Cellular Memory in Addiction

June 15, 2020 - Mary Fran Bontempo

I’m not sure cellular memory is a thing. At least not a scientific, documented thing. It is a Hollywood thing, however. I’ve seen horror movies in which some unsuspecting everyman receives a necessary transplant—either an arm, a leg, or maybe even a heart—only to learn too late that the transplant came from a lunatic and the now offending part has a mind of its own. A mind that makes its new owner do awful things.

You can always trust Hollywood to come up with something outlandish to scare the stuffing out of you, especially on a dark and stormy night. Yet, my version of cellular memory was no less frightening, especially when experienced during my son’s early sobriety after an overdose nearly killed him.

When David returned home after treatment each time he went to rehab, my cellular memory immediately kicked in. Try as I might to head it off, each time I looked at my son, I was right back where we’d been before he left—suspicious, wary, and scared. It was almost impossible to trust that he was sober, I’d been so used to seeing him drunk or high.

My cellular memory manifested as a tightening in my gut, with my nerves standing at attention, and me holding my breath each time he came into a room. He knew it, and I could see that it pained him. I knew that he wanted and needed me to begin to trust him again, in small increments at first, but our past shared experience made me see his every move as suspect, at least initially.

It wasn’t until we began to talk about how we both were feeling that I could even put words to the experience. David asked if I could try to start to trust him, at least a little. I responded that my reactions felt like “cellular memory.” Our experiences during his active addiction had been so traumatizing for me that it was as though my very cells were trying to warn and protect me by preparing me for what they thought was sure to come.

While I knew my reactions were hardly helpful to either of us, I couldn’t simply turn them off. After explaining to my son what I was experiencing, I told him, “I suppose this is going to happen until we gradually make new memories to replace the old ones. I’m sorry, but I didn’t ask for this. However, I will try to be aware of it and keep it in check.”

It was the best both of us could do at the moment. And gradually, new memories—good memories—came to replace the traumatic ones as David continued his path of sobriety.

Cellular memory may not be a “real” thing with scientific explanations, but it is acutely real to those trying to support loved ones dealing with addiction. Give yourself the grace to acknowledge those memories, but don’t hang onto them. Try and allow good memories room to grow.


Mary Fran Bontempo is a 2x TEDx speaker, author and humorist. Visit her at www.maryfranbontempo.com. Her latest book, “The 15 Minute Master—How to Make Everything Better 15 Minutes at a Time,” can be found on Amazon.


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