On February 3, 1999, I was arrested in my home for possession of cocaine and crack cocaine. The local TV Â news channels in Toledo, Ohio, had a field day covering my arrest and arraignment, and followed my storyÂ for six months. Many people found it appalling that a 747 pilot for a major international airline could beÂ addicted to cocaine. In spite of the contempt that many in the press and general public had for me, no oneÂ found me more disgusting than I found myself.
After completing a 30-day treatment program in Southern California, I moved into a sober living home andÂ continued my recovery in a rigid aftercare program. I was introduced to my companyâ€™s employee assistanceÂ program, and one by one I completed a series of closely monitored hurdles. Nine months after being arrestedÂ I strapped into a 747 and flew 400 people from San Francisco to Kona, Hawaii. Dr. Joseph Pursch was theÂ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved psychiatrist who deemed me well enough to fly again.Â The FAA mandated that I be monitored for a minimum of five years. I had a laundry list of requirements thatÂ kept me in front of doctors, EAP reps, union reps and chief pilots every month. Being this closely monitoredÂ is one of the reasons that pilots have the highest recovery rate of any profession. Ninety-two percent of allÂ pilots that are introduced to recovery make it back to the cockpit and the relapse rate for those individuals isÂ in the single digits.
As my passion for recovery grew, I started facilitating groups and soon became a Certified Addiction SpecialistÂ and also Certified in EEG Neurotherapy. I slowly developed a knack for speaking, which is fueled more byÂ passion than ability.
I now understand that addiction is a self-contracted neurological disease that truly hi-jacks the brain. We initiallyÂ chose to try alcohol and drugs, but we didnâ€™t choose the disease of addiction any more than someoneÂ chooses to be a diabetic.
Alcohol and drugs affect the brain in very powerful ways. The brain is an electrical- chemical organ that communicates within itself and the rest of the body. This communication in the brain takes place as one neuronÂ (brain cell) connects through synoptic connections to another neuron. An electrical charge (caused by ions)Â running along the axiom (shaft) of the neuron causes the release of neurotransmitters (chemicals) into theÂ synapse, a small space between the sender and the receptor of the neuron receiving the neurotransmitter.Â As the receiving neuron metabolizes this neurotransmitter molecule, the magic begins to happen.
There are many types of neurotransmitters, however the one most associated with addiction is dopamine.Â Dopamine is normally released (in regulated amounts) within the brain so that we feel pleasure. Thatâ€™s theÂ magic I was referring to â€” the pleasure as felt when eating a good meal, seeing a beautiful sunset or havingÂ sex. Addictive drugs increase the amount of dopamine released in the brain and some drugs release enormousÂ amounts of dopamine that in turn creates intense pleasure. Crystal meth causes 13 times the amountÂ of dopamine release as having sex. The drugs that release the highest amounts of dopamine in descendingÂ order are methamphetamine, cocaine, heroine, nicotine, alcohol and marijuana.
The duration and intensity of the dopamine pleasure surge is different for different drugs. Cocaineâ€™s enormousÂ pleasure surge lasts for 15 to 30 minutes, while the pleasure surge from marijuana, though not asÂ intense, will last for many hours.
The bad news is, the dopamine receptors, in the neurons, can become overloaded and cannot metabolize all the dopamine the sender cells release. Dopamine molecules floating around in the synapse with nowhereÂ to go is not a good thing. Overtime the dopamine levels in the brain cells are depleted. These take time toÂ replenish, and during this time it is practically impossible to experience normal pleasure.
Dopamine can also be a hormone, the difference being that as a hormone it is released from the endocrineÂ gland and a neurotransmitter is released from a nerve terminal as the result of an electrical signal. As aÂ hormone dopamine affects cells away from the site of release and affects moods and even growth. As aÂ neurotransmitter, dopamine goes from one neuron through the synapse into another neuron. A drug calledÂ L-dopa can increase dopamine levels in the brain and is used with Parkinsonâ€™s patients.
The dopamine transporter gene is associated with ADD and ADHD. Many people, as myself, have attentionÂ deficit problems. Drugs like cocaine helps focus thinking and behavior, obviously the effect does not lastÂ long.
Dopamine is a big player in the brain and throughout the body however, addictive drugs deregulates normalÂ secretion and causes major psychological problems for the addict.
ADD or ADHD is also present with many people with low beta brain waves. These people are constantly tryingÂ to wake up there brain to feel present. Addictive drugs, especially stimulants have the desired affect thatÂ people with a â€œtired brainâ€ (low beta waves) are looking for.
Stimulants â€œwake upâ€ the brain of the person suffering from attention deficit thus the effects of stimulantsÂ are more profound for these people. This is why stimulant use statistics are higher for ADD and ADHDÂ people than for the general population.
Accordingly, attention deficit people are also drawn to high-risk behaviors â€“ they yearn to feel alive! DopamineÂ is also associated with adrenals rushes. Drug use is not the only addicted behavior for people wantingÂ to wake up their brain; shopping, gambling, risky sex, seeking love and obsessive working out are a fewÂ other destructive behaviors.
Other Neurotransmitters and Hormones
Drugs cause the release of many different neurotransmitters such as serotonin (associated with moodÂ swings) and GABA (associated with euphoria, impulsiveness). As with dopamine, norepinephrine has dualÂ roles â€” one as a neurotransmitter and the other as a stress hormone. As a neurotransmitter, it increasesÂ heart rate triggering the release of glucose needed to activate the fight or flight response. Figure 1, illustratesÂ what happens within the brain when a person drinks or uses.
Starting in the top left corner of Figure 1 – when we drink or use it has a profound electrical and chemicalÂ affect on our brain. Alcohol and drugs slow brain activity and disrupt normal brain regulations. The excessiveÂ volume of neurotransmitters released creates emotions and feelings that, when repeated become familiar.Â Familiarity and repetition, in this context, becomes addictive, which simply stated means â€œI canâ€™t stop!â€ InÂ spite of continuous negative consequences or even intellectual awareness â€œI am powerlessâ€ over my addiction.Â The lightening bolt graphic pointing toward the Electrical column, in the preceding illustration, deals withÂ brain waves and activity levels. The brain usually is operating between .5 and 40 Hz (cycles per second). OurÂ normal conscious state falls with the Beta ranges of 12 to 26 Hz. Other brains states are:
â€¢ Sleeping: Delta .5-4 Hz
â€¢ Meditative: Theta 4-8 Hz
â€¢ Calm: Alpha 8-12 Hz
â€¢ Landing a 747 on a short runway in the dark of night with high gusty winds and poor visibilityÂ will escalate the brains into: Gamma 26-40 Hz
In recovery we strive for the brain to be calm and alert simultaneously. This is not the natural state for alcoholicsÂ and addicts. EEG neurofeedback is a noninvasive, biofeedback technique that addresses the issues ofÂ irregular brain waves. Irregular brain waves are many times the result of brain trauma. This could be the resultÂ of a blow to the head, too many roller coaster rides or my favorite excuse, pulling 7 Gâ€™s flying a jet fighter.Â People with irregular brain waves will display character defects ranging from rage attacks to extreme benevolentÂ behavior. There are many studies on the effects addictive drugs have on the brainâ€™s electrical activity.Â Besides neurotransmitters, other brain chemical molecules are also associated with addiction, such as endogenousÂ opioid polypeptides (endorphins), hormones and cannabinoids.
Figure 2 illustrates the neurological progression that takes place from the initial event of using through theÂ entire addictive process. Of courses, what occurs in the brain is far more complex than illustrated here.Â The hijacking takes place as millions of neurons, with tens of thousands of synoptic-connections, fire simultaneouslyÂ releasing high volumes of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Every hit, toke, line or drinkÂ re-fires the same chains of neurons. These chains are called neuropathways.
The saying around â€œbrain peopleâ€ is that when â€œneurons fire together they wire together.â€ In otherÂ words, repeated use creates permanent addiction pathways in the brain.Â
Figure 2 illustrates the neural circuits in the brain that affects the addictâ€™s decision- making abilities. TheÂ location of each of these areas in the brain came be found on the next graphic.
The Neural-circuits and drugs
The first area that drugs affect is the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA). This is a small, primitive area located inÂ the bottom of the mid brain (the reward center). When drugs hit the brain, the VTA is the first place thatÂ dopamine synthesizes and a signal is sent to the nucleus accumbens. This area of the brain makes food tasteÂ better, music sound better and most importantly sex and drugs feel better. The nucleus accumbens in turnÂ releases dopamine, serotonin, GABA and endorphins. It then sends messages to the thalamus, which is theÂ main relay connecting almost all the areas of the brain from the cerebrum to the spinal cord.
The thalamus relays signals to an area in the frontal lobe (blue area in Fig. 3) called the prefrontal cortex.Â This region of the brain houses our higher-level thinking and is responsible for moderating social behaviorsÂ in humans. It does this by sending a signal to the mid brain to behave and act appropriately in dealing withÂ primitive desires. This signal is sent via the fasciculas retroflexus to the mid brain, but guess what?
Alcohol and drugs destroy the fasciculas retroflexus thus causing the addict and the alcoholic to lose theÂ ability to reason and to exhibit good moral behavior. The drug methamphetamine poses the greatest dangerÂ to these elongated tubular nerve fibers. While alcohol can take years to damage this area, crystal methÂ can practically destroy the fasciculas retroflexus in a single night of using. This brain damage is why a methÂ addict can shoot a clerk while robbing a convenience store and at the time feel no remorse.
The VTA also sends signals to the amygdala, which regulates hormonal secretion, and the hippocampus,Â which sends and retrieves messages to memory. Other parts of the brain like medulla oblongata, hypothalamusÂ and the basal ganglia control heart rate, breathing, temperature, physical movement and balance, andÂ are also affected negatively by the use of drugs.
Also, the frontal lobe releases another neurotransmitter known as glutamate, which triggers the pleasurableÂ memories of getting high. Remembering past highs is known as euphoric recall. The mind also is capable ofÂ forgetting the negative consequences from previous use. As I tell my clients, â€œYour brain will lie to you. It willÂ use every form of denial to convince you it is OK to use just one more time.â€
Wow, a little knowledge of what happens in the brain with addiction can be both powerful and frightening.Â Now we are aware of why the â€˜Just Say No!â€™ campaign in the 1980s was so ineffective.
Changing what is familiarâ€¦
We all know humans love the familiar â€” rather it be addiction, negative thoughts, daily routines or otherÂ habitual behaviors. We not only become addicted to the chemicals, we become obsessed with our thoughtsÂ and feelings. You donâ€™t have to be an addict to experience obsession with negative thoughts. Ask an Al-anonÂ member.
With addiction, we create many very strong neuropathways and theyâ€™re not going away. This is one of the reasons that â€˜once an addict, always an addict.â€™ The solution is to create new neuropathways with totally newÂ thoughts and behaviors. We do this by doing and thinking the unfamiliar until it becomes familiar.Â Reference the 60,000 on the bottom in blue on Figure 1. Sixty thousand is the approximate number ofÂ thoughts we have each day. As with addictive substances, every thought has an electrical and chemicalÂ action in the brain. Thoughts that become obsessive can also hijack the brains normal regulation. ThoughtsÂ and events that have emotional ties are more likely to make it into stored memory. Automatic negative
thoughts (ANTs) are the result of obsessive thinking. These thoughts become familiar and reinforce neuropathwaysÂ in the same way the affects of alcohol and drugs do. This is why the family member who constantlyÂ thinks about the alcoholic or addict in their life also becomes sick.
The addict and the codependent must make drastic changes in their thinking for healing to take place. InÂ order to change years of addictive behavior and obsessive thinking, a connection of a spiritual nature willÂ ensure scientific results. Thatâ€™s why â€˜living in the presentâ€™ is omnipotent in recovery.Â In recovery, the fear that addicts and codependents experience will be redirected to living a life of love andÂ service. We no longer can afford resentments and prejudices as we strive to develop an â€˜attitude of gratitude.â€™Â Although it doesnâ€™t happen quickly, these things actually create healthy neurological changes in the brain.Â The practice of prayer, meditation, good nutrition, normal sleep patterns and exercise are very beneficial inÂ reclaiming our brain. Doing these things, and other self-enhancing, unfamiliar activities rapidly create newÂ neuropathways.
Recovering people are told to seek spiritual connections, to help others, even if it is not pleasurable. MostÂ importantly self-assessing feelings, emotions and behaviors are instrumental in recovery. Instead of analyzingÂ as to why we canâ€™t do something, we are taught to simply take action. The dilemma remains that ourÂ new way of life demands practice and repetition, always remembering that we have a formidable enemy â€”Â our very own brainâ€™s wiring for addiction.
The good news is that we have 100 billion neurons all with up to 100,000 possible synoptic connections. WeÂ have the potential to create almost unlimited new neuropathways. The more the new pathways are used,Â the stronger they become. The old neuropathways, although still there, are not as active and start to dissipate.Â This potential allows for remission from the terminal disease of addiction, and is why in recovery Dr. PurschÂ would tell me, â€œLarry, in recovery, you can become weller than well.â€ I thought at the time he was kiddingÂ me, now I know that he was right. I am living a life today that I could have never imagined. I have a sense ofÂ purpose and strong personal relationships with loved ones and friends in the fellowship. I remember wellÂ the agony of living with an active addiction. I have learned that sharing my experience, strength and hopeÂ with others assures me on a daily basis that I donâ€™t ever have to revisit the life I was living before February 5h,Â 1999â€¦ the day I was released from jail and the day I took my last drink.