One of the useful things that may yet come out of the much-derided DSM-5 manual of mental disorders is the addition of craving as a criterion for addiction. “Cravings,” writes Dr. Omar Manejwala, a psychiatrist and the former medical director of Hazelden, “are at the heart of all addictive and compulsive behaviors.” Unlike the previous two volumes in this monthful of addiction books, Manejwala’s book, Craving: Why We Can’t Seem To Get Enough , focuses on a specific aspect common to all addiction syndromes, and looks at what people might do to lessen its grip.
Why do cravings matter? Because they are the engine of addiction, and can lead people to “throw away all the things that really matter to them in exchange for a short-term fix that is often over before it even starts.” When Dr. Manejwala asked a group of patients to explain what they were thinking when they relapsed, their answer was often the same: “I was so STUPID.” But the author had tested these people. “I knew their IQs.” And the best explanation these intelligent addicts could offer “was the one explanation that could not possibly be true.”
In my book, The Chemical Carousel, I quoted former National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) director T.K. Li on the subject of craving: “We already have a perfect drug to make alcohol aversive—and that’s Antabuse. But people don’t take it. Why don’t they take it? Because they still crave. And so they stop taking it. You have to attack the other side, and hit the craving.” However, if you ask addicts about craving when they are high, or have ready access, they will often downplay its importance. It is drug access unexpectedly denied that sets up some of the fiercest cravings of all. Conversely, many addicts find that they crave less in a situation where they cannot possibly score drugs or alcohol—at a health retreat, or on vacation at a remote locale.
Why are cravings so hard to explain? One reason is that “people use the word to mean so many different things.” You don’t crave everything you want, as Manejwala points out. Cravings are not the same as wants, desires, urges, passions, or interests. They are “stickier.” The brain science behind craving starts with the downregulation of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. As the brain is artificially flooded with neurotransmitters triggered by drug use, the brain goes into conservation mode and cuts back on, say, the number of dopamine receptors in a given part of the brain. In the absence of the drug, the brain is suddenly “lopsided,” and time has to pass while neural plasticity copes with the new (old) state of affairs. In the interim, the unbalanced state of affairs is a prime ingredient in the experience of craving.
Cravings are “disturbingly intense” (Manejwala) and “incomprehensibly demoralizing” (AA). Alcohol researcher George Koob called craving a state of “spiraling distress.” Cravings are not necessarily about reward, but about anticipating relief. “The overwhelming biological process in addictive craving is really a complex set of desperate, survival-based drives to feel ‘normal,’” says Manejwala.
The late Alan Marlatt, a psychologist who studied cravings for years, proposed that apparently irrelevant decisions could trigger or prevent relapse, almost without the addict knowing it. Turning left at an intersection, toward the supermarket, or turning right, toward the liquor store, can feel arbitrary and dissociated from desire. We also know that environmental cues can trigger craving, such as the site of a crack house where an addict used to do his business. Manejwala points to research showing that “some relapses related to cues and context are mediated by a small subgroup of neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex,” and suggests that it may be possible in the future to target this area with drug therapy.
Manejwala is unabashedly pro-12 Step, and favors traditional group work as the standard therapy. For example, he points to a Cochrane analysis of 50 trials showing that group participation roughly doubles a smoker’s chance of quitting. One of the reasons AA works for some people is that AA attendance reduces “pro-drinking social ties.” Simply put, if you are sitting with your AA pals in a meeting, you’re not out with your drinking buddies at the tavern. The author admits, however that alternatives such as SMART recovery work for some people, and that “sadly, much energy has been wasted as members of these various organizations bicker with each other about which works best, and this leaves the newcomer perplexed…. Over 20 million American are in recovery from addiction to alcohol and drugs. I can tell you this much: they didn’t all do it the same way.”
And along the way, you can be sure that all of them became familiar with cravings. Manejwala offers several strategies for managing cravings, and I paraphrase a few of them here
—Join something. Participate. Get out of your own head and become actively involved in some group, any group, doing something you are interested in.
—Hang around people who are good at recovery. Long-timers, with a solid base of sobriety. You will not only learn HOW to do it, but that it CAN be done.
—Write stuff down. This makes you pay attention to what you’re doing. Keep a cigarette log. Count calories. Know what you’re spending per month on alcohol. Educate yourself about your addiction.
—Tell someone. Tell somebody you trust, because if there is anything harder than dealing with cravings from drinking, smoking, or drugging, it’s doing it in secret.
—Be teachable. Watch out for confirmation bias. “When you think you have the answers, it’s hard to hear alternatives.”
—Empathy matters. The author notes that the Big Book insists that by gaining sobriety, “you will learn the full meaning of ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’” Altruism may have evolutionary, physiological, and psychological implications we haven’t worked out yet.