I fell asleep at 7:30pm last Friday night. I was feeling exhausted after dinner, and I laid down before cleaning the kitchen. Within a minute, I was out and didn’t wake until 8am Saturday. I have a teenage son for whom my twelve plus hours of sleep is an every weekend tradition, but for me, sleeping like that was very rare. It was also glorious and necessary.
Do you know what else my half-day hibernation was? It was a part of my recovery from alcoholism. It was really important and totally uncontrollable.
Alcoholism is all about control. We alcoholics use our elixir to control stress, to deliver relaxation, to ease social anxiety and manage our moods. Everybody knows that. But it actually goes much further. We learn how to use alcohol to control almost all the aspects of our lives. We know that booze will eliminate boredom in the short-term. We figure out that a beer or two will give us renewed alertness if we are trying to finish a report of concentrate on a project. As we discover along the years of drinking, alcohol will fend off exhaustion and keep us rolling well beyond the time our bodies are pleading with us for rest.
The dopamine release that becomes dependent on alcohol consumption gives us an unnatural burst of good feelings that keeps us going when our brains and bodies are otherwise ready for a sleepy recharge. Caffeine gets all the credit for having this power of stimulation, but alcohol can do it, too. As we become addicted and our bodies hold back dopamine and only release it when we consume alcohol, we even begin to require alcohol to get that little energy boost that pushes us through the exhausted times when sleep is not an option.
We all know that alcohol is technically a depressant, and anyone who has spent significant time pouring copious amounts of booze into our lives can attest to the link between alcohol and depression. However, before drinking makes us listless and lethargic, it wakes us and energizes us. That’s why bars stay open so late and drinkers often outlast non-drinkers at parties.
It is all about the dopamine surge. A huge part of recovery from alcoholism is having the patience to let the dopamine flow return to normal. This what I’m talking about when I write about a repair to brain chemistry in recovery. Patience is the key. In my case (and many others I have learned about), it took over a year for my dopamine to release for things not associated with alcohol. When our kids do something special or we see a beautiful sunset or we accomplish a goal, we should feel good. That’s the dopamine. When we train our brains only to release dopamine when we drink alcohol, and then we stop drinking alcohol, we deprive our brains of pleasure (because dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter) until our brain chemistry repair is complete. And a year is a long time to go without feeling pleasure at regular intervals stimulated by normal life events. This is why we relapse. At least, this is why I relapsed over a half a dozen times until I found the knowledge and patience to wait for my brain to heal.
Before I fell asleep at 7:30pm on Friday evening, I was finishing a long work week with a very pleasurable celebration with my team. It involved rewarding them for their hard work and progress toward our goal. It also involved ice cream. In brain chemistry terms, it involved dopamine. That’s why I was energized and excited at 6pm, and sound asleep an hour and a half later. The same dopamine that used to give me a burst of energy when unnaturally stimulated by alcohol had me bouncing off the walls on Friday afternoon because of the natural pleasure I was experiencing.
Herein lies one of the many unexpected challenges of long-term sobriety. I have to learn there is far more that’s out of my control than there was when I manipulated my brain with alcohol. By abstaining from drinking, I shed legions of destructive baggage like depression and arguments with my wife. But I also lose my little dopamine injector to power me through times of tiredness, boredom or exhaustion-induced lack of concentration. And since I’ve taken the time to learn so much about brain chemistry, I’m terrified to use other stimulants like caffeine to manipulate chemical release in my brain.
So when I’m tired, there’s only one solution. I have to sleep. As a nauseatingly time-conscious person in a very structured society, sleeping when I’m tired is often highly inconvenient.
And all of this gets added to the long list of things I’ve learned about myself – about all humans, really – as a result of my addiction and recovery.
I’ve learned the traditional American accumulation of things like wealth and power brings me no joy. Connection – helping others and inviting them to help me – that’s the goal I need to achieve to experience natural pleasure and satisfaction. I’ve learned that our bodies and minds are amazingly powerful in their quest for equilibrium, and when we do things to throw our biology out of balance (like drink lots of alcohol), we are working against our natural, subconscious desire for balance. We force of ourselves to work too hard to survive. We are killing ourselves slowly.
And now I’ve learned that sleep is a huge component of our homeostasis. And sleep has no shortcuts. Something I once disregarded as a sign of weakness and viewed as un-American, I now appreciate as vital and am now trying to prioritize.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks? That’s crap. I’m getting older, and I’m learning more now than I ever imagined to be important about how our bodies work and how to be healthy emotionally and physically.
As a drinker, I never learned to listen to my body and give it what it needed. I never learned because I used alcohol to exert control. I never learned because I never listened. I never listened because the call of alcohol drowned out all the rest of the sounds in my life.
Now that it’s quiet, it’s amazing what I can hear.
If you would like to learn more about the brain chemistry of alcoholism, or strategies to navigate the start of your recovery, I invite you to read my FREE ebook, Guide to Early Sobriety.
If you’ve already read my Guide to Early Sobriety, I would love your feedback. Please take my survey about my handling of the topics in my ebook. I hope to develop the book into a curriculum to help others begin their recovery, and your reaction to my assertions are very valuable to me.