The journey from active addiction into recovery is based on the concept of remapping and rewiring our brains. It requires us to unlearn old habits and begin learning new ones. Neuroplasticity is the brains ability to continuously change throughout a person’s lifetime. It provides the opportunity we need to grow and change. The opportunity to adjust our behaviors and habits as we navigate through life. And while this is possible for everyone, rewriting our brains takes time, concentration, and a lot of effort.
The Backwards Bicycle
A great example of this is shown by an engineer named Destin Sandlin. Dustin was given a bike as a gift from a fellow engineer. Well, actually a trick. This particular bike was anything but ordinary. In fact, It was put together backwards. When the steering was turned left, the wheels turned right and when the steering was turned right, the wheels turned left. Like most of us, Sandlin learned how to ride a bike when he was a child. For years and years he rode bikes the normal way. And when he was confronted with the challenge of riding the backwards bike, he thought it would be quick and easy. But he was wrong. It took him 8 long months to re-wire his brain into understanding the backwards bike. 8 months of his life to successfully ride the backwards bike without falling or crashing. 8 months- but he did it.
When the time came to put the backwards bike away, he again thought it would be easy and simple to move back to his regular bike… Wrong again. He then found that switching back to a regular bike took time and effort to relearn. This is because he had successfully remapped his brain when it came to the concept of “bike-riding”. Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that there is a difference between simply having knowledge and truly understanding it. My point here is that remapping and rewiring our brains is a journey all on its own. It takes effort, motivation, dedication, and patience. Unlearning how to do something we’ve been doing our whole lives does not come easily… But it does come if you want it to.
But I’ve tried and tried to get clean…
For those of you who have tried time and time again to get and stay clean, don’t lose hope. It takes considerable focus, time, and effort to show our brains that we don’t need to use those pathways anymore. And if you’re willing to put the time, effort, and focus into it, your chances of change are great. But like everything else, to learn something takes repeated practice and to understand it, takes even more. Every time you act differently, you begin to make a new trail in your forest. And the more you use it, the easier it becomes to remember. Eventually, you will use it so much that you’ll take it without even thinking. Eventually, you will again understand where to go without having to read the map.
This example shows us that we can then apply this principle to other areas of our lives, even our addiction. Think about it this way… If your brain was a forest and you were walking through it, you would need to make trails to remember where you’re going. So you begin routing these trails with each decision you make. And every time you walk down the same trail it becomes more easily seen and remembered. You actually walk down the trail so often, that you’ve forgotten how to make a new one. You walk down it so often, that you remember it vividly without having to think about it. You walk down it so often, you now understand where to go without having to read the map. During our addiction, we’ve cleared out so many unhealthy trails and walked down each of them so many times that we don’t even think about it anymore. Even when it hurts us.
But the trails we’ve created do not work in our recovery. We have no use for the “Lying Trail” the “Manipulation Trail” or the “Numbing Trail”. We no longer need the “Isolation Trail” the “Self-Hatred Trail” or the “Using Trail”. So we must set out on a course of rewiring and relearning. The longer we’ve been using these same brain pathways the harder it is for us to unlearn them. This is why one of the top deciding factors of whether or not someone becomes an addict is the age of their first use. Those of us that started at such young ages have been using these unhealthy pathways since our teenage years (maybe even before that). And now that we are adults and in recovery, we have to dedicate time and energy into unlearning our unhealthy “trails” and creating new ones. There is more than one way to reach a destination.
Finding Your Way
Recovery is all about creating new trails and demolishing old ones. Getting rid of the habits and behaviors that keep us stuck in active addiction. When I struggled with heroin addiction, my brain was wired to always get more heroin.
Just like the backwards bike, once you have remapped your brain, it takes a considerable amount of effort to undo what you’ve mapped. It works both ways. Going back out becomes a choice instead of a compulsion. No matter how long you’ve been using, change is always possible, even when it doesn’t feel like it. And once you’ve created a new way to live you’ll look back and see that your old trails never truly lead you to where you wanted to go. So the next time you’re lost in the forest, facing a trail you made decades ago, remember that there are many ways to reach your destination. Start by mapping a new one, and you’ll find your way back. You’ll find your way to happiness.