On a drive today, I listened to the audio podcast Hidden Brain, which I like to do sometimes. Shankar's guest in the episode was a therapist and researcher from Stanford by the name of Anna Lembke. They were having a two-part conversation about addiction - she treats a lot of it, living in the Bay Area and working with a privileged and sometimes unhappy population.
Ms. Lembke was making the case for opening up our definition of addiction to include all the behaviors that we do to consciously or unconsciously remove us from ourselves for a time. She gave a number of examples of patients from her own practice who became addicted to online shopping, to gaming, to porn, to food, to gambling. It wasn't until her own increasing addiction to supernatural romance novels began to get in the way of engaging with her patients and her own family that she began to recognize her patient's struggles in her own self, and to understand compulsive behavior in a different way
Many years ago, in acupuncture school, a teacher of mine was lecturing about addictive behavior and she said: "Everything a drug promises in the beginning, it takes away in the end". She was talking about what we might see in clinical settings, and why we end up getting trapped in vicious cycles of behavior, needing more and more of the drug or the behavior just to get close to the feelings it engendered when we first began using.
Our Co-Located Brain
On Hidden Brain, Ms. Lembke talked about how the pleasure and pain centers are co-located in the brain, and in fact, act much like a seesaw. When we do or take something that makes us feel good in the moment, it is biochemically like jumping on the pleasure end of that seesaw, which then tips the pain center end up in the air. Because the brain and the body are hard-wired to seek homeostasis, or a return to regulation, the pain center of the brain will then chemically get loaded up, which lowers that end of the seesaw back down and brings us back into balance.
Boy, do I recognize this mechanism; I know it in the small bit of melancholy that comes on after a second glass of wine, which initially had such a nice, mellowing feeling. I know it in the diminishing glimmer that happens after I unbox the thing I ordered off the internet, likely from a Facebook ad that the AI-driven algorithm has fed me because it is tracking my desires. I see it in the tender feelings and negative chatter in my brain that will amp up after I eat the entire bowl of Amish popcorn, more quickly than I meant to, or when I hit the "next episode" button too many times in one sitting.
What I understood from the podcast is that all these behaviors have a connected characteristic, and that is to remove us from ourselves for a little bit, to zero us out, to take us out of presence with ourselves, to dissociate. And now, in this age of too much, too soon, too easily available, too potent, we can just hit the "buy now" button over and over again. It has become much easier to fall into addictive patterns than it would have been 1000 years ago when we had to work much harder to get the dopamine hit from that thing or behavior in the first place.
I recognize our humanity in the need we all have to step back from the intensity of our lives in the moment, and I also know that addictive behavior has its own scale; there is a real difference between checking FaceBook multiple times a day and struggling with an addictive behavior or substance that is seriously getting in the way of our ability to show up in the world and care for ourself and our beloveds. But I also know that one unifying characteristic can be the desire to move away from hard, tender, overwhelming feelings. I notice that my desire to check my email, as I write this, is to distract me from the small challenge of putting my thoughts down here in a clear and compelling fashion, and more than that, the worry that what I say here might rub someone the wrong way or be challenged by someone higher up the food chain.
Coming Back to Ourselves
Part of what I love about working with embodiment with my patients, with acupuncture and other tools, and with the hands-on work I have begun incorporating, is that it opens up the possibility for more conscious awareness. For tuning into the small signals in our body that are asking for our attention and can serve as our teachers and our guides. When we get quiet and make space for them to surface from our depths, they can begin to provide a very small wedge between the thought or desire that we have, and the action we take.
If all those feelings and memories that we have stuffed in the sack of our bodies and cinched tight at our neck are a way into unconscious behavior, then part of the way out is to bring them to presence, to allow them to speak, to shine the light of our awareness upon them, in a measured and gentle way, and with the right support. The more I do this work, the more I recognize the importance of patience and gentleness, so that we don't overwhelm our system and send us back into dissociation mode as a protective measure. I am so very grateful to the teachers and practitioners in my life who have been the right medicine-in-the-moment; who have helped me to become more embodied, more true to who I am, more able to allow the wisdom of my body to speak.