Love, Drugs and the Primitive Brain.

Ever wonder why love and drugs often go hand in hand? In this article I talk about love, drugs and the reason no one told you about the primitive brain…and why sometimes addiction is how we survive a broken heart.

One Size Does Not Fit All

After the tragic death of Amy Winehouse there was a lot of speculation on the web, even by professionals in the addiction field, as to who is to blame. There was actually one article I read which seemed to imply that if she had been able to drink in moderation maybe she would still be alive. I honestly can not comment on that either way. I will say that the harm-reduction model of treating addictions is not popular among people who advocate for abstinence as the only acceptable treatment outcome and people who support the 12-step program approach. Having worked at a methadone clinic for years and witnessed powerful positive change, I am not a big fan of one size fits all treatment approaches nor am I into labeling.

There is however one view on addictions that I have found very helpful, especially lately, in helping clients who do not seem to fit the traditional medical model of addiction.

The Staton Peele Approach.

Here’s a summary of Dr. Peeles’ view on addiction “addiction is not unusual, although it can grow to overwhelming and life-defeating dimensions. It is not essentially a medical problem, but a life problem. It occurs for people who learn drug use or other destructive patterns as a way of gaining satisfaction in the absence of more functional ways of dealing with the world.

Therefore, maturity, improved coping skills, and better self-management and self-regard all contribute to overcoming and preventing addiction. Addiction is a way of coping with life, of artificially attaining feelings and rewards people feel they cannot achieve in any other way.” Stanton Peele, “Cures depend on attitude, not programs,” Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1990.

Peele’s theory explains why addiction and intimate relationships are so closely interconnected.

Love, Drugs And A Broken Heart

Jim always ends at the bar drinking after a fight with his wife. Anna’s drinking always gets out of control after a break up. John had experimented with pain pills on and off in college but did not get addicted to them until after the devastating loss of his long time lover and best friend. Travis’s sex addiction gets worse after feeling rejected by a love interest. In the words of one of my clients “I was lost before I found love. I was on a path of self-destruction with drugs, alcohol and women but with my wife I have found what I was always missing, I have been clean and sober since. Now I’m high on life”

Staton Peele wrote Love and Addictions in 1975. Poets and writers have written about drowning love sorrows in wine since the beginning of time, from Rumi to Pablo Neruda to Shakespear to Bukowski to rock and roll and so on…

Amy Winehouse wrote:

“The man said, “Why do you think you here?”
I said, “I got no idea”
I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby
So I always keep a bottle near

Addiction is a way to respond to unsafe relationships.

And by unsafe I don’t mean physically violent although that is the most obvious case. Unsafe means threatening to the ego as much as threatening to the body. What I’m talking about here is emotional safety. When we feel loved, accepted, nourished, protected and part of someone else we feel safe. That safety is often threatened when we feel unloved, uncared for, betrayed, lied to, yelled at, abandoned, neglected, rejected, violated.

To understand where we are going we have to understand where we come from.

Love, drugs And The Primitive Brain

Let’s start with the evolution of the brain. In the base of our brain we have the reptilian brain. We share this part of the brain with animals including alligators and lizards. The reptilian brain takes care of those things we don’t usually think about: heartbeat, digestion, and breathing. It also is concerned with survival, and if it’s dangerous, it will help us respond in one of 5 basic ways: fight, flight, freeze/play dead, submit or hide. These are also the 5 basic survival skills of couples. Couples with fight, flee (leave), play dead (stare right through their partner), submit (OK, whatever you want, just stop the nagging) or hide (go to another room).

On the other hand, if the reptilian brain is safe we will do one of 5 things: play, nurture, mate, work and be creative. Remember when you first met your partner? How you played, nurtured each other and had more sex? Do you remember being more creative and productive at work?  As animals evolved, a second part of the brain developed called the mammalian brain. This brain developed when animals began to live in groups and take care of their young. This is the part of the brain where feelings are stored. That’s why most animals experience some feelings and live in groups.

Several million years ago a third part of the brain developed: the cerebral cortex. In humans this part of the brain is 5 times bigger than the other 2 parts combined and this where all logical processes happen: speech, writing, logic thinking, math, etc. The three parts of the brain work together simultaneously. If a tiger is coming at you your logical brain says “That’s a tiger”, your mammalian brain says “I feel scared” and your reptilian brain says “Run!” or “Freeze!”

The Tiger In Relationships

It is not always clear who or what the “tiger” is in relationships. We know something is not right but all we are left with is behaviors we can clearly see but rarely understand. How is it that when Jim and Linda fight he ends up getting drunk at the bar even though he knows that is not going to help the situation at home but only confirm Linda’s insults that “he’s nothing but a loser”?

Sometimes fighting, fleeing or hiding involves addictive behaviors particularly sexual behaviors like masturbation, pornography, but also gaming, internet addiction and alcoholism. Often past experiences with these behaviors make a person more susceptible to going back to or increase the frequency of these behaviors. This explains why people engage in addictive behaviors even against their logical thinking. It appears that the primitive reptile brain has taken over the cerebral cortex.

This is why people logically know it doesn’t make sense to engage in behaviors that often make the already troubled relationship even worse. They are “thinking” with their primitive reptile brain, which often means they are not actually thinking at all.

Sometimes we are not simply chasing a drink or a drug.

Sometimes using is a way of coping with unsafe relationships.

In this cases treatment should focus on the relationship and reestablishing safety more than on changing addictive behaviors themselves. I have found that establishing safety and learning to evoke mental images of safe places/mental states is crucial in learning to calm oneself down and coping with highly stressful situations, which in return helps the addictive behavior dissipate.

Read more about couples and emotional safety here.


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