One of the shortcomings of mind- and mood-altering substances is that they always wear off. But the effects don’t just subside, returning one to the baseline state they were in prior to seeking chemical refuge. One of the inexorable dynamics of dope in any form—whether from the street like crack, prescribed by a doctor like painkillers, or bought at a store like alcohol—is that the relief it provides is all-too-soon replaced by a worsening of the state one was in when the substance was ingested. The brain adapts to repetitive experiences by forming memory connections or tracks that are unconscious. When such repetitive experiences revolve around using, the unconscious memory tracks that are laid are the neurological foundation of the “habits” of addiction. Such habits can be so difficult to control because they are created by changes in brain functioning and work in the brain’s operating system—outside of conscious awareness. The intense cravings that addicts experience for their substance or activity of preference, sometimes long after they last used, are an example of the strength of these memory tracks. The progression of active addiction is a lot like pushing a wheelbarrow in a rut. The more the wheelbarrow is pushed in the rut through time and repetition, the more well-established that rut becomes. The more well-established and deeper the rut becomes, the harder it is to get the wheelbarrow out. There comes a tipping point where it becomes much harder to get the wheelbarrow out of the rut than to continue to follow it, which only makes it deeper still. Positive reinforcement—the desired outcome that results from using—for example, feeling “good” or “better,” is one form of this process. Each time using results in the desired outcome, the memory tracks that link the object(s) of addiction with that result become stronger. Positive reinforcement teaches people to repeat the same behaviors in order to get the same results. The more the process is repeated, the greater the chances are that it will continue to be repeated. Conditioning is another example of such neuroadaptation. Certain emotional states and situations, including specific people and places, become connected with the experience of using and can light the fire of obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, and self-centered tunnel vision linked to using. As a result, coming into contact with the emotional states or people and places associated with using increases the odds that someone will use. The brain connects emotion, memory, and sensory stimuli, linking experiences perceived as “positive” with specific images, sounds, smells, and textures, coding them as omens of comfort and reward. These unconscious learned responses are strong enough that they remain operative even after years of abstinence. As a result, their memory tracks tend to pull people back toward the experiences and behaviors with which they are familiar and comfortable, making it more difficult to stop such behaviors and stay stopped. Like petroglyphs etched in rock formations that are clearly visible hundreds of years later, the rhapsodic recollections of early drug use are engraved deep within the midbrain—beckoning sweetly and seductively. This blog post is an excerpt from Some Assembly Required – A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain by By Dan Mager, MSW; Published by Central Recovery Press (CRP).