The Lizard Brain: How I Came To Learn that Addiction is a Disease

Malina Saval
·5-min read

In a bright, white auditorium on the rolling campus of a rehab center on the East Coast, I learned that addiction is a disease. The giant room was filled with addicts and alcoholics, including my then-husband, who’d checked in for a monthlong stay to get sober after decades of drinking and drugging. It was family week, and I’d flown in from Los Angeles, where we lived. We had a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old at the time, both of whom were born amid the chaos of a family pummeled hard by a disease in which piles of weed and whiskey highballs were as commonplace as diapers and baby food. There was no singular moment when everything imploded, but a series of events that chipped away at our collective sanity, from raging arguments in Chinese restaurants to quieter episodes wherein my husband would sit on the sofa, stoned, watching tennis for days on end. We both went mad over time. It happened, as Hemingway wrote in “The Sun Also Rises,” gradually and then suddenly.

I had known long before family week that addiction was a disease, but only in the abstract, and only because that’s what they kept saying in various ABC Afterschool Specials and in morning talk show segments that populated 1980s television. But I didn’t fully appreciate what exactly that meant. Was alcoholism like asthma? Was there a Ventolin inhaler-equivalent to treat the disease of not being able to stop drinking and drugging? It wasn’t until I married an alcoholic and everything in our lives — from paying our rent to social outings — became so hard that the biological and scientific basis of disease truly came into focus.

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When you’re mired in the disease of addiction, you do a lot to try to make it stop. You bargain: You can only drink beer, but not hard liquor. You hide bottles of vodka. You trick yourself into believing that you can control it. Now there was a specialist in addiction medicine standing at a lectern delivering a lecture debunking that notion with scientific facts. The doctor was armed with anatomical illustrations of the human brain and its limbic system; dubbed the “lizard brain,” this is the area that regulates emotions and memory. He explained the underlying elements of addiction, from endocrine function to the rise and fall of dopamine levels to the amygdala’s role in triggering rage and fear. Genetics factor into addiction, which is the reason that if you carry the gene, and you start using drugs or alcohol, you might not be able to stop. Your brain craves more and more. And that brain will convince an addict to stop at nothing to indulge that need.

Addiction is a disease that can be arrested but never cured. Even in sobriety, the ache to use can, and often does, persist. There is no easy fix. Changes in brain structure, brain cells and brain chemicals, can linger for years, even decades. Long after the alcohol is out of a person’s bloodstream, the “–ism” remains. That is the hell of addiction.

During family week, I discovered there is no controlling the addict, and that nothing that I had done had caused my husband to drink. Nothing he had done had caused this either. We were both powerless over alcohol. To illustrate this point, in a workshop for families living with alcoholism, an addiction counselor placed an oversize water jug in the center of the room, taping a sheet of paper with the word “Ethyl” on it. As we circled the room, family members bemoaning everything from failed attempts at getting loved ones to quit drinking to romantic relationships destroyed, the addiction counselor pointed to that water jug. “Blame Ethyl,” she’d say. She then suggested we attend Al-Anon, a 12-step program that, like Alcoholics Anonymous, is a nondenominational fellowship for friends and loved ones with a drinking problem. In Al-Anon, I would discover that while I had zero control over whether or not someone drank, I had the power to forge my own path, to scrape out my own sense of serenity. This was a revelation.

I have been a grateful member of Al-Anon for more than 11 years, for as long a time as my now ex-husband has been sober. Frankly, Al-Anon has saved me. It’s helped me to not only understand the disease of addiction but take personal inventory of my own character flaws, to have empathy for those who struggle. Al-Anon has helped me to love and respect my recovering alcoholic ex-husband as one would someone with any other type of disease, with an attitude of boundless acceptance, grace and compassion. We still fight; we still carry resentments; we sometimes blame one another for what ultimately broke down our marriage. But we now have a set of practical tools — the 12 steps — to weather these rocky bumps in a way we’d never been able to before.

Most importantly, Al-Anon has helped me, and by extension my ex-husband, to better raise our children, who are now 14 and 12. Because addiction is a family disease. It affects everyone. And like any disease, if you don’t treat it, then you will only get sicker. So we’re honest with our kids, and we’re realistic. We pray; we meditate. We approach parenting in very much the same way we do sobriety — one day at a time.

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