Did you know it takes at least 9 months for a brain to recover from prolonged substance abuse? Addiction is often a complex web of genetics, environment, and psychological factors.
In this vulnerable episode, KL and Tucker share their personal insights and experiences as they dive deep into the mind of an addictive brain and explore the profound hold substances can have on the mindset and biology of an individual, impacting their decision-making and judgment. Individual therapy isn’t always enough.
Learn how dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), emotional regulation skills and distress tolerance tools can help addicts and alcoholics recover while providing support and hope for loved ones who are wrestling with unanswered questions. This is an episode that will have your brain rethinking addiction.
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Understanding The Mind And Brain Of Addiction
My guest is Tucker Stine. We’ve been throwing around ideas about the things that people most want to know about related to addiction, alcoholism and how the family navigates. One of the things that keeps coming up consistently that we’ve been doing in this show is understanding what’s going on in the mind of an addict. Addiction mode, recovery mode, and then potentially rewiring the mind from thoughts and pathways that don’t serve to thoughts and pathways that do serve.
I thought, “Who better to talk to than my compadre and colleague in this whole movement that we’ve created here for families and friends of the loved ones of addiction and addicts?” What I want you to do, Tucker, to help us understand is step back into that time when you were in the throes of your own addiction and what contributed to that, then the progress of how your beliefs and how your thought patterns began to shift, then we’ll get to the DBT toward the end.
I might know a little bit about this subject, so I’m happy to share it, but it’s evolved over the years since being sober. You’re constantly learning and we know this about vigilant learning and getting to know why this all happened because I do reflect back and go, “How the hell did this happen?” For those of you who don’t know the story, I didn’t grow up abusing alcohol. I didn’t have issues with alcohol. It wasn’t until around the age of 38 or so that I was finally diagnosed with acute adult-onset alcohol abuse disorder.
It’s long, but for me, growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, mental health was never talked about. I knew from day one all the way, probably dating back to kindergarten, when I hid underneath the piano, the first day of kindergarten. My teacher had to pull me out constantly. I had a level of anxiety that I didn’t know what was going on. It progressed and triggered at certain times. It’s not necessarily social anxiety, but this feeling of being antsy in my own body.
Over time, you don’t even think about it. It just happens. It’s part of me. I’m sure everybody else goes through that. As you go and later on in life, you have more responsibility and there are fears around financial security. Making sure your marriage is healthy and raising the kids. All of these things as a provider for me were a constant pressure on my chest. The anxiety overcame me. It was literally driving all of my decisions.
I didn’t know how to communicate how I was feeling because it’s like okay at the end of the day. I didn’t have a traumatic childhood. I didn’t have the signs of what people would normally consider alcohol abuse, but what I did know to be true was that alcohol was the only thing that soothed the anxiety. In my mind, “Great. I’ve got something that does it. I don’t have to go on medication. I don’t have to tell anybody. I can live a normal life,” until it’s not normal anymore.
What ended up happening was my brain kept absorbing literally and figuratively a solution that allowed me not to think anymore. It worked for quite some time until my brain finally said, “This is all I know to be true. If I don’t have the liquid solution, I can’t function.” I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t realize that would be an issue. I never had the alcoholic gene growing up.
To me, it was like, “I’ve got an anxiety issue, but I found a solution.” It wasn’t until it was way too late that I thought, “This isn’t normal anymore.” As a depressant, it made me even more anxious and my body started to reject. My brain was shutting down and my body was rejecting. I thought, “This is a physiological thing now. Not just an emotional, mental thing. It’s now physiological.”
That’s when I said, “Something’s got to change.” It doesn’t work for everyone in terms of saying, “I have a problem and I need to get it fixed.” For many, it’s like that’s all I see and our brain becomes, at some point, they call it wet brain. Our brain becomes so detached from how we should physically feel, act and connect. The synapses are just broken. Everything is broken.
Unfortunately, you don’t see it when you’re inside the mind. Everybody else around you can see it, but the person standing there and feeling, it’s like, “What’s your problem? I don’t have a problem. I’m still functioning. What do you mean?” That’s when you start to realize and for me, when I finally got sober. It is a disease of the brain. It’s not a disease of drinking. I didn’t even like doing it, but I didn’t like feeling even more.
Can you say that one more time because this is to some extent the crux of this whole thing?
I didn’t even like the drinking part. I didn’t like the self-medicating and the coping that I had, but I disliked feeling what I was feeling way more. It was the lesser of two evils until it flipped and I didn’t see it coming.
What I have learned about the addict’s brain through one of the videos that we have listed as a resource, which is not coming to mind, is that the drug of choice takes the first position in our brains relative to surviving. We’re not eating well, relationships fall away and we’re self-destructing our life around us because it has superseded everything else.
It’s not unique to addiction per se when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Oftentimes, we categorize when you hear addiction, drugs and alcohol. When I went into treatment, I had friends who were in sex addiction. It’s the same thing. It was a mindset disease and they didn’t see it affecting everybody else around and getting away with it. I do not see that it’s affecting all of my relationships. It’s the same thing with exercise. It’s all the same disease, but we are responding to the stimuli in different ways.
That’s where the narrative needs to change around why because when we hear, “Addiction isn’t a choice. It’s a disease.” You’re only seeing the symptoms. You’re not seeing the disease itself. It’s a hidden disease, but you can’t see mine. Sometimes, I can’t even see mine and that’s what’s leading me to understand in the moment that you can love your brain, understand your brain and get a clear picture and clarity around what’s happening, then you can start to make the changes.
Ask my wife and family this one, “Stop being drinking is not healing.” It’s not. It’s just the beginning of having to rewire everything and they tell you once you’re treating yourself. You’ve been abusing your body for so long. It takes nine months for your brain to get back into a cycle where it needs to be. Nine months is a long time. Most people assume it’s a quick fix.
That’s one of the major myths around this. The school of thought now is sixteen months for drugs. The brain has been so co-opted and diseased that stopping substance abuse, but also stopping like sex addiction and shopaholism. Dr. Gabor Maté who is arguably one of the world’s renowned people in the drug abuse space, talked about his own addiction to classical music, which was acceptable. Workaholism is an addiction. Gambling is an addiction. There’s a whole big bucket of addictions when it takes over your life, which means it has taken over the number one position in your brain as the thing you need in order to survive, then it has taken over your life and you’re out of control.
The coping is different and the consequences are different. Where your brain is at is universal and that’s the biggest problem. We don’t teach it, experiment and share it. It becomes this mythical thing doing all the other things around cancer and autoimmune and all of these other kinds of diseases. We’re not giving ourselves the education on our brain, which is literally physiological and emotional, all of the things that drive who we are as humans, we’re ignoring.
Once your brain begins to heal, and let’s say you’re in eight years at this point of “not drinking” and your brain had time to do some healing. Generally speaking, my take on things is that our brains are always in a mode of healing. They’re layered. Experiences of our brains healing. With yours, in particular, you had patterns of thought around anxiety. A sensitivity that was almost kinesthetic in you around anxiety. What do you know now in terms of rewiring the thoughts in a serving way, rewiring the chemistry or the kinetics of the anxiety to be in more in peace and calm more often than in anxiety?
Again, this is now eight years of the journey and it’s important for families to understand this in terms of there’s one journey that ends with going into sobriety and a whole other journey, as my wife will say, learning a new dance. There’s a whole new journey that begins. There are phases and stages. That first stage is grace. Giving yourself the ability to feel again. Giving yourself the ability to gather yourself and think about where you want to go. Think and reflect upon where you’ve been. Making sure that you are literally in a space of not falling back into where you were before.
You’re still in a bit of that survival mode. Survival mode doesn’t end with stopping to drink. You’re in that relapse prevention plan. You’re doing all the things you’re supposed to do and starting to feel a little bit better, but up here isn’t changing enough and it’s frustrating. Medication helps that thing. As you move into that, it’s like, “Let’s do the therapy. Let’s get into talking about it more. Let’s get into marriage therapy or family therapy.”
For everybody, it’s different. At the end of the day, it’s one thing to get the thoughts and emotions out of your body. Getting your thoughts and emotions out of your body does not change behavior. Behavioral change is necessary to rewire the brain and live a healthy, sober life. It’s just the bottom line. The behavior of not drinking for me was not enough because all I was doing was reverting back to my younger teenage and young adult self when all that anxiety started to pile up.Behavioral change is necessary for rewiring the brain. Click To Tweet
As we got through therapy and realized, I remember my therapist finally saying, “You’ve gotten to a point where you’ve taken accountability and responsibility. Yet, there are still things that are you doing that you’re doing that are damaging relationships.” I’m still hurting myself to a certain degree. There’s that shame, guilt, and forgiveness that still goes like this.
There are also behaviors that you have with your loved ones. It’s not a reflection of the loved one. It’s a reflection of the behavior still not being able to change. What I was excited about and I know this is where we’re leading the conversation, was my therapist recommended DBT, which is Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
I tested a little bit of it in treatment but still, your brain isn’t ready to attack it yet. What this is, it’s being able to identify the triggers, feelings and all of the emotions that take you down the path of old behavior and literally saying, “No, we’re changing that.” We’re going to give you the skills and tools you need to stop the behavior, which is one of the skills. Rethink about how you’re going to respond to certain situations, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation.
We call it the rids in treatment, restlessness, irritability, and discontent. All of those emotions that typically come with someone who’s struggled in the past. How do you fix that? Here it goes again, our old behavior was escape, avoid, soothe, and medic aid. Now you got to feel a hell of a lot harder. DBT allows you to build these skills where you can literally sense it coming and one of them is coping ahead.
You sense it coming. You know what’s going to happen. What are you going to do differently? I’m in month three, I realize now, all of a sudden, what I used to do, thank God, is finally changing. My brain is starting to take the maladaptive behaviors and create healthy new ones, so what I should have been doing years ago, I’m now doing now. Your brain does have the ability to reprogram itself. That’s the beauty of it. The DBT and this therapy, I didn’t realize how much of my success was going to be based on behavior and brain-based thinking. I thought it was all about the drink.
That’s a myth that most people carry. It’s about alcoholism or the drink, drugs, shopping or sex. That’s just the coping mechanism to stop the pain. You strip that away, then you’re still left with the pain or the anxiety or the, “I don’t feel good in my own body.” What do you do? We live an extraordinary time now where we have so much research around rewiring our brains that we know that we can heal. It takes repetition to rewire when we’ve been wiring for decades a certain pattern. It doesn’t happen overnight.
One of my favorite quotes that I use all the time now, even with clients, is a poet named Philosopher Hafez, who says, “The words you speak become the house you live in.” That became my house. You think about it in that sense, what are the words that you’re going to be saying now that are going to determine the house? For a long time, even in sobriety, the words that were coming out of my mouth were not the house that I wanted to live in.If the words you speak become the house you live in and you're constantly saying, “I am this,” your brain is not able to cope with the fact you're bringing yourself back into an old house. Click To Tweet
It’s like, “You got to sell that house and go buy a new one.” What are you going to do to make sure that it’s not the same old fixer-upper that it was before? This is somewhat controversial but I bring this up and I’ve talked about it a lot with friends that are in recovery. I’ve always had a problem that after a certain period, if you’re going to go to a meeting and you have to introduce yourself every single time as an alcoholic. When individuals beat cancer, they don’t still say that they have cancer. They don’t say they’re a cancer patient.
They may say they’re in remission but they don’t allude to the fact that they have it anymore. The problem is if the words you speak become the house you live in and you’re constantly saying, “I am this.” Your brain is not able to cope with the fact. You’re bringing yourself back into an old house. I know it’s very controversial, and if you ask any sponsor, that would be like, “I can’t.” How can you say that? For me, that’s what I had to change part of the behavior. You still surround yourself with the right people, but you got to be careful how you’re telling your brain to act. That’s a behavior. Sometimes, it’s just simple words that create a huge behavioral difference.
Words matter. The shift between using the judgment word to discern on is emotionally charged versus not. We talked about this with Mary Beth O’Connor, the woman who wrote From Junkie to Judge, a couple of times. She paid attention to the things in her treatment in these various areas that worked for her and let the other things go. She created a hybrid treatment plan for herself that would lift her into consistent decades of recovery. We talk about this as we’re not giving you advice. We’re giving you options.
It is simply stories that inform and support you.
This is Tucker’s journey. I have a different journey with my son, but there are truths that are inherent. One is that a lot of addiction is trauma-based and driven by what Dr. Gabor Maté would talk about as hungry ghosts. We, to some extent, become unaware of that. They’re running in the background and they have hijacked us. There are a lot of layers to reveal what’s going on and the notion that our brains can heal. We can rewire them of thoughts for healthy behaviors, relationships and thriving life.
The other thing that we talked a little bit about is this and treatment, again, this comes from the inside the mind of an alcoholic addict. You don’t tell a blind person, “Why can’t you see?” It’s the same thing. I don’t know how to explain it, but when you’re active, you are completely blind to the world. The ability to say why can’t you just stop? Why can’t you see what you’re doing?
The sight of everything might as well be completely black. That is such a hard realization. Sometimes, they call them rock bottoms and it takes someone to hit you over the head or an event that’s detrimental for you to start to see again, but you might as well be blind when you’re in that act of space. It is so difficult to express, but there is no sight. Your brain is in charge of sight, so when you get to reprogram your brain and clarity becomes it. There’s so much clarity around sight again. You go back and you do a reflective retrospect of sight back. You start to see what you couldn’t before.
I know from some of the work that I do that there’s this messy middle of who you used to be and who you’re becoming. I had this happen with one of my clients where they were moving toward who they’re becoming and their brain started to try and take them back again. It became this wrestling between the old patterns of thought and behavior with the new thoughts of pattern behavior. I was able to say to him you’re in this messy space.
This is how it rolls. You know where you’re going. You know who the heart of who you are is. Understand that your brain is still trying to take you back to the old. That’s all that’s happening here. We’re going to override it and we know how to override the system because you know enough to know that’s who you are and that’s who you want to be. That took about a month of messy middle for him. The next time I saw him, he was like, “I’m good.”
It’s weird, again, having to know your brain. Your brain protects you from fear or danger and it seeks comfort. Change speaks to comfort. If you’ve trained your brain that comfort is s in this space of escape and numbing everything out, great. It’s protecting me until it no longer protects you. This idea of reprogramming your brain to be safe and comfortable is a tough process. It’s a ton of work.
It’s a journey.
It’s hard, but what I’m finding now and I didn’t think therapy isn’t enough. Behavior is what drives a healthy, sober life. Behavior changes family dynamics. Until you can get to that point where behavior is changing everything, forget it. The first thing they ask in DBT is, what are your life goals? What are your life’s worth-living goals?
For me, first and foremost, I said a healthy marriage. Making sure that my wife is good, protected and we’re getting back to where we used to be. My kids, making sure that they understood the trust and were still a family unit. You can still see where Dad is now. Financial security, realizing that my mindset of scarcity and fear was never going to lead to abundance. I was never bringing the right energy to the table and to be able to diminish anxiety.
As I go through this process, I’m starting to see that behavior is driving all of those goals. Now DBT isn’t going to work for everyone. I wanted to share that experience, both to talk about the inside mind of an alcoholic but also, what are the things and a-ha moments that families can start to lean on, see and get excited about to ultimately change the dynamic?
There’s the flip side of this, too. I’ve had to do my own reworking of my brain in terms of my beliefs previously. This was years ago. It was that I needed to fix this. It’s not my defects. Changing the patterns of behavior around that was part of my work. When I stood on a sidewalk and watched Sam get arrested. I felt like my life was completely imploding and falling apart. I needed to flip the script on that one, too, because, in fact, my life was beginning to fall together. To be able to hold on to the counter-weights of thinking that serve you in thriving and drive those thoughts of thriving deeper. That’s our rewiring. We have our own work to do as loved ones.
It’s true. My wife and I have discussed this. It’s being in that fear response for so long. Your brain is creating its own comfort system. What I love about the DBT is it’s somewhat contagious that allows and giving an invitation. Hopefully, it will soothe the maladaptive behaviors that everyone’s been experiencing and exposed to. Ultimately, I would go back to the words we speak become the house we live in. Making sure the words that I speak to my loved ones create the house that we want to live in. That is success. If you were to tell me that years ago, I would have been like, “What are you talking about? I got a house.”
I want to exclamation point, it’s not what we say to others. It’s also what we say to ourselves because of the world that I live in in terms of executive coaching. There are a lot of executives that are massively beating themselves up in terms of negative thought patterns and posture syndrome that needs rewiring and retooling. I’m super clear at this stage no matter what Sam’s doing in his recovery. My recovery is about being as healthy and thriving as I possibly can from a mental spiritual, emotional, and physical perspective so that if he pops out the other side, a thriving parent is there to meet him.
What I would say to those of you who are reading, the work is never done because there are layers of consciousness that continue to reveal themselves to me. It’s not a one-and-done, just like it’s not, “Would you just stop drinking?” Everything will be fine. That is completely erroneous. If I think one great thought, then I’ll be fine. It’s just not how life rolls. Awareness is super important. Pausing is being clear about what you want to say to yourself to others and who you want to be with yourself with others. It’s causing us to rethink what it means to be human.
Giving yourself grace, patience, and understanding this is still part of the journey. A couple of sessions aren’t going to make a difference, but you got to make it part of your lifestyle. Those habits and behaviors determine everything. I’m glad we had this conversation. It’s been on my mind and being able to share the learning.A couple of sessions are not going to make a difference. You have to make it part of your lifestyle. Those habits and behaviors determine everything. Click To Tweet
To me, this is one of those proud moments for myself because I can finally say I’m getting over the hump on a lot of things. I hope I’m making my family proud, but it’s something that I wanted to share on the inside so families and loved ones can understand a little bit more about how their loved one might be feeling.
I’m proud of you. This is courageous work. It’s courageous work for you and for me. Both sides of the aisle, people. It takes courage to look at what we’re thinking and how we’re behaving and change it.
That’s why we’re here. Thanks for having me, KL. Good to see you again.
Thank you, Tucker, for being here.