Think back to the last time you heard a Really Loud Noise.
Was the Really Loud Noise a truck backfiring? How far is the nearest road? Could a sound have traveled that distance? Is it the Fourth of July? New Year's Eve? Could the Really Loud Noise have been a fire cracker? Was the Really Loud Noise a gun shot? Where are the children? Are they indoors? Are the children safe?
All these thoughts--trucks, holidays, fireworks, guns, children--went through your head in a split second. But split that split second into many parts and here's what happened way before all those thoughts sprinted through your awareness: your body reacted. Before you had started to analyze what the Really Loud Noise was or whether or not the Really Loud Noise actually represented danger, you were startled; your heart rate went up; your senses were heightened, you started to breathe faster.
In other words, there is a part of your brain than responds before language. There is a part of your brain that responds before awareness.
Which shouldn't be too surprising. There are all kinds of processes going on that aren't processed. Run around a track and your body responds beautifully. There are systems in place that allow you to run fast, but not too fast. You are unlikely to be able to force yourself to run so fast that you die. And let's not even talk about all the swallowing, spitting, blinking, and sneezing that goes on without your being aware. Your neocortex, the "thinking part" of your brain is what separates you from your less evolved ancestors, but your neocortex isn't the whole show. Your limbic system, your "reptile brain," shows up for work every day also.
Which brings us--"finally" you might say--to the topic this week, addictions great and small.
Samantha is doing beautifully on her diet. Over the course of six months she has lost 26 pounds, exercising five days a week and eating sensible meals. Her sense of herself is at an all time high. She is wearing new outfits and meeting new men.
Yet on a Thursday night instead of going to bed At 10 o'clock so that she can wake up early the next morning to get to the gym, she somehow finds herself in the car heading to Farm Stores to devour a half gallon of chocolate chip ice cream.
Ray brings the crops into town, crops that he and his three sons have labored in the Alabama sun for months to produce. With enough money in his pocket to pay the mortgage and support his family through the winter, Ray goes into a bar "for one quick drink" before driving the team back home.
Two days later, Ray emerges back into the sunshine, wondering what happened to the previous 48 hours and all the money. He has no recollection of having had all those subsequent drinks nor of having any fun. As a result of his poor judgment, his family loses the farm. Ray's children and grandchildren have to work on land owned by other people.
Haley has kicked her reliance on cocaine and been clean for a full year. She is scheduled to appear in court tomorrow where a thoughtful judge will undoubtedly expunge the charges against her and allow her to regain custody of her children who have been in foster care for a year. All Haley has to do is remain sober for one more day to get her life back on track. Needless to say, Haley chooses that day to relapse. As a result, she is incarcerated. She never sees her children again.
Mickey has an undergraduate degree in mathematics and has worked professionally as an accountant for 20 years. He advises his clients about risk and reward and counsels them about long term investment strategies. Yet for all his knowledge, he goes twice a year to Las Vegas where he plays slot machines and blows every dollar he has earned in the previous six months. At almost 50 years of age, he has no savings for retirement. His children will not be able to afford to attend college. After threatening to do so repeatedly over the years, his wife has finally left him.
How could anyone be so stupid? How could any rational person use such poor judgment, engage in such self-destructive behavior, act without any regard to future consequences? Samantha's blown diet, Ray's drunken binge, Haley's ruined recovery, Mickey's degrading obsession--what are these people thinking?
The answer is in the question. These decisions aren't rational. These decisions are driven by a part of the brain that is, by definition, not rational.
Before you judge an addict, before you deride the stupid decisions, before you throw up your hands in disgust, before you throw a stone, ask yourself if you have ever known craving, if you have ever taken a step in the shoes of someone who has.
Or as Eric Clapton said, "Before you accuse me, take a look at your self."
Craving--the kind of craving that only be described to non-addicts through the metaphor of "hunger"--lives at a level below reason, below consciousness. Telling addicts to use their higher order cognitive abilities to think about the future consequences of their behaviors is like telling yourself not to be startled next time you hear a Really Loud Noise.