price we paid to experience it.