The Hidden Cost of Substance Use

 

A Report By CKWallace

 

 

Have you ever been afraid? I mean, really afraid. I know I have.

 

Once a tow vehicle swerved around a truck passing beside me on the left, pulled into my lane at full highway speed and locked the brakes up. I was driving 12 passengers in a van and had to brake the hardest I could. The passengers lurched forward like soup in a bowl, making the van move forward despite my attempts to stop it. With a Freightliner to my left and a stranded car on the shoulder to my right, I had no way of steering to escape. My perception of time slowed to a frame by frame pace as we both skidded for a couple of car lengths within inches of each other before the tow truck pulled over aggressively, presumably to return to the stranded car we’d passed.

 

I had to stop to gather myself and reassure my passengers. I remember it took some time to stop shaking. I noticed there was a layer of perspiration that was cooling on my skin. I felt cold and clammy, weak-kneed and anxious. My thoughts were a jumble of confusion and anger, with a very slow gratitude re-emerging eventually, as if from a fog.

 

After a few minutes, I limped along the highway below speed, subdued silence enveloping my fellow travelers as I drove. I was left wondering if my brakes would now fall apart at any minute. My heart still pounded.

 

I’ve been scared at other times too: many, many times.

 

On a double date long ago, I went to a movie theater to watch the first run of Halloween. Sitting at my dining room table afterward having a beer with my guests, I looked out the window into the darkness of the night and saw things that weren’t there. My friend Harry laughed as he reassured me, but I knew if I were honest with myself, I was frightened for real. I’ve long since given up watching horror of any kind; the nightmares aren’t worth the price of admission.

 

Or the first time my young son discovered the neat trick of hiding in the center of a full clothing rack while his mother shopped at the mall. He thought it was great fun not to answer our repeated calls while seconds ticked by and my imagination progressively ran amok. I ran around the store calling for him in increasing desperation, then into the mall itself looking frantically up and down for a glimpse of an image of someone walking away with my innocent little boy. How do you deal with that kind of fear? Do you scold the kid? Or do you hug him with wet tears forming in your eyes? I’ve done both.

 

 

That top-drop on any roller coaster for example. What used to thrill me now makes me question my sanity; my thinking permeated with a new honesty as I realize it’s not that fun anymore. I don’t need that scare.

 

Think of a time you were noticeably afraid. When you felt fear, perhaps stimulated by a good horror flick; or after a near-miss accident; or a sudden startle in the dark. It matters little, put yourself there now.

 

You will remember how it caused your heart rate to rise to a pounding level in your chest; how your breathing became halted and difficult, or shortened and quick; how it’s likely you also felt a flush of heat over your face and body; a thin layer of sweat left to cool noticeably on your skin after the threat passed; or how your mind raced erratically to find the source of danger and ways to escape.

 

Once fear subsided, whether it was that we realized our mind had played an optical trick on us in the night; or that we rationalized our fear by reclaiming suspended disbelief during a horror flick; or that the physical danger to our being was now gone, it allowed a return to normal. Depending on the degree of physical effect and our interpretation, it could take moments – or it could take much longer.

 

Our body, and that includes our mind, is in perfect balance with itself at rest. You can call it homeostasis if you like; all systems seem to have a natural baseline level where they operate best. Our physical being is forever returning to this point after meeting the challenges of daily life.

 

Fear dumps cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream to temporarily activate the 4Fs – freeze, fight, flight or feint – as lifesaving measures. And it occurs milliseconds before we can employ our thinking to mitigate its effect. It’s an evolutionary survival adaptation.

 

Amongst other things, adrenaline will increase our heart rate and blood pressure, all the while temporarily boosting energy. Cortisol affects mood, motivation and a host of other physical processes. It increases sugars in the blood and slows digestion, growth and sexual response. Try getting it up when scared; it can be disappointing.

 

We also know that people can carry fear over into daily life for days on end. We call it stress: the body doesn’t return to homeostasis for long periods of time. This can cause a whole host of physical and mental ailments from weight gain to sleep problems to digestive issues to anxiety and depression, to say nothing of impaired sexual function.

 

While my reaction to the thought of my child being abducted, or the near miss on the highway, are understandable, the way I no longer can enjoy a simple roller coaster ride or horror flick is telling.

 

*******

 

The first thing we’d do after arriving at The Mynt nightclub in downtown Calgary, often by stretch limo sent by the bar, and after by-passing the line up and entering through the red velvet roped VIP area, was head for drinks. We’d be greeted like we were old friends, only with exaggerated smiles and phony interest.

 

The bartender would begin lining up glasses in a row on the bar as soon as he saw us. Curious patrons watched, amused or annoyed, probably wondering who these idiots are that have come crashing in to shoulder their way into the centre of attention.

 

Like all dance bars of my era, through four decades of hotels, discos, and clubs, the music and atmosphere was always the same – meant to give the impression like this was the last night in the universe and time to celebrate like there was no tomorrow.

With a shot of liqueur teetering on the edges of each two glasses in the line, sparkling and half filled with amber liquid, like an alcoholic train waiting to depart, we’d find a pretty girl to knock the first shot glass over into it’s whiskey glass with a nudge. Each shot of Jaeger would clink against the next one, creating a tinkling domino of dropping shot glasses that would make the Red Bull fizz and bubble. It was a lame spectacle we thought gave us status as we drank it up in front everyone, handing out freebies to the girls around the bar.

 

By that time of my life, I was more a tequila type; my long favoured whisky and scotch now gave me inexplicable heartburn. Somehow, tequila was the only booze I could repeatedly tolerate in shots. Tequila and a beer chaser were my choice drinks as I hit middle age. Lucky me.

 

On and off I’d had variations of this experience since my teens when out with friends and acquaintances. Sometimes I went years without touching a drop of alcohol, other times I drank habitually almost every night. I was sometimes a teetotaler, or I was Joe Six-Pack.

 

But whenever we gathered in a group, I was a binge-drinker par excellence. In my forties, at The Mynt, I preferred to stand at the bar. I’d also finally learned to dance after a lifetime of avoiding it, allowing myself to stray from the safety of my spot to turn a gal or two on the floor. Then I’d do a premium tequila shot and drink a beer at my return.

 

******

 

It’s widely known that the effects we feel when we use alcohol or drugs are in reality just the body trying to rid itself of the chemical interloper. That includes any mood-altering chemical, prescribed or otherwise.

 

To that end, for most substances, our heart rate goes up concomitantly with our blood pressure. Breathing rate increases as we exhale alcohol molecules; so does perspiration to shed alcohol faster through our pores. Urination becomes more frequent as the body dumps more liquid to restore itself to its previous natural state.

 

With alcohol, those processes are barely hidden behind the temporary euphoria that we feel. As the night wears on, and the drinking continues, a greater strain is placed on the body’s ability to manage the poison. While we are off seemingly having a good time, our body is crying out in distress for relief from its compromised equilibrium.

 

And of course, the physical effects continue into the next day, compounded by dehydration, fuzzy thinking, and a sense of malaise. It was that sense of malaise that finally clued me into what was happening.

 

The after-effects of my drinking left me with a fear response just as surely as if I’d seen a ghost. The day after drinking even just a half-dozen beers, I’d rarely attempt to be daring or do anything challenging that took courage. The combined physical symptoms of higher blood pressure, heart rate, and perspiration rate, with shaky hands and agitated thinking accompanied by a low level anxiety, were evidence too obvious to call it anything but what it was: fear.

 

Could it be that prolonged periods of low-level fear in my lifetime had left me with a heightened sensitivity to fear in general? Seems likely.

 

******

I’d always prided myself as somewhat fearless, as a guy who goes his own way, unafraid to take a different road from everyone else. Over the years I could call upon what I thought was a high level of confidence. And yet, it was this confidence, a trait I had nurtured carefully, whose effect on my life was as powerful as it was sweet, that was slipping away from me like a watery sand bank under stormy waves.

 

“All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses” said Friedrich Nietzsche.

 

We rely on our senses to provide us with reasonably accurate information about our surroundings. And not just taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing, but also the sense of our position of the body, our sense of perception of the outside world and our sense of pain and hunger (proprioception, exteroception and interoception for the interested), all of these permit our brain to tabulate and effectively react to our environment; moreover, all are affected by alcohol and drug use.

 

If the brain cannot reliably discern a practical reality from these senses, I’d contend that confidence is the first casualty. When you can longer trust your sensory experience because of impairment, there has to be a corresponding decrease in your sense of confidence about managing your world. It’s unavoidable.

 

Love and gratitude might work as antidotes to fear; I say confidence is its key opposite.

 

Confidence is gained through the practice of an infinite number of small steps of improved mastery over time. Some are large and uncertain challenges met head on; others are won from failures that provide valuable lessons; still others come from tiny victories in facets of our lives that add to a meaningful whole over a length of experience.

 

However derived, confidence is one of our greatest assets. I’ve heard it put as “that feeling that allows thoughts to become actions”. That’s a profound contention. If we lack a way to act decisively upon our dreams and wishes, to meet our hopes and our desires, to connect our thinking to our behaviour, existence falters at the level of our failed potential.

 

And what does that say about commitment? What kind of inner stance does that give us? Motivation derives from emotion. The fear response from alcohol and drug use traps us into a cycle of low confidence and an impaired motivational system. It’s easy to understand how further use in those circumstances becomes adaptive in the moment. It’s a skill – meant to meet short-term needs being expressed by the accumulated damage from the memory of previous use.

 

We adapt to our using mood-altering substances quickly and powerfully because of the way the basic brain uses the striatum, in league with the slightly higher order infralimbic cortex, in habituation. We chunk behaviours into groupings to free up processing power for other things. As well, the immediacy of reward offered by the effects of drugs and alcohol readily lends itself to deep classical conditioning.

 

It’s why a drinker can quit for a few years and find himself shit-faced his first night back out there. Or even how a junkie or coke user quickly returns to their previous level of use. How many smokers do the same? A couple of social smokes and often they’re back at a pack a day. We do it again because we have done it before.

 

Awareness seems to be able to thwart this automaticity. We are in charge, after all, but only if we’re paying attention.

 

 

But what if we knew all this? What if the next time we had a few beers we noticed how the alcohol affected us? What if we watched to see as our heart rate went up? Or became aware of how we felt warm and flushed as our blood pressure rose?

 

What if we remembered that our body was now dumping extra sugar into our system that would result in craving fast-acting carbs later as we needed more fuel to deal with the extra autonomic stress on our system? That our brain was less than two percent of our body but consumed more than 20% of its energy, a condition multiplied when in fear. Would we think of it at 3 am while stuffing ourselves with pizza obtained from a sidewalk vendor? Hepatitis A risk be damned.

 

What if we figured out that as sensory inputs are compromised, by smoking dope or drinking, our confidence has to inevitably decrease, that there is a real price to pay far beyond just physical recovery?

 

Does that change anything?

What if we realized that all of those tiny behavioural gains we had fought hard to win; the mental mastery we sought in areas of our lives; was being eroded with every drink beyond a reasonable level? After all, the liver can handle a drink an hour. What if we knew our lower order brain was conspiring to return us to the last great drunk we had?

 

It’s not my business to tell others how to drink, or to not smoke dope for that matter. I don’t give that kind of advice; to each their own.

 

But I note this:

“A man’s mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions” said Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

 

Resist as I might the powerful truth found in these words, they are inescapable. They are just as true for me as they are for you.

 

Some people quit outright. Others, like me, will use this information to make better decisions while avoiding labels that don’t feel real. But like the quote suggests: it’s impossible to deny the very personal consequences of drug and alcohol use over time on our confidence and motivation. Both are qualities that speak to how well we operate; indeed, they are at the very crux of a life well-lived.

 

We simply have to make good decisions for ourselves; no one else is there to make them for us. People are too busy trying to survive in their own worlds to try and manage mine too. When it comes to personal management, we are alone in the wilds; no one is coming to rescue us; we must get out on our own.

 

Failure to consider these things is why a dope smoker or drinker can allow ten years to go by, only to find that they did not, in fact, experience ten years; they experienced one year… ten times.

 

That’s worth thinking about for a moment.

 

Some might use a counter-intuitive device, like the smokers sometimes do, by having a mostly empty pack of smokes, one cigarette still in it, hidden in their freezer. We might keep a bottle of booze in the cupboard at home, or a tin of pot stashed somewhere, because all of these things are everywhere nowadays anyway. Some prefer to not be around it at all because the pull of the habit is still too strong.

 

Others choose to gain control of their substance use by being acutely aware of its effects on their health and their emotional wellbeing. We’re not discussing other risks to self that are associated with drinking and drug use, and there are many. No, the notion of unavoidably losing our confidence and our motivation is revealing enough.

 

What’s more important is the commitment we make to live an examined life. By making personal distinctions about drug and alcohol use based on intelligent insight, and informed personal consent, we may find that our choices are more satisfying, fitting better into our longer-term view of whom we choose to be.

 

After all, life gets better when we get better at life. That’s confidence.

 

Christopher K Wallace                                          2014 all rights reserved.