DIY Addictions Recovery: At the Heart of It Is the Mind

To the best of my ability to make some kind of sense of this – and I’m going to do my best to explain this in jargon-free, simple terms, risking inaccuracy, but in an emergency, we’ve got to be quick and direct – here’s what I understand is up with people with addictions:

First, here’s how I’ll use the terms “brain” and “mind.” The physical organ of the “brain” is experienced by the individual as the “mind.” While the mind is influenced by the organ of the brain and the mind can do much more than this, for the purposes of addictions recovery, my working definition of “mind” is the individual’s ability 1) to become aware of what he or she is feeling, thinking, saying, and doing and, 2) to decide what would be helpful or effective to do with feelings and thoughts prior to speaking or doing something.

Now about addiction and the brain. As a result of addiction, an abnormality in the organ of the brain has occurred. The organ of the brain is also likely to have been influenced by the substance itself, pre-existing trauma, pre-existing mental illness, and other factors.

In sum, I can’t control what’s happened to my brain. Some theories say my brain can heal, even to the point of reversal, but I struggle with addiction to alcohol and I want a drink right now. I don’t have time for theories.

What I can control is my mind. Yes, my control of my mind is limited and the severity of what’s happened to my brain can limit my control, even limit the reliability of my perception. However, in this Stone Age of addictions treatment, it’s the only tool I have of my own to carve out a new way for myself.

Right here, right now, whether I am alone or present with others, I am confined to my brain, my body, this place and this situation.

I am it.

. . . . .

After nearly 3.75 years without a drink of alcohol, I cannot say whether or not these helped or hurt, but I see no cause-and-effect relationship between these factors and my abstinence: willpower, resolve, determination, readiness for change, wanting or asking for help, my choices, character, or morals. Those are all components of my mind. Addiction is a disorder of the organ of the brain. Brain and mind are interrelated, sure. But no amount of the intense use of my mind can change my brain fast enough to prevent me from taking a drink right now.

Nearly every concept and “principle” I’ve been taught about addictions recovery is based on unspoken, covert, psychologically-undermining judgment. I have been told to judge myself constantly: how right, how wrong, how good, how bad, not enough, too much?

And I was taught that the antidote to judgment is compassion. But if things aren’t going well for me or in my relationships? I’m not measuring up as compassionate enough…

Using the club of judgment has resulted in my unrelenting suffering. I have beaten my whole self bloody – my one and only body, my tender heart, my willing mind – with “What’s the matter with you?!” for having a brain disorder. Horrendous. Tragic.


“See what is without judgment.”
– Kristen Lenz

I’m going to put down the club of judgment and place it nearby – it is of inestimable value when used wisely – and pick up the stone tool of my mind and begin to learn to use it – not in a good or bad, right or wrong way – but helpfully and effectively.

. . . . .

In the brain, the set-up of pre-existing conditions predicting development of addiction, trauma, mental illness, and addiction all seem to have in common the brain experiencing everything acutely. In addition, that acuteness stays acute for a long time and is hard to return to a stable level. (Maia Szalavitz terms this an “outlying temperament” and covers it thoroughly in her book, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.)

Lights are bright, sounds are loud, the touch of a fingertip is an assault or a promise of forever devotion, hunger is danger of starvation, careless words are mortal wounds, feelings of anger spike to rage, feelings of sorrow descend to despair, thoughts about the unchangeable past and the unknown future must be thought over and over again to find a way to change and know!

This acute state of physical sensations, emotions and thoughts can get so acute that it’s experienced as unbearable pain. Drinking alcohol or using other drugs is experienced as humanity and mercy.

So my primary job as a person with addiction is to acknowledge this acuteness, become aware of when it’s happening, and use my mind to ease it, to prevent it from becoming unbearable.

Become aware. Use the mind.

Become aware. Use the mind. 

That’s the simplest way to state the only reliable addictions treatment I know.

. . . . .

This post is part of a series contained on this blog in the DIY Addictions Recovery category.

A table of contents for the DIY Addictions Recovery series of posts is here.

Photo: Nancy Brauer

Disclosure and disclaimer: I am a counselor at a community services agency. The opinions expressed here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of my employers, co-workers, family members or friends.  This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

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