The Science: Unpickling My Brain

Day 25 and I’ve only been here once before. My resolve is about as high as it could be — I won’t be drinking — but I have noticed the insidious drinker’s voice getting louder lately. Negotiating. Planning our future together once my two-month intensive group is over.

Shut it, Harpy.

Late last week I was starting to feel pretty agitated, anxious, all while mucking around up to my shins in that grey flatness that is a normal part of this whole process, and just the thing that has been my undoing in the past. Now that I’m in the eye of the “ditching the drink” storm I remember it very well: I’m back to craving pleasure from anything (it doesn’t even matter, really) at the same levels drinking provided.

I know this is about deconstructing myself and my life before I can rebuild it. I’ve been at this long enough that I get it. The upside of having tried and tried and tried over the course of a year is that you get to see patterns.You learn a few things. I know exactly what’s going on for me physiologically (dopamine) and I’m learning more and more about what is going on emotionally. This is the painful but necessary part to growing, and I get that. My intensive group is helping a ton, and that was exactly the point. It’s why I’m investing the considerable time and money. The “graduate work for the inner self” is exactly what I need if I have any hope of staying dry for the long haul. Something had to give because what I was doing just wasn’t enough.

Friday  we had a 2-hour “wellness” session with a naturopath instead of our normal group session, and she was awesome. Sometimes I feel like I’ve read a damned library’s worth of books and blogs about what happens when we quit drinking, but she framed the process in a way that was comforting. She said, here’s what we may be experiencing physically and emotionally, and here’s why.

Because, SCIENCE.

Some of what we learned, in brief (and super layman) terms:

  • First 2 weeks: The liver is regulating itself, having spent a hell of a lot of its energy before breaking down alcohol. With alcohol missing, it has a lot of time on its proverbial hands and starts breaking down other things, like hormones.
  • By one month the liver should be in a steady state.
  • From Day 3 to eight weeks is a period that one woman called “The Valley of Emotion.” Exercise can make a difference in the long journey through this pleasure desert. It doesn’t have to be strenuous exercise. Even moving one’s body (like walking) for 10 minutes can help. (She also recommended the book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John Ratey, MD)
  • At 3.5-4 months, many people experience a tough couple of weeks of thinking about or revisiting the decision to quit. This isn’t scientific but it happens to SO many people (and when a ton of people start drinking again) that it seems to be a thing. Yes, it is super uncomfortable, but it won’t last. This is believed to be the time when our brains are checking in to ask “Are you suuuure you aren’t drinking anymore?” before it really starts to begin rewiring the neuropathways. Self-care is really important at this point and not giving in to the discomfort that feels as though it will last forever. It too will pass.
  • From 6 months to 1 year is when the white matter in the brain finally begins to repair. This is important for a lot of reasons, including that the white matter is what facilitates the communication between the part of one’s brain that says “NO” and the old habit functions part of the brain. Most often this really begins at about 8 months, but it can start earlier. It is VERY important to get enough DHA/EPA in our systems to aide in this repair. That means 1,200 mg a day fish oil or flax oil, but for those (like me) who aren’t to 6 months (or even 6 weeks) yet, there’s no need to wait. The EPA/DHA can help support the dopamine levels and ward off depression, so I was all over that and dropped my $45 for a bottle of fish oil capsules straight away after class. (As I would have spent that with just two nights of drinking before, I really can’t complain.)

So… this is a fun time! In addition to having to confront random difficult memories that seem to be coming out of nowhere like fruit flies in summertime, and beginning to look at stuff in my past that I have skillfully avoided thinking about by drinking, I’m in the middle of “The Valley of Emotion,” which feels flat and like I just need pleasure. Good times.

I know this will pass. I know there is no way around this but to slog through it. Thank god I know it and that I have the support of my group this time, because I probably would have had a drink by now to relieve this discomfort. To just feel good. It isn’t awesome. But one day after another and I’ll keep on slogging through.

I’m still holding out for the miracles. 🙂

I will say I found some new erotica that has been poking my dopamine receptors (pun intended) in fun(ny) way (the writing is so so bad), and I’ve been making a dent in the fresh watermelon supplies at the local market. Yummy and virtually free of diet concerns! (No one ever got fat from eating too much watermelon.) Talk about double your pleasure!

But in nine days I’ll be in uncharted territory for me, and while I have no doubt I’ll make it, the healthy coping, body fluxes and emotional unearthing of messy stuff is new. Yeah, I’m still impatient, and yeah, I feel a bit lonely and alone (nothing like quitting drinking for an existential tango), but there’s little I can do about it. Except, apparently, exercise.

And I do look forward to those days after the 2-month mark when my dopamine receptors start to feel even a little bit of euphoria again.

In the meantime, walks with my dog, watermelon and campy erotica will help. 😉


Day 25.

p.s., I’ve been looking at the last year or more and how little time I’ve spent out with friends. Some of it has been because I just only have so much mental energy to spend right now, and much of it has gone to the intense study of what is going on with me, what my relationship with alcohol is, and how it’s been impacting my life. After that, I work and spend as much time as possible with my dog. There just hasn’t been a lot of time to sustain a social life. I’ve tried, but I’ve definitely noticed a shift. I know it’s not forever and my challenge is to not take any of it personally until I am ready to begin rebuilding — and understanding that my circle of friends may look very different when I come out on the other side.

We’ll see.

14 thoughts on “The Science: Unpickling My Brain

  1. Hi, Rachel. Super informative post! Did not know that about the fish oil but I have some so I’ll eat that too! This is a good way navigate your early sobriety, a bit like a map: here’s what happening, here’s what to expect. I’ll add one more thing: once you get about 6 months to a year in there is one more thing to expect: you will meet yourself without alcohol and you may not know exactly who you are or what you like. This is okay. Because you’ll rediscover non-drinking you over and over. I’m happy for you and really jazzed you returned for another round.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love this post Rachel, especially because I am at the 4 1/2 month stage and have been frustrated by the lack of brain functioning improvement. Now I know it doesn’t really kick in until month six! Thanks for doing the research for me. ; )

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rachel,
    I frequently follow your blog and have been so happy to see that you are back on track! You have so much to look forward to. I enjoyed reading about the timeline breakdown. The best part for me has been waking up every single morning with energy, no headache and no regret or wondering what happened the night before. Even at 19 months sober here, I still have days (today especially) where I throw myself a pity party as I sit in company with others drinking, but am always so grateful when I go to bed that I did not let down my husband, daughter, dog or, most importantly, myself! I wish you the best and look forward to more updates.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for the helpful info! I had not heard that kind of information in that way before.

    I commented a few weeks ago that I was inspired that you had joined the intensive group – I honestly had not considered something like that for myself before. But after your post, I realized, hey, I can do that too! And I feel just like you said – what I’m doing is just not enough. Its been a little over a year for me now too.

    So I signed up for an evaluation this week for an outpatient program, it sounds like it may be similar to your program, this one is 4 days a week for 2 months. I’ll find out more at the eval. I’m actually really looking forward to it and feel like some structure and accountability are exactly what I need to get started down the right path, and really doing the work that I THOUGHT I had been doing this past year. I’ve made progress for sure but I need more.

    So, thank you for sharing your journey. I just wanted you to know that you made a difference in someone else’s life – I think it would have taken me much longer to get to this point otherwise. I feel a lot of hope that I was starting to completely lose sight of with the endless string of day 1s.

    I hope to eventually update my own blog again too 🙂

    Keep up the good work and congrats on 25 days!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi Rachel!
    I am so glad you are taking this class!
    It sounds awesome!
    It seems to me, my brain is still getting better!
    I am way less foggy than I was in the beginning of sobriety.
    You will learn what is important to you, and then you will find friends who support that.
    I have some of my old friends, and new ones.
    I don’t go out as much, but I am not single which makes a difference.
    Big Hugs!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Really like your breakdown, Rachel. Thank you for sharing. Looking back it’s so fascinating to compare science to lived experience, and with so many of your markers, I kept saying, ‘Yup! That was me alright.’ I am really inspired by your definitive action of taking this intensive. Even on the muddy/murky days, you can know that you are one awesome woman. -HM.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awe, thanks, HM. Means a lot. I was getting a little scared at my inability to just make it stick on my own. Turns out I really needed the in-person support and accountability (and AA wasn’t my thing). I’m a little scared for what happens when the 2-month intensive is over and we go to 1x a week, because that Harpy is a bitch on wheels, but I’m trying to stay centered on the “Bigger Yes” (as Laura McKowen would say) and find new inspiration every single day.

      Because apparently my drinker’s brain also has the 2-minute memory of a rainbow trout. 🙂 xoxo


      • Hey HM!
        Things are going well. Day 46 here today — further than I’ve even come — and I’m feeling good. A bit blah still, but starting to look around a little bit and see what might be possible. It feels good, and a little strange to be finding myself thinking that with Day 50 just around the corner, this doesn’t feel like very long at all. Thanks for checking in, my dear. 🙂 I’ll update my blog today.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You’re doing awesome! So glad to hear from you.* The blahs, I hear, are pretty normal after the first wave of Happy. I know I went through it for several weeks. You have a great bunch of time under your belt, and looking forward to 50 will give you lots of good extra energy. I’m cheering you on from here.* Looking forward to an update (I just wrote one today, too! *smile*). -HM.

        Liked by 1 person

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