Fight, Flight, Drown


Imagine you are walking through the park on a sunny day and you come upon a friendly looking dog sitting there. As your mind fills with warm fuzzies, you reach down to pet the dog, but it bares it’s teeth and snaps at you. Your warmth and kindness is immediately replaced by fear and anger. Even resentment. But upon closer examination, you see that the dog’s foot is caught in one of those steel claw traps and is severely injured. You realize the dog is in pain and afraid. Suddenly, your own anger and resentment is replaced by sympathy and compassion for the dog and it’s situation. People may similarly act out irrationally from fear or pain when a situation creates a “fight or flight” response. But the people around them may be completely unaware of that person’s triggered internal plight.

When faced with a situation that makes us afraid, our minds have to make the decision to stand and confront, or to run to safety. This often creates a war within, because it’s not always clear which is the best path to take. Plus every person is a singular blend of inherited genes, born-with personality traits, and childhood experiences that are unique to each individual person, so each person is going to have their own special response to any given situation when they are confronted with fear or anxiety. There are all kinds of situations that can make a person afraid. It can be an obvious life-threatening fear, or it can be more simple and subtle things like social anxiety, for example. But when someone is afraid, they often act irrationally towards other people.


When someone is in pain, they are also not themselves. Someone who is pain may desire to avoid social situations and would just prefer to be in the comfort of their own homes and beds, if possible. It’s the same thing for mental pain, which can be equally, if not more, miserable. Mental pain can be caused by some traumatic event that just occurred in their life, or it can be caused by the trauma of events from childhood that are perpetually carried forward into adulthood. If a person was the victim of childhood abuse, for example, they may act irrationally to situations that arise in adulthood that mirror those events from childhood, because their minds are just following an old neural pathway (mind road) response to that situation. When someone is in a state of mental pain, they may not act rationally to people or situations that triggered that pain.


When confronted with fear or pain, it is not always as simple as just confronting that fear or pain. Because many people are not be able to confront things that cause them fear or pain, so they automatically desire to run to safety. Drugs and alcohol seem to provide a clear, simple solution because they take away the fear and the pain, and they do it very quickly. So it is a natural path to walk on for people unable or unwilling to fight or stand. If a person is afraid, in pain, or both, the drugs and alcohol mask those things and provide temporary relief, but the fear and pain are still there, and come back even stronger when the sedation wears off, requiring more sedation. When drugs and alcohol flow into someone who is already filled with anxiety and anguish, it will overflow and they will begin drowning in their addiction and despair.


I have complex post traumatic stress disorder as a result of childhood abuse. As a result of that trauma, fight or flight slowly became a natural response to most situations I was confronted with, exacerbated by a general all-or-nothing mentality spawned by the abuse I suffered. Situations would often happen in adulthood that mimicked those events from childhood, even if it wasn’t apparent to me at the time. So when those adult events would happen, and a fight or flight response was triggered, my insides were in complete turmoil, fear, anxiety and misery, even though I appeared to be in control on the outside. I was able to put on this charade of having the ability to stand and deliver for years and actually had significant success in my career. But I gradually became heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for my true inner inability to stand and confront. I was losing the war going on in my head and began to drown in my addiction and in my own shame, guilt, blame, self-hatred and despair. I wanted help, but I was afraid to lose the drugs and alcohol that I felt were my only safety net. When I first entered therapy and recovery, the first thing a therapist said to me was “It’s alright to be that frightened little boy, but it’s ok you’re safe now”. Those words burst open the dam that was holding everything back in my head and allowed me to reach back to the helping hands that were being extended to me.


Let’s say there is a woman drowning in a lake. People are standing on a dock shouting at her to swim to safety, but she is unable to because she does not know how to swim. There is a coiled up rope sitting on the dock, but rather than throw the rope out to her, the people just yell at her, telling her that when she is ready to stop drowning and swim, she should swim over to the dock so they can hand her the rope and she can pull herself to safety. That’s the imagery when someone says about addicts “When they are ready, they will quit. If they’re not ready, they won’t. And if they die, they did it to themselves.”


A person who is in full blown addiction might be aware that they are drowning, but they feel trapped and their hijacked minds believe everyone has backed them into a corner. The thought of quitting makes them feel in danger, because they feel threatened with the loss of their only escape from the despair they’re carrying around in their heads, plus fear of withdrawal. Their minds are in fight or flight mode. An addict must be offered a lifeline, a rope, so they can pull themselves out, but they need to feel that there is safety at the other end of that rope, not just confrontation, demands and accusation, so they feel compelled to take hold. Addicts can never be “enabled” because that is like pushing the drowning addict’s head under the water. But people can educate themselves on the multitude of ways and solutions for helping an addict recover without “enabling” them. The addict needs to feel safe letting go of the drug of choice that they feel is their “life preserver” and take hold of something they believe will pull them to a safe space. If they’re offered help in a way that does not trigger a fight or flight response, they may be compelled to reach out, take hold of the rope and pull themselves out of the addictions that they are drowning in.





The Escape Road – Is addiction a disease or a choice? Yes it is.


Imagine there is a crowd of onlookers next to a lake where there are people in the water who are drowning. Instead of throwing a rope out to the drowning people to pull them in and save their lives, everybody just stands at the shore of the lake arguing about whether the drowning people fell into the lake or jumped in. Both sides of the disease vs. choice argument contain elements of truth, which fuels the fire of the circular debate which is usually just steeped in dogmatic fallacy. Meanwhile, according to the Center for Disease Control, 72,000 people lost their lives in 2017 to drug overdose (not including deaths from alcohol abuse). So in effect, 72,000 “drowned”, that’s more than most football stadiums hold, while people debated.

Is it a choice? Of course – nobody was born with a bottle of vodka in their hands or a heroin needle in their arms. At some point, in everybody single person’s life, they made a choice to take a risk and do something they know that they should not do. For instance, many took the risk of having unprotected sex when they were in high school, most gambled for the first time, smoked that first cigarette, drank that first beer or shot of whiskey, smoked that first joint, etc. People made a choice to take a risk. For most, the choice to take that risk did not result in a life shattering series of events going forward. But for the millions of us, whether we fell into substance abuse, were pushed into substance abuse, or gladly jumped into substance abuse, we continued to make the choice to use those substances, even after it posed an imminent and immediate threat to our life and threatened to destroy the lives of our families. So technically yes, we made a conscious choice.

Is it a disease? The policy of the American Medical Association under the “disease theory”, for both psychiatric and medical sections of their policies, states “The AMA endorses the proposition that drug dependencies, including alcoholism, are diseases and that their treatment is a legitimate part of medical practice.” But arguments have been made that those classifications were made for economic reasons, in particular third party reimbursement (insurance) for the treatment of addiction and alcoholism. There have also been recent studies that challenge the classification of addiction or alcoholism as a disease. But right now, almost all major health organizations classify addiction/alcoholism as a disease. So technically yes, it is a disease, or at minimum an “illness”.

So both sides of the disease/choice debate can claim legitimate support for their positions. Nobody willingly chose to become an addict or an alcoholic, but by the same token nobody contracted addiction because an addict sneezed on them. In reality, it is technically both a “disease” and a choice, or at least a choice that leads to or becomes a disease or an illness (or whatever it may be called), so the debate rages on. However it is much more easily and simply defined than just a disease or a choice, because it may be both and it may be neither.

Most people don’t like the feeling of loss of control created by heavy alcohol or drug use, or the sickness that follows, so they rarely ever return to that place. But for the rest of us millions of people, the euphoria generated by alcohol or drugs created a neural pathway (a mind road) to a euphoric escape from pains of life – “The Escape Road”. We became drawn back to The Escape Road like moths to a light. There are a variety of opinions and another hornet’s nest of debate under the root cause behind the predisposition for addiction – genetic vs. environment, nature vs. nurture, inherited vs. acquired, or just an accident. Whatever the cause, for those of us who have abused substances, we found the feeling of euphoria and the relief of The Escape Road something that was almost impossible to resist. Drugs and alcohol provided a magic carpet ride away from mental pain, physical pain, even spiritual pain. It temporarily soothed the misery of bonafide mental illnesses like PTSD from childhood or adulthood trauma, Bipolar Disorders, Generalized Anxiety Disorders and others. So once we had a taste of that relief and the euphoria of walking on The Escape Road, we found ourselves returning until it became a habit, then a physical/mental dependency, and ultimately an addiction.

Once The Escape Road was heavily paved and we became mired in full blown addiction, the shame of our addiction, and the guilt of those activities, got added to the heavy mental illness baggage many of were carrying around before we became addicted in the first place. So we became even more thoroughly entrenched in traveling on The Escape Road to obtain relief. While we may have wanted to step off, we knew that doing so would result in, not only the loss of our escape hatch, but the return of the weight of the pain we were trying to obtain relief from, and we were also faced with the paralyzing anxiety and crushing misery of withdrawal. In the case of drugs like alcohol, suddenly withdrawing from it can be life-threatening. Our minds are intuitively aware of this, so a fight or flight response was triggered when confronted by withdrawal. Because our addiction backed us into a corner, our hijacked minds imagined that our lives were threatened by withdrawal, and we were faced with the loss of our only escape route, we were willing to do whatever it took to stay on The Escape Road, including lying, cheating, stealing, hurting ourselves, hurting others, risking our lives, even risking other people’s lives. When all of these things are taken into consideration, when someone is in full blown addiction, the decision to continue using may not even be a choice (arguably), but rather a survival-type auto response.

Now none of this is intended to provide a justification for substance abuse nor is it intended to provide some rationalization to the millions of people who lost friends, family, and people they loved, to addiction or alcoholism. Those people, who suffered loss, are filled with deep intense sadness, burning anger, smoldering resentment, agonizing frustration, and a host of other horrible emotions. Which is completely understandable and tragically heart-breaking. But maybe a modicum of understanding in how and why this often happens might help take a baby step towards placating some of these emotions and provide at least a little peace.

When a person is drowning in the lake of addiction to drugs or alcohol, they cannot be “enabled” because enabling them is like pushing their heads under the water. But those people who are drowning need to have a rope thrown to them so they can be helped to make the decision to pull themselves out of the water. People need education on what can be done to help those who are struggling with addiction make that choice, and to help them without enabling them. Once people have been helped to make the choice to recover, there are a variety of different recovery programs and recovery paths that they can follow. There are some arguments and studies on whether abstinence-based recovery is the best approach or not. However, for people who have had major issues with addiction to alcohol for example, returning to it under a controlled drinking or moderation environment could be potentially catastrophic. Because, if they are on the path of moderation, which they would argue is not traveling directly on The Escape Road, they are in effect walking along on the shoulder of that road. Major hardships, or a serious of smaller hardships, that often happen simultaneously, are common to everybody. It is not a question of if, but a question of when. When those hardships happen, The Escape Road would be right at their feet (since they are already walking on the shoulder), so then returning to chemical dependency full physical/mental addiction would be an all-too-easy natural progression, and would only take one small push.

The mind will never completely forget the feeling of euphoric escape through drugs or alcohol, so The Escape Road and the knowledge of that escape hatch is always going to be there. It will always be possible to consciously or subconsciously get drawn back to it, so a person who has been addicted to substances is never completely “cured”. From that standpoint, a person who has been addicted could be considered permanently “diseased”,  as is a common reference in 12 step programs. There is a recovery catchphrase in those programs that says “once an addict, always an addict”. Because the mind will never forget The Escape Road and the feeling of that euphoric escape, from that view, that catchphrase is not at all inaccurate (albeit perhaps stigmatizing). I knew someone who had been sober and abstinent for 25 years, regularly worked a recovery program, was happy with her life working as a nurse, and was in a state of overall well being. One winter morning, her car was covered with snow from the night before,  she couldn’t find her keys, was late for work, her car wouldn’t start, she was yelled at by her boss, had a bad day besides, and ended up stopping at the liquor store on the way home without even thinking about it. Three days later she was in detox and almost died. The Escape Road is never forgotten.

If we are helped to make the decision to withdraw from our drug of choice and obtain sobriety, our minds will still never ever forget the feeling of The Escape Road. Fear is one of the worst motivators there is for anything, so fear of drugs/alcohol, or fear of relapse or returning to The Escape Road, may not be the best approach, just by itself. But even fear can still keep people off of that road. A much better approach is using reputable recovery programs and/or group support, individual therapy, learned coping mechanisms for dealing with life’s difficulties, safe medication for people suffering from mental illnesses who have a substance abuse history, and physical/mental activities that release things like endorphins and natural dopamine. Any of these positive things can establish brand new neural pathways, or healthy new highways that the mind can travel on, which allow it to permanently steer clear of The Escape Road. Once we are on the road of recovery (or recovered), and traveling on these new neural pathways, we are able to always ‘make the choice to avoid the disease’, permanently stay off The Escape Road, and remain cured on the healthy new highways we have paved.

You’re Not Broken


When something bad happens to us, it’s easy to feel like we are broken, we’ll never heal, and we’ll never be the same. But we heal when we allow ourselves to feel, so it’s important to not try and drown that hurt with drugs or alcohol. Yes it hurts, but once the hurt heals, we’ll be much stronger than we were before the hurt happened, and so much better than we were before.



Just starting to take care of myself, in the most basic ways, began a journey of self-love, which did not mean some kind of narcissistic, self-absorbed, worship of myself. It was simply beginning to respect myself enough to care about my own cleanliness, how I looked, what I wore, who I associated with, etc. It also started the great feeling that came with doing things in my life that I knew in my heart were the right thing and avoiding doing things in my life that I knew in my heart were the wrong thing. For a change. This all created self-respect, self-esteem, good character and a great overall sense of well being.


Please Help Me


“Please help me” were the most important three words I ever spoke and those words were the key to my recovery from drugs and alcohol. That 3 word mantra took down all the protection barriers I had put around myself that prevented me from allowing people in but also stopped me from getting out, and the key that unlocked all the doors.