How did you explain away
early chemical captivity?
Our earliest cognitive dissonance
Most of us have now learned that drug addiction is about an external chemical taking the mind's priorities teacher, the brain's dopamine reward pathways, hostage. This "pay-attention" brain circuitry may generate the mind's most durable memories, memories that were supposed to be associated with species survival events such as accomplishment, bonding, acceptance, nurturing, nutrition, hydration and reproduction.
Not only can nicotine cause these pathways to generate a dopamine "aaah" sensation, it inhibits normal dopamine cleanup, allowing released dopamine to linger far longer than normal. About 90% of regular nicotine users at some point discover that they now have a new #1 priority in life, servicing that next mandatory nicotine feeding. But dependency onset brings with it an additional curve, tolerance.
Tolerance is where, over a long period of time, a drug user finds they need more of the drug in order to achieve the same effect. It's believed to occur primarily in response to a process known as up-regulation, in which the brain grows or activates millions of extra nicotinic-type acetylcholine receptors in at least eleven different brain regions.
It means that any attempt to stop using the drug with temporarily leave the drug addict de-sensitized to normal neuro-chemical flow, as they are compelled to allow their brain time to down-regulate and restore natural sensitivities. Although this may sound easy, the deep inner primitive mind (the lizard brain) is in control of the body's anxiety alarm circuitry (its fight or flight pathways), and if not calmed and/or re-schooled, may view quitting smoking as akin to attempting to starve yourself to death.
I doubt any of us knew this much about drug dependency when we took that first fateful puff, dip or chew, introducing a massive hit (bolus) of nicotine into our brain. But we each soon found ourselves in a state of "cognitive dissonance," a psychological term describing "the uncomfortable tension that results from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one's beliefs."
Although we didn't understand the science of addiction, or know in advance that smoking nicotine can be as addictive has heroin or cocaine (as Canadian youth are currently taught), if we listened to the tobacco industry's worst case scenario, we at least thought that smoking could become "habit forming." Yet, still, we continued to smoke. We also knew the basic health warnings, at least in regard to cancer, and would soon discover that engaging in prolonged vigorous physical activity was more challenging, difficult, or even impossible, depending upon the amount of carbon monoxide circulating inside our bloodstream.
So how did we rationalize or explain away any cognitive dissonance between our pre-smoking beliefs about smoking, and the fact that we found ourselves continuing to do so, day after day after day after day?
I was age 15 when I found myself with three rather serious addiction dissonance issues to confront. First, my mom smoked and for a number of years I had been extremely hard on her for not quitting. What lie could I invent so that I didn't have to look in the mirror and see a total hypocrite looking back?
Next, without a job or regular allowance, I had to find a way to get that next nicotine fix. Although I didn't realize it at the time, it compelled me to spend more and more time with other young nicotine addicts, to resort to begging, and from time to time actually stealing cigarettes from mom. What pack of lies could I buy into to hide the thief, beggar and liar I had become?
I also had the issue of needing to service what I now realize was a rapidly increasing level of tolerance to nicotine. I quickly found myself smoking half-a-pack-a-day and needing to smoke nicotine before, during and immediately after school. During class I increasingly found myself sitting at my desk thinking about needing to smoke instead of the lesson being taught.
There is zero pride in revealing how drug addiction fostered changes in my character, beliefs and values. It's much easier to allow folks to believe that chronic smoking was my only problem or that I remained the same person: a fairly wholesome, honest and mom-loving kid. But truth is, I was now a teenage drug addict, compelled to lie, beg, and steal, and to associate with those who understood my need to do so.
A big part of nicotine dependency recovery is the gradual realization that we each lived a lie. When quitting we gradually realize that smoking nicotine didn't give us our edge, and that life without it grows better not worse. Within a couple of weeks we couldn't help but notice that many things we once did as smokers could now be done as well as or better without smoking. Coming home is vastly more than just ending use of a particular product. It's a gradual awakening as to how that product totally infected a life.
Like water under the bridge, I cannot undo the past. What I can do is stay clean today while trying to be as honest as possible about where I've been. This mom-loving kid is home now, living on Easy Street, and although mom is no longer here I like to think I honor her memory by being more like the pre-nicotine boy she once called son.
Breathe deep, hug hard, live long,
John (Gold x8)