A scientist and recovered addict provides a guided tour through the personal and neurochemical pathways of addiction.
By Jennifer Matesa
When we get sober, quite often we start asking questions that seem unanswerable.Why were we the ones who fell into addiction? Why can other people stop at one or two drinks or tokes—or pills, or lines—and we can’t? What the hell is wrong with us?
Marc Lewis, a neuroscientist who teaches human development and applied psychology at Radboud University, the Netherlands, and who also happens to be a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, uses his professional and personal experience with addiction to create a memoir that vividly illustrates the dramas that occur within the cells and synapses—as well as in the psyche—during drug-use.
Lewis, now in his 60s, was (you guessed it) a sensitive teenager. He started drinking at 15 after his parents sent him away from his Toronto home to board at a Massachusetts prep school. The Yanks bullied naive Lewis; he responded by sneaking off school grounds with another outcast who had nicked a bottle of hard stuff and was willing to share it. He continued to drink, then moved on to chugging dextromethorphan cough syrup (which he could buy legally); then, lust-sick for a teenage girl who was in love with him and, thus, wouldn’t let him get past second base, he began smoking pot to deal with his sexual longing, social anxiety and homesickness. Like most proto-addicts in trouble and without social or familial support, he escaped into fantasy and suffered spirals of shame—“that constant companion of the victim who doesn’t have the skill or the power to retaliate.” Over and over, he turned to drugs.
“The key to getting high is a simple equation: brain change = mood change,” he writes. “One way or another, whether they are junkies or executives, people take drugs because they’re not feeling right. The whole point of taking drugs is to change the way you feel.”
Each chapter is devoted to a different era of his life and a different drug’s effects on the brain. As he navigates the hippie culture of the ‘60s, first in San Francisco and then in southeast Asia, he blows through practically every drug available at the time—nitrous oxide, LSD, methamphetamine, heroin (which he purchases from the Asian manufacturer)—eventually landing in an Indian opium den, watching with mesmerized desire as a woman uses a long pin to knead a smoking pearl of opium in a hot glass pipe that she finally turns toward Lewis’s lips. The imagery used to describe the psychological experience is extremely sensual and seductive, which may constitute a risk for some recovering readers who would rather not engage in euphoric recall. (He also engages in some banalities, such as romanticizing injection heroin use as a “badge of courage and a rite of passage to the inner chamber” of drug-culture—etc.)
Along with the psychological story, Lewis uses his deep professional knowledge of neuroscience to portray the drama of the brain engaged in addiction. He starts with alcohol, describing the activity of the cerebral cortex, the center of judgment and decision-making, the “electrical sea … where we really live,” under the influence: a tide of neurons, an ocean, whose normal half-second waves of electrical transmission are slowed to eddies by the neurotransmitter GABA, which inhibits their efficient firing. And here’s what happens to his executive functions: “Now, with my GABA channels wide open, the background noise, the niggling uncertainty of normal cognition, gets turned off almost completely, leaving a glazed silence between flashes of thought. In other words, I am thinking about very little, but I am thinking about it with magnificent clarity.” This elegant description brought back all those drunken college nights, those 20-something bar-crawls, when after four or five drinks and several advances from men who frightened me I’d creep down to the ladies’ room, lock the stall, sit on a closed toilet seat, and take out my reporter’s notebook in order to record my most Truly Profound Thoughts—they all, in those moments, seemed extraordinary, but Lewis’s neuroscience lesson makes it clear why they were just the scummy skimmings from the mental swamp produced by booze.
The neurological dramatizations for the other drugs are equally clear and stunning, even if after a while the scientific language sounds somewhat arcane. The descriptions seemed lucid while I was reading them, but I doubt I could remember all the anatomy and chemistry.
What I remember is this: drugs create chemical changes in the brain, which create changes in mood, which affect our decision making. And this idea, which is perhaps the central theme of Lewis’s memoir: “The kinds of drugs we seek stand in for the kinds of needs that have gone unfulfilled.” Which made perfect sense to me in light of what he says about his favorite drug (and mine), the opioid class. Opioids provide not just a sense of physical pain-killing but also a sense of emotional relief, a state that’s “the main ingredient in the mammalian formula for feeling good.”
Lewis crafts his narrative expertly and deftly, though sometimes he boils down his explanations of drugs’ effects a bit too far. The girl he dates in high school, for example, sends him into a lustful obsession, which he translates into a simplistic neurotransmitter high: “What I see in you, dear Lisa, is nothing but a surge of raw dopamine.” And when the girl gives in and he’s got what he wants, his interest wanes, which he puts down to dopamine’s disappearance. What does this apparent biological determinism say about the girl’s continued interest in him? What does it say about his behavior in his first marriage, when he hauls off and gives his wife a black eye? And even more interesting, what does it say about his ability to sustain a second marriage and parenthood later, after he gets sober and gives up drugs? Does his behavior change simply because of changes in his brain chemistry, or is there a dynamic interaction between the two? This is a question that continues to fascinate me and that I wish researchers would investigate: not what our brains look like on drugs, but what they look like once we achieve long-term sobriety.
Jennifer Matesa is freelance writer, essayist and author of two nonfiction books, including Navel-Gazing: The Daysand Nights of a Mother in the Making, an award-winning memoir of her pregnancy. She runs the popular blog Guinevere Gets Sober, which covers addiction and recovery issues in the culture.