Jul 252011

After being shoved into a Very, Very. Bad. Place emotionally following a conversation sparked by the death of Amy Winehouse, I’ve been floundering on some core issues. I had to wince to see so many people’s callous opinions, and to hear people opine that addicts just made “bad choices: ” that we chose to let ourselves become addicts, or that addicts are fuckups who didn’t figure their shit out in time.

Those mornings when I awoke on my piss soaked bed in my trash filled rooms with my brain praying and begging for me to stop, to get help, even as I reached for a fifth of Jack to pry open my dry mouth so that I could stave off the shaking long enough to get to the shower and get to work? That felt nothing at-fucking-all like “free will” or “choice.” It felt like possession. But it is hard to explain that, even as eloquent as I am, to people who haven’t felt like worthless despicable hopeless wastes of meat day after dayyear after year, and relied on [INSET DRUG OF CHOICE HERE] to get by.

It is unspeakably painful to have people whose opinions you respect say things about addiction that rip you open. Whatever you want to call it, to say addicts “made poor choices” oversimplifies a fucking complicated scenario. There is choice, then there is a point beyond choice. That’s a lot of what addiction is about. I sometimes think it is a cop-out when people say “Well, you’ll never understand because you haven’t been there.” but sometimes, it is absolutely true. I don’t have children, therefore my opinions on parenting are not as informed as someone who has raised a kid. I’ve never been on a battlefield, watched a loved one die slowly in front of me, or faced an unexpected pregnancy. So my opinions on war, euthanasia and abortion are tempered by my lack of experience.

I am entitled to my opinions, and I will gladly debate these topics. But personally? I defer to someone who has actually done the shit. And if you haven’t felt your brain, body, id and ego flaying one another alive as you struggle to fucking live without drugs, frankly your opinion on whether or not I “chose that path” is downgraded.

And so it goes.

In a not-at-all coincidental twist, an article that appeared in the Sunday NYT(posted to me on Facebook by an old friend) hit me with a dual epiphany last night. As an alcoholic masochist, these new pieces of understanding about addiction literally winded me.

As someone who feels like she’s running on 11 just to make it through the day, to read the following was a lead pipe to my temple:

So why do some people become addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling or sex while others can indulge in a moderate, noncompulsive manner? One hypothesis is that addicts feel those pleasures unusually strongly and are motivated to seek them more intently. It’s reasonable, but wrong. Evidence from animal experiments and human brain scans indicates that the opposite is true: Addicts want their pleasures more but like them less.

I read and re-read this article for over an hour (and if you knew how fast I read you’d be impressed and shit. For real.) and I can’t even give voice to how much SENSE this makes to me, and how it explains something about which I’ve had so much shame for my entire life. I’ve always…always, felt like I couldn’t get enough. Of anything. I have watched myself compromise on shit I ought to never have compromised because I “knew” logically that it “should be” enough, but I was just being selfish. Bottomless pit. You know, why should I hold anyone up to any standard…ever…because my bar is inhuman. Just take what you can get…you ask for too much.

Now I have a realization: even when it is enough, I might just be missing it. And there is a flip side to that realization, one which is liberating. Another possibility? When it feels like it isn’t enough, it may well be because…well, it isn’t. My bar isn’t too high. I’m maybe just differently calibrated.

Not worse. Not broken. Not a selfish, twisted, sick human…just different.

I’m in hamsterbrain over this one but for a change? I’m glad to let the little fuckers run.

And as of today, I am 1,596 days sober. One thousand five hundred and ninety five choices. Choices I can live with.


Addictive Personality? You Might be a Leader

Published: July 23, 2011
David J. Linden is a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of “The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good.”
Related: Rethinking Addiction’s Roots, and Its Treatment (July 11, 2011)

WHEN we think of the qualities we seek in visionary leaders, we think of intelligence, creativity, wisdom and charisma, but also the drive to succeed, a hunger for innovation, a willingness to challenge established ideas and practices.

But in fact, the psychological profile of a compelling leader — think of tech pioneers like Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison and Steven P. Jobs — is also that of the compulsive risk-taker, someone with a high degree of novelty-seeking behavior.  In short, what we seek in leaders is often the same kind of personality type that is found in addicts, whether they are dependent on gambling, alcohol, sex or drugs.How can this be?  We typically see addicts as weak-willed losers, and chief executives and entrepreneurs are people with discipline and fortitude.  To understand this apparent contradiction we need to look under the hood of the brain, and in particular at the functions that relate to pleasure and reward.

As a key motivator, pleasure is central to learning; if we did not find food, water and sex rewarding we would not survive and have children. Pleasure evokes neural signals that converge on a small group of interconnected brain areas called the medial forebrain pleasure circuit — tiny clumps of neurons in which the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a crucial role.

This dopamine-using pleasure circuitry, refined over millenniums of evolution, can also be artificially activated by some, but not all, psychoactive substances that carry a risk for addiction, like cocaine, heroin, nicotine or alcohol. Our brain’s pleasure circuits are also hard-wired to be activated by unpredictable rewards:  While a roulette wheel is spinning or horses are on the track, we get a pleasure buzz even if we don’t get a payout in the end. Uncertainty itself can be rewarding — clearly a useful attribute for high-risk, high-reward business ventures.

So why do some people become addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling or sex while others can indulge in a moderate, noncompulsive manner? One hypothesis is that addicts feel those pleasures unusually strongly and are motivated to seek them more intently. It’s reasonable, but wrong. Evidence from animal experiments and human brain scans indicates that the opposite is true:  Addicts want their pleasures more but like them less.

We’re now starting to understand the biology behind the blunted pleasure of addicts.  From studies comparing identical and fraternal twins, it is estimated that genetic factors account for 40 to 60 percent of the variation in the risk for addiction. But we are only in the early stages of understanding the role of genes in addiction; there is no one “addiction gene,” but it is likely that a large number of genes are involved in this complex trait.

Crucially, genetic variants that suppress dopamine signaling in the pleasure circuit substantially increase pleasure- and novelty-seeking behaviors — their bearers must seek high levels of stimulation to reach the same level of pleasure that others can achieve with more moderate indulgence.  Those blunted dopamine receptor variants are associated with substantially increased risk of addiction to a range of substances and behaviors.

Is there a silver lining to the addictive personality?  Some of our most revered historical figures were addicts — not only the obvious creative types like Charles Baudelaire (hashish and opium) and Aldous Huxley (alcohol and the nonaddictive hallucinogens mescaline and LSD), but also scientists like Sigmund Freud (cocaine) and warriors and statesmen from Alexander the Great and Winston Churchill (both known to be heavy drinkers) to Otto von Bismarck, the unifier of Germany, who typically drank two bottles of wine with lunch and topped them off with a little morphine in the evening.

Leaders in America rarely admit to addictions in public, but one recent example is Henry T. Nicholas III, a founder of Broadcom, a multibillion-dollar company that makes microchips for cellphones, game consoles, wireless headsets and other electronic devices. Starting with a $10,000 investment, Mr. Nicholas and his partners created a company that now has 9,000 employees and 5,100 patents. Along the way, he struggled with alcohol, cocaine and Ecstasy; he entered a rehab program in 2008. (He also successfullyfought off criminal charges related to backdating stock options and drug distribution.)

The risk-taking, novelty-seeking and obsessive personality traits often found in addicts can be harnessed to make them very effective in the workplace. For many leaders, it’s not the case that they succeed in spite of their addiction; rather, the same brain wiring and chemistry that make them addicts also confer on them behavioral traits that serve them well.

So, when searching for your organization’s next leader, look for someone with an attenuated dopamine function: someone who is never satisfied with the status quo, someone who wants the feeling of success more than others — but likes it less.

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  2 Responses to “Epiphany. [Courtesy the Sunday Times]”

  1. Congratulations on your 1596 days and counting sobriety.

  2. I drop by and read every now and again, but today’s post made me have to register so I could comment :)

    Completely irrelevant – I am someone who is generally “vanilla” and sober – but that’s purely because I got the heads up warning from knowing my family that addictive behavior runs in my family – try it and you won’t walk away was a lesson I got shown by family and loved ones. It taught me addiction isn’t a choice, isn’t an bad decision, its a life changing action that one will never be completely rid of no matter how long you go without.

    Now, what made me comment – Seeing the thought in writing “Not worse. Not broken. Not a selfish, twisted, sick human…just different.” fulfilled some part of a discussion that I had in my head and heart for many years about so many things and people. That’s the principle that I am going to write down and share.

    Thank you, for sharing your thoughts, and heart, and stories. They inspire.

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