“What I Learned about Cravings” by a Gulf Breeze Recovery graduate.
I attended Gulf Breeze Recovery in 2016 after over a decade of failed attempts to get clean at 12-step drug treatment centers. I was an IV drug user, and I thought that if anyone truly understood how powerful my cravings were, then surely they would see why it was impossible for me to stay sober. That’s why one of the most valuable insights I gained during my time in Gulf Breeze was my relationship to cravings.
The use of drugs and alcohol stimulates a vast release of neurotransmitters. A neurotransmitter is the chemical substance that creates both an experience and also the memory of it. The brain uses neurotransmitters to accomplish certain tasks and also for learning. When remembering an event, the parts of the brain associated with sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste are re-ignited in a similar fashion to when the original experience was happening. A craving is simply a strong memory tied to using the substance during which the brain is powerfully engaged. At least, that’s my understanding of what the very manageable sounding “scientific” explanation is.
To me, a drug craving felt like my entire body was being hijacked. My heart would race and I would sweat. My skin felt tingly and prickly. The experience of sitting still in my own body became so overwhelming and uncomfortable that I felt like jumping out of my skin. I had a hard time sitting still. I would pace if standing or kick my legs if sitting or lying down. Unlike the warm and pleasurable experience of the early days of using, my cravings were marked by anxiety and terror. I would have a hard time catching my breath, and all of my normal bodily functions felt chaotic. In stark contrast to my crippling fear was a soft and persuasive thought that just one more time using would make all of the bad feelings go away.
In early sobriety, it only makes sense that cravings can happen frequently. For a substance abuser, memories of using drugs or alcohol can be linked with many everyday activities and feelings. Every time it was a nice day, I used drugs outside. Every time it was rainy or cold, I used drugs inside. When I had a great day, I celebrated by using drugs. When I had a bad day, I consoled myself by using drugs. When I was lonely, I used drugs to pass the time. When I was around people, I used drugs in order to feel more comfortable socializing. For a while, anything and everything that came up in my life reminded me of using. That was understandable—my life had centered around drugs for a long time.
Before coming to Gulf Breeze Recovery, I had tried to get clean more times than I can count. It was always the cravings that pulled me back into addiction. At other addiction treatment centers, I had heard phrases like “fighting cravings” and “avoiding cravings” by “avoiding triggers”. The problem was that just about every aspect of everyday life triggered memories of drugs. Was I going to have to spend every sunny day inside and every rainy day outside? Was I supposed to never have a good day or a bad day? Was it possible to never be lonely and also to never be around too many people? Could I go my whole life without eating a bowl of cereal because the sight of a spoon made my stomach turn somersaults?
The major misunderstanding I had was that my feelings of craving were trying to tell me something important about the path I was on. In the moment, I honestly felt like they were informing me of my reality: that life without drugs was awful and anxious and terrifying and that the only solution was just one more shot, just one more pill, just one more sip, just one more ANYTHING to stop the feeling. Since I had been told over and over that cravings were something to be avoided and fought, I thought that my inability to avoid or quiet the feeling was an indication of my complete and utter failure. Then, the soft, persuasive voice would whisper sweetly, “What’s the use? Why do you make yourself suffer?”
At Gulf Breeze Recovery, I heard something new that flipped my entire experience on its head.
I heard that there was nothing wrong with a craving—or with any feeling, for that matter.
I learned that my feeling was simply waking me up to the fact that I was thinking in the moment. It was just letting me know that I was experiencing a memory. And when the thought passed, so would the feeling. It was nothing to be alarmed about. I didn’t need to panic, to try to fight the thought or suppress it. All I had to do was acknowledge it for what it was and let it pass.
At the time, I had little to no experience with sitting through a craving, but I did have experience with ending my relationship with a person who wasn’t quite ready for it to be over. It felt a lot like my relationship to drugs. That experience was how I learned to relate to a craving.
When my ex would call, at first I’d want to pick up the phone and logically explain to him that we were really, really over and tell him all of the reasons that he needed to stop calling me. He’d call back. Then I would pick up the phone and yell at him and call him names. He’d call back. Then I would pick up the phone and plead with him to leave me alone. He’d call back. And throughout it all, I was anxious and jumpy and uncomfortable. Then, finally, I stopped picking up the phone. He would call, and I would become uneasy. That was okay, though, and I kept not picking up the phone. With a little time, the calls slowed down. Eventually, they stopped. After a long time, I might receive an errant text or Facebook message, but the experience had completely changed. Instead of being uncomfortable, I’d almost laugh and think, “Well, that’s weird!”
And so it has been with cravings. It’s okay to feel them, just like it was okay for the phone to ring, and it’s okay to feel uneasy. There’s nothing wrong with thinking the thought, but I stopped feeling the need to “pick up the phone”. I no longer had to fight with my cravings or reason with them. I could just continue not picking up the phone. Eventually, not picking up the phone and arguing or pleading with my thoughts and feelings worked the same way it had with my ex. The craving stopped calling. Every now and then, rarely and unexpectedly, a using thought will cross my mind. I almost laugh and think to myself, “Well, that’s weird!” And I keep not picking up the phone.
That was the beauty of what I learned at Gulf Breeze Recovery. No matter what the feeling is, I don’t have to fight it or argue with it. I can accept it for what it is, a function of my thinking in the moment. I’ve seen over the last few years that my thinking always changes. I always return back to my health. I was so busy fighting and avoiding cravings that I never let myself get to the other side. On the other side of cravings and uncomfortable feelings is where I finally found the health, hope and resilience I had been hopelessly seeking in drugs for all those years. It’s the space where I recovered.
If you or someone you care about, has an ongoing history of substance use and/or relapse, contact us at Gulf Breeze Recovery or call: 833.551.2356 to speak to an addiction expert to learn more about our program that has helped so many people overcome their addiction and embrace life.
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