Placebo Your Habits

I love the freedom of recovery, but I’m tired of hearing “CLEAN” or “DIRTY” in our community. When I hear of a relapse, I don’t think “dirty.” I ask, “What happened that felt like a breaking point?”

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating your “clean/sober/freedom” date. That’s awesome! If you’re abstinent from everything mood-altering, I’m beyond impressed.

(Spoiler alert: even if you think you are, you’re not.)

(Spoiler alert #2: you’re human.)

Our brains are hoarders when it comes to habits. That blue Basal Ganglia (BG) is always watching for patterns and rewards (according to my very cursory reading of “The Power of Habit” – clearly this isn’t an anatomy class.)

Ol’ “BG” is huddled in the middle of your noggin making sure you don’t forget how to flush a toilet after a long camping trip. You need to understand that his focus is impeccable. If you try to tell him that he’s developing a negative pattern, he won’t even glance up when he mutters dismissively, “not my department.”


He is a heartless numbers guy. Basically he’s watching your every move and putting marks into his notebook. If you do something often, he logs it as “Habit Pattern” and never stops to evaluate if it is a “Good” or “Bad” habit.

I wanted to share this because it simplified a lot of things for me. I know I can pass a drug test. I don’t crave opiates anymore. That’s a monumental improvement compared to the time I was willing to smash a window and steal my dad’s wallet for a gram of heroin.

The problem is that I realize now how many other changes need to be made. If I’m “clean” from drugs, that doesn’t “cure” my brain… just clears it. Recovery from drugs won’t make good habits more appealing. Vegetables don’t taste better. Exercise isn’t easier. Hulu isn’t less distracting. Kombucha doesn’t stop being carbonated mushroom juice.

I feel good today. I went through hell to transition from “hopeless addict” to “Former Drug Enthusiast.” I can spend today living THEN, or I can be proud and occasionally dust my “clean” trophy as a reminder.

Granted, if NOT doing heroin still required all of my focus, I’d treat every day without a needle as an epic triumph. However, if I’ve turned that corner and discovered a new series of obstacles, I’m squandering growth by not putting that “I Quit Drugs” card back in the deck.

I can’t treat “BG” as the enemy for doing his job. He does it well. We are fine with tricking toddler’s into eating broccoli by pretending it’s an airplane. We should be fine with tricking “BG” by doing 25 push-ups between each episode of “Rick and Morty.”

Overcoming drug addiction wasn’t easy but it allowed me to stop being a spectator of my own life.

I can smile about that accomplishment while I shake my head at how much work I still need. I’m 35 and just realized I took the time to wash and return a plastic knife to the silverware drawer.

The hardest thing to accept about what “BG” is doing inside my brain is how infuriatingly slow he is. He’s not going to rip all the pages from the “Hit Snooze Button” notebook and glue them into the “Went to the Gym” notebook.

Even without having a cheat code, I can still placebo myself into better habits with his help. After a month of telling myself that water is the answer to RedBull cravings and apple slices in peanut butter are the cure for midnight gummy-bear-runs to 7-11… I’m 15 pounds lighter and don’t get headaches nearly as often. After countless failed attempts, I now treat nicotine like heroin and “pay” myself daily the money I used to spend on said vice.

Here’s to you, “BG.” [Plugs nose for another swig of “multi-green” health water.] You are consistent… even when we’re not.


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