Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: optimism

NIDA Director Nora Volkow: Please Scan My Brain

Dr. Nora Volkow, with her brain scans.

It was announced yesterday that Nora Volkow, M.D. was given this year’s Joan and Stanford Alexander Award in Psychiatry by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.


The Medscape story talks about how Volkow got interested in studying addicts: she has a family history of addiction on her maternal side. She said,

On my mother’s side of the family there is a history of alcoholism. My uncle was an alcoholic. He was an extraordinary person, but when he was intoxicated his behavior was so profoundly disrupted, and I wanted to understand that. So I had that scientific curiosity about the brain, and then I had this person I loved very much, so I wanted to figure out how to help someone overcome the overpowering drive to drink alcohol. That’s why I ended up in the whole area of drug addiction.

Her comments make me think of the “profoundly disrupted” behavior of my grandfather, who scared the shit out of his kids (my mother and her brother) when he got drunk, throwing glass against the wall and grabbing the rifle from the pantry, where he kept it loaded. I think of the many alcoholics on my dad’s side (including my dad himself). After my dad died of his alcoholism, I learned that his mother was prone to drinking cheap whisky till she sat at the kitchen table, unable or unwilling to speak. My Grandma, a catatonic alcoholic.

Volkow’s work is pioneering in that she established with scientific evidence that addiction is a “disease of the brain” and that drugs (of which alcohol is one) change brain chemistry and functioning in ways that lead to drug-taking that is compulsive despite harm—the clinical definition of addiction. Twelve-step programs had been calling addiction and alcoholism a “disease” for a long time, and Volkow has PET scans of active addicts’ brains to back up this assertion. But because of the emphasis on the “medical” evidence for the disease of addiction, the resulting emphasis in treatment has been “medical”—that is, developing and/or studying drug approaches to arrest drug addiction.

Dear Dr. Volkow, if I could speak with you, what I’d want to ask is this: Now that you’ve studied the brain chemistry of addicts inside their disease, have you thought about scanning the brains of addicts who have found recovery from this disease—people who have been sober for a while? What brain-changes might you find?

Please study people in recovery. I’ll be first in line. And I’ve got lots of friends who have lots of sober-time. Shoot me an email: Guinevere (at) guineveregetssober (dot) com.


The God Thing: How God Changes Your Brain.

I am acting like an addict and eating through the rest of the sugar in the house. I know this is what I’m doing; it feels the way it felt eating through the rest of the drugs I had before I went into detox two years ago. I know I need to change my behavior because I’ve come to this awareness in sitting meditation.

Lots of people say they can’t meditate—they can’t sit still; they can’t keep their bodies from fidgeting; they can’t quiet their minds. Most of all, they say they don’t know how.

There are so many instruction books and CDs out there. I should post a list sometime. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s are great. He’s on iTunes and other places.

How God Changes Your BrainI’ve been sitting each day for about 15 minutes since late July. It began as an experiment: I wanted to try what Andrew Newberg M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman suggested in their book, How God Changes Your Brain. They say that just 12 minutes of meditation practiced daily for eight weeks can reduce stress and “anxiety” (fear) and also slow the aging process.

And “God” can, in their estimation, constitute any force of your choice outside of yourself: but it has to be positive and loving. Their studies show that a fearful “God” can be extremely damaging to the brain.

(Sound familiar?)

Further, after having studied advanced practitioners of meditation and prayer (Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns, etc.), they concluded that “activities involving meditation and intensive prayer permanently strengthen neural functioning in specific parts of the brain that are involved with lowering anxiety and depression, enhancing social awareness and empathy, and improving cognitive and intellectual functioning.” In other words, meditation and prayer, if practiced diligently and long enough, can PERMANENTLY decrease fear and sadness, and make us smarter and more compassionate.

I think possibly the “improvements in cognitive functioning” can have to do with simple awareness and insight. Meditation has brought more awareness to my life. In meditation, I just let go of thoughts as they come by. It’s the discipline, the training of the mind to Let Go. I don’t look for any feeling to happen, I just let go. Just as exercise has benefits throughout the rest of the day, so does meditation. In letting go, during my day, other information can come in. This is awareness…

What I wanted was to be the Queen of Serenity, Rocketed Into My (Preferably Pink) Fourth Dimension of Recovery. What I got was an awareness that I need to quit sugar. It’s bad for me. Part B of this awareness: I might not be able to just “cut down.” Part C: Quitting might be a pretty painful process.

There is a certain serenity in all this. It’s real, for one. It’s not Pink.

Meditation opens my mind so I can accept, or at least entertain, these formerly threatening ideas.

The authors also give eight exercises to improve brain function. The top three, which they suggest are the most important and must be worked together, are 1) Having Faith (or, basically Being An Optimist), 2) Dialoguing With Others (or, basically Being Social), and 3) Aerobic Exercise (or, basically Getting Your Butt Off The Couch, Dude). Number Three, they say, can include yoga.

You know what, this is totally nothing new. It’s “no big shakes,” as my Dad used to say. Maybe the scans showing improved blood-flow to certain brain-areas are news. But the results are stories we’ve been hearing about for a long time, and I’m coming to the conclusion that all the books are basically saying the same stuff:

Meditation | David Servan-Schreiber, a physician and cancer-survivor who wrote The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy, recommends “heart coherence” breathing exercises (which I’ve trained in, and which are tantamount to meditation). Servan-Schreiber has recommended regularly practiced cardiac coherence as the single best way to protect longevity, stimulate the immune system (a project in which, as a cancer survivor, he’s particularly interested), and control anxiety and depression. He also recommends Aerobic Exercise and Being Social.

The Present Moment | Jon Kabat-Zinn, another physician, has written many books about the benefits of meditation for people struggling with chronic pain and other illnesses. His book and CD collection, Wherever You Go, There You Are, trains people in mindfulness and how to “wake up” and be fully aware in the present moment—a concept that is the centerpiece of meditation.

The Power of Now + Ego Deflation | Eckhart Tolle writes about all the same stuff in his Oprah-endorsed book. Tolle also adds a great deal of emphasis on the need to “smash the ego” (sound familiar?) except Tolle would never use such violent language. He might recommend, instead, becoming aware of the deep stillness within, the power that resides within each of us, and that as soon as we find that source, this disempowers the ego.  To accomplish this, however, we need to be practitioners of some sort of meditation, to foster awareness.

I could go on and on. There are a hundred books that have each sold a million copies out there that all say the same stuff:

  • Meditate/pray
  • Release resentment and fear—old stuff, and current stuff
  • Wake up to the present moment
  • Take care of the body

Big news: this is what the Big Book says, too! I mean the way of life the 12 steps advocate is the same kind of way of life these other teachers are advocating. It’s all the same stuff, it’s not Weird or a Cult, and it’s not rocket science.

It’s not hard to overcome these problems. The solutions are plain.

So: “God” (i.e., the good inside me, the little Dear Abby inside that gives me good advice) tells me I need to eat good food.

Got six sessions left on my yoga card. Gonna use them before the end of the year.

My best friend had her birthday yesterday. We took the afternoon off and watched It Might Get Loud (great flick, love Edge) at her place, after a game of tennis. We exchanged presents. Hers to me: one of those stretch-straps you attach to a door; when you stretch it, it’s supposed to build your lats and your abs and stuff. Great for winter-workouts. Also: a 5-lb. barbell so I can do curls while I watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

“Let the reps begin,” she said.

Yes ma’am.

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