To understand the brain and how it works in addiction and recovery, take a walk in the woods. You’ll probably walk on a path. It’s easier that way. Others have gone before and cleared a way for you. It takes you somewhere. It might even be marked.
Consider what makes a path. It starts off with small animals gathering nuts, seeking mates, escaping danger. They begin to wear out a trail that the larger animals take advantage of because it makes their travel easier. The deer and the bear begin to travel the same way that the squirrels and raccoons went. Then the humans take the same path because they’re chasing the deer or running away from the bear and they’d rather not have briars lashing their faces.
Plants will not grow on an established path. All those briars, they’ll grow somewhere else where they won’t be disturbed. The more a path is established, the forest will be dense and impenetrable, but there will be a clear trail, free of obstructions.
The brain is like the woods. When it solves a problem, it takes a path. When it takes a path often enough, when it solves a particular problem a particular way, the path becomes well marked and easy to follow. It becomes automatic. You don’t even have to think about it. Other solutions, the ones that aren’t tried, become more and more difficult to access.
If you look at anyone with a well-established addiction, their brain is like a superhighway straight to the drug. Are you having a good day? Let’s celebrate and get high. Are you angry, sad, frustrated? Getting high is the cure. Did your doctor just tell you your liver’s shot? Did your probation officer put you in jail? Your wife just left? Your daughter won’t talk with you? Get high, get high, get high. The more the addict goes to the drug, the clearer and easier the path becomes.
At some point, the addict decides that the path she made does not take her where she wants to go. Then she has to make like Lewis and Clark and blaze a new trail. Recovery involves stepping outside the easy trail, right into where all the briars are, and hack a new way. Recovery is like bushwhacking. It’s hard work, it’s easy to get lost, and it’s tempting to return to the old trail.
The thing is, though: the brain is like the woods. When it solves a problem, it takes a path. When it takes a path often enough, when it solves a particular problem a particular way, other than getting high, that path becomes well marked and easier to follow. In time, the old path becomes overgrown and more difficult to find.