“Why can't they just stop?” is the exasperated plea exhaled by family members sitting in front of me and looking at their addicted loved one in the chair next to them. The loved one is looking at the floor and glances at me, wondering the same thing. Failed attempts and unmet expectations have led to what the Big Book so aptly calls “incomprehensible demoralization“ in the addict, and hopeless exasperation in the family.
Really, though, “Why can't they stop?” is the wrong question to ask. Mark Twain said, “It’s easy to quit drinking, I’ve done it a thousand times.” This statement better mirrors what is happening. Most addicts and alcoholics quickly relate to the large number of times they have pronounced “I quit!” and meant it with every fiber of their being. There have been occasions where they did actually stop—for a while. Well-known recovery speaker Sandy Beach proclaims, “Stopping is not the hard part, it's the darn starting that is killing us!”
This describes the automatic pathways that addiction carves into one's brain circuits. These pathways are the result of co-opted normal brain physiology and its resulting drives. The disease of addiction is not the inability to stop using or drinking. It is the behavioral and chemical processes that make it seemingly impossible to stay stopped.
From birth, the brain is learning and reacting to the myriad of stimuli being processed during every second of life, and all of this information is attended to in a hierarchy of importance. This order of importance is determined by the relationship to staying alive and reproducing. The more important the information is to biological life, the more automatic it becomes in our brain. Foremost in this lineup are automatic items such as blood flowing or breathing, which sustain us.
Once these needs are met, other “less important” needs can be addressed. Things such as safety, food, water, reproduction and temperature are biologically less important than breathing, for example. Though some of these are extremely important to life, we have to learn them. They are not part of our initial automatic programming. Our brain has the ability to take the things we learn that are of utmost importance to survival and place them in an automatic place to make sure they happen. For example, we remember that water relieves thirst or sunshine warms us in automatic places in our brain because they are vital to survival. We do not rely on conscious thinking to have a compulsion for water when we are dehydrated because we have learned about water, and it is automatically desired.
Other more conscious behaviors may be less critical for survival, but they too can become automatic. Learned activities such as walking, bouncing a ball or making chords on a guitar can become automatic. This frees up the consciousness to think about other things while they are being done. We can drive a car and make three turns while adjusting the radio because of this ability.