Tag Archives: reward circuits

Lack of motivation, or, My attempt at neuroscience

20 Aug

5:25 pm

Lack of motivation. Bored to tears is not just an expression. Maybe some days you’re simply not meant to get much done? Except, ahem, eating and drinking everything in the house. (Why is it that after quitting drinking, we turn to food and substitute drink? Is there something so hardwired about equating “food substance” or “something that is going into my alimentary canal” with “reward” that we can’t shake it no matter how long and hard we try?)

Today is OK–meh, actually–and I can deal with that. However, I’m having the usual brain fart: I find it difficult to hold my thoughts in form; like food that wants to be vomited up, my thoughts want to come out in fragments that don’t resemble much of anything that makes sense.

Is this writer’s block, or simply something I have to contend with from now on? PAWS gone wild? I’m hoping the latter, but most of the time, my patience wears thin. I don’t have time for this shit.

Once every few days, I take note of my motivation level, which seems to me to be pretty damn low. And, I think I’ve figured it out: maybe for so long I associated EVERYTHING–work and play, life in general–with drinking, now my dopamine circuits can’t (won’t?) fire for anything without the attached reward (wine). It goes almost without saying that that sort of freaks me out, considering that I need to like, eat and work and laugh, whether or not (not) there is wine involved.

I’ve come to the conclusion that “normal” people–and even a lot of drinkers who did not fall as far as I must have–simply cannot understand this. Their dopamine circuits still allow them to desire to do many things, whether or not booze is in the picture. Like, eating, or going to the gym, or working. I was actually vaguely aware of how much I relied on the “reward” of wine in order to motivate myself to do any of these things toward the last few years of my drinking. And then it got worse: I skipped eating altogether; I only worked out in order to both be able to drink more and maintain a modicum of health such that my body could continue to drink more; in the end, the only thing that got me through my often painfully intellectual day was the reward of wine after having gotten through it and, later–it got even worse–the reward of wine DURING said day.

It was a neverending cycle, and I’m not sure how I ended up in its claws OR how I managed to extricate myself. Maybe throwing up a bottle of red wine at 3:30 am and then drinking an entire OTHER bottle before getting up, showering, and getting on the commuter rail by 7:20 am became one of those few-and-far-between memories that could override the need for wine? Uh, maybe.

Dopamine is involved not only in giving you pleasure, but in making you want to seek out pleasure. Motivation to do, or in science speak, to perform behaviors that are associated with pleasure. Now, if EVERYTHING you do–for me it ranged from running to writing to travel to talking on the phone with friends and family–you associate with the reward of drinking, and you place a high level of importance on this reward, eventually your dopamine circuit is only going to fire to motivate you toward these associated things as long as there is the reward of wine. If there is no reward of wine, there is no dopamine, and therefore, no motivation. (I’d like to do some interviews on this, but I think this is the gist of it.)

When the associated behavior/triggers are going out to bars, or hanging out with friends, ditching the wine isn’t the end of the world. But I associated everything with drinking.

Now, I feel no strong urge to do anything. I work because I NEED to, and I run and eat and read and hang out and go swimming and take care of the dogs and plant shit because…I know it’ll make me feel better, eventually. I do love certain things, of course, and living sober is amazing, don’t get me wrong. I just have to think my way into wanting it all, more often than not. Some days, though, all that future focus cannot cover up the present lack of reward. And, what’s worse, I’m afraid (worried) that this new normal might not right itself anytime soon.

With all that in mind, I continue to do and strive, and get about 25 percent of what I want to get done actually done every day. And I’m learning to accept this, and not judge myself. This is the only way, I somewhat resignedly tell myself. You got yourself into this, now you have to (and can) get yourself out. Is there another way, though? Does it have to be this hard? I honestly don’t know…

Anyway, I don’t mind waiting, and right here and now is a pretty good place to take a seat. Happy Week 22 plus 1 day to me! By Saturday, I will have passed my longest record of 158 (almost) days sans booze. Wowie. Thanks to ALL OF YOU, for listening and cheering and empathizing.

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Just because you think it, does not make it so

10 Apr

10:59 am

It’s been almost a week since I last posted, but I’m doing well. Great, actually. It’s been a whole week since I dumped that “temptation bottle” of wine down the kitchen sink, along with the rest of the booze in my house–and frankly, I’ve barely thought about drinking let alone wanted to drink. Day 23, and rocking it.

For a work project, lately I’ve been reading about the neuroscience of addiction. My, oh, my, how our shit gets fucked up. NO WONDER it takes us so long to heal. And here we are, blaming and hating on ourselves. Dude, the wolf voice is real.

I went camping yesterday, and a friend met us down on the beach. We got to talking about drugs and booze and he said that his ex-wife (now deceased from complications of alcoholism, sadly–she was like, mid-50s?) used to get drunk on the way to the restaurant. Like, literally, her personality would change as they were driving, before she even got near the first glass. He said he had friends who would experience the symptoms of being high–like vomiting; kind of hard to fake that–en route to get the heroin. He said they had to pull the car over for the guy to throw up onto the side of the road, miles before their pickup point!

I, for one, have found that my cravings don’t mean I really want to drink. I THINK I want to drink, but I don’t. I have experienced the feeling of being high on wine, of having my mood swing totally UP–all by thinking about, anticipating drinking. In the articles I’ve read, these reward circuits ARE, in fact, firing; the problem is, they’ve become sensitized to different amounts of neurotransmitters and different mental stimuli, let’s just say, so their firing isn’t associated with a healthy reward or a moderate amount of reward. For instance, every time I sit down and watch a movie, I want to drink. Every time I unfold my chair on the beach, I want to drink. My brain is associating these events with drinking, and bam, my reward circuits start firing.

I also read a piece where the gist of it was, there are different circuits (i.e., chemicals and neurons) for want/desire and reward/pleasure. Like, I can want to drink, but the pleasure derived from this is different than the so-called pleasure from actually drinking. Which might explain how I can feel my mood shift simply by thinking about how nice it would be to have a glass of wine. (I wonder if this applies to the whole, Absence makes the heart grow fonder, adage? 😉 )

The problem is, it’s not real.

The solution I’ve found is, let it keep happening until it doesn’t! And, miraculously, it STOPS HAPPENING. Or, it happens less, and less powerfully. Or, you learn to ignore it. Or, your brain simply starts to right itself, and dials those circuits back down to normal.

We spent all day Monday and Monday night on the beach. Back in the day (is it really in the past?) I’d feel nervous about “being trapped” in front of that much time, with no wine to escape to. I KNEW I would feel trapped, like I couldn’t breathe, having to just sit there and be; and it would make me dread going or doing things that involved just sitting and being.

Sit there and be? Without feeling irritable, trapped, anxious? NO WAY. Yet…I did it! Or, it did me. I not only had very few cravings, but there were points along the way where I felt just as high/drunk as I might have felt if I had actually drunk. Of course, better: all the happy and contentment and none of the confused descent into madness.

I was also able to just sit there and stare at the night sky. WITHOUT feeling like I wanted to interrupt the process, or disrupt it with a drink. I could sit there and just be. Wow. Who would have thought it possible?

THIS is what I’m talking about when I say the cravings “subside” after a few months. Now, more than ever, I can “see” my brain at work, and use my knowledge to defend myself against the urges, cravings, thoughts of drinkin’. They are not real. And, incredulous as it may seem to us as we embark on parting ways with alcohol, they go away. The mind rights itself. Maybe not completely, and maybe not exactly the way I’ve described, but the thoughts come less, the associative thinking dies down, and we’re left with something we haven’t seen in a long, long time: a flat terrain that is our mind, a blank canvas tethered at the ends of a solid frame that is our brain. Both are like the surface of the water on a windless day. And, my, how long we’ve waited for that calm.

So, onward. Day 23 and…not really counting. I mean, I don’t think it’ll really start to be all that exciting until day 90 again, maybe. Who knows? At the moment, I’m not really thinking how “nice” it’d be to have a glass of wine. I know it wouldn’t be “nice,” and I know the next three days (shit, let’s put it at a week, who am I kidding?) wouldn’t be “nice.” And frankly, by the time I get to this point in the thought process, my brain has given up and I’ve forgotten about the craving.

Just because you think it, does not make it so.

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