Why Don’t I Feel Any Better?
The Role of Anhedonia in Addiction Healing From Addiction
Let me introduce Anhedonia to you by way of a personal example. I was out of rehab and doing all the right things. I was eating, taking my medication, exercising, socialising and sleeping. And yet, I felt nothing. I would walk and not feel any enjoyment. I would eat breakfast and not even taste the strawberries. I would read a book that others raved about and not be stirred at all. I would sleep but awake not feeling any sense of refreshment. I would chat with others fully aware that I was acting my engagement. Underneath I was blank. Underneath the surface, there was nothing but emptiness.
Six months of this despair broke me. I was distraught with the thought that this was all there was, that this void was all there would ever be. I wondered if it was this feeling of desolation that drove me to drink in the first place? The result? After six months sober, I started drinking again. Two weeks into the relapse I was back in rehab feeling like an absolute failure.
It was only when I started describing this situation to my counsellors that I realised what I had experienced was the common condition known as Anhedonia. Basically, Anhedonia is:
“the inability to feel pleasure in normal activities.”
Supposedly it is quite normal in the first months of withdrawal and can last up to one or two years. It can also be caused by some of the medication used to treat depression and other symptoms of withdrawal. My gosh, if I had known this, I may have been a bit more realistic with my expectations about how I should feel in recovery. If I knew it could take a year or so to get feeling back, then maybe I could have been gentler on myself. But ultimately, the past is past, and the blessing is that I learnt about Anhedonia and its dangerous consequences. It can really disrupt your healing by making you feel broken, faulty, or making you lose hope in the joy that this world does have to offer.
It is understandable that the pleasure centres of the brain, just like our bodies do need some time to rest and restore. They have been beaten around terribly by the synthetic man-made pleasures, that it was never built to handle. Just like our appetite or sleep routine, the areas of our brain that help us feel pleasure will take time to repair. This is where understanding, patience and self-compassion are paramount to healing. If this is something you are experiencing, please talk to your doctor about it. Because in my case, it is likely you are not doing anything ‘wrong.’ In fact, you could be on the exact path you need to be on to heal. However, the Anhedonia is a sign that the healing in the brain is still happening, and that you need to keep loving and caring for yourself.
The advice that I was given in this situation is to ‘act as if’ or ‘fake it ’til you make it.’ At first, this angered me. I was so sick of feeling like a fake I didn’t want someone to tell me to just suck it up and keep doing it. I wanted someone to reassure me that I would get sensations back, that I would be OK. I wanted someone to give me a date, a timeframe on when I would feel human again, and not just a shell. The reality is though is that no-one can give you a timeframe. And until your brain repairs, there is no other way but to act like the wonderful, amazing, loving spirit you are. The only other option is to mope around in self-pity, but that is not helpful for your healing and certainly not conducive to rebuilding relationships with those around you.
I can tell you, from my own experience though, the feelings, the sensations, they do come back. For me it took well over a year. One morning I was eating the same breakfast I always ate when all of a sudden, I realised I could taste the strawberry. You know that was one of the happiest days of my life. The joy did not just stem from the strawberry itself (although it was beautiful and sweet), but it came from the reward I gained from persistence. I stuck with the basics of good health, and, finally, my brain healed enough to feel pleasure again. A bit later I began to feel the euphoria from exercise and then, lo and behold, I did my first honest belly laugh in what felt like forever.
There is a lot of trust broken in addiction, and it appears that it is going to take your brain a while to trust you again too. It may seem like a bit of a childish analogy, but when you show your brain that you can be trusted not to batter it around with synthetic poisons, or overwhelm it with unnatural amounts of dopamine, it will relax and turn on the pleasure centre again. With anhedonia, the pleasure centres of the brain are in self-protection mode. Give it time, show them you can be trusted, and once again they will start to heal from the trauma and let the pleasure feelings flow.
Here is a painting I did in rehab that shows what it felt like to finally experience the joys of life again. This is everything I also wish for you.
This article should not be taken as medical advice. It is based on my own experience and opinion only. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. Never disregard the advice of a medical professional, or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.