This is my blog on drugs.
OVER THE PAST FEW MONTHS, MY NEWS FEEDS HAVE BEEN FLOODED WITH HEADLINES LIKE THESE:
I was excited, hoping to see some cool new scientific data—but what did scientists discover to be the real cause of addiction? “Pain and trauma and isolation…addiction is an adaptation to your environment.”
In other words: Scientists have discovered common sense!
This “revelation” was so disappointing, not because it isn’t true, but because I could have told you that when I was 8 years old. I didn’t realize that people still believed the if-you-try-drugs-once-you-will-be-an-addict-for-life myth.
Two weeks ago, I gave a lecture in an undergraduate neuroscience class on how the brain regulates emotion. In the textbook chapter corresponding to this material, the author wrote:
“Addiction highlights the vulnerability of emotional neural circuits to dysregulation when they are exposed to drugs.”
I audibly gasped when I read this sentence while preparing for my lecture. This statement suggests that the emotional circuits in the brain are so vulnerable to drugs that they become addicted—that people who are addicts are emotionally unstable because they’re really vulnerable to drugs. This is one of the most ignorant explanations for addiction I have ever seen. A more accurate way to describe this phenomenon is:
Stress highlights the vulnerability of emotional circuits to dysregulation when they are exposed to trauma or poverty or violence, which can be self-regulated by drugs.
The idea that the drugs themselves are at the root of all addiction issues came in the 1970s when experiments were conducted that showed rats, when given a choice between plain water and heroin water, will drink the heroin water until they die. These studies stemmed, in part, by the evidence that 20% of servicemen in Vietnam were actively addicted to heroin.
So it must just be that this drug completely takes over one’s will to live and function, right? And if we can just eradicate these drugs and make them illegal, everything will be okay, right? Wrong. The rats in these early experiments were tested in empty, isolated cages—they were in solitary confinement. But it turns out that if you keep rats in an environment with other rats, food, and toys, the rats are not interested in the heroin water at all. They’ll try it, but they’ll go back to playing with their friends and not one of them will become addicted and die. And 95% of the Vietnam veterans did not return to using heroin when they returned home. The most exciting finding from these new rat studies is that if you let a rat become addicted to drug water in isolation for two months, and then place it into the socially enriched environment, which still has the drug water, it will go through brief withdrawals but not return to using the drug.
So what does this mean? Maybe instead of throwing people in jail for drug offenses—which inflicts more pain and trauma to deepen addiction, and then releasing them back into their dangerous, poverty-stricken, trauma-ridden lives—we should try to find them jobs, housing alternatives, counseling, medical care, and social support groups. But according to neuropsychopharmacologist, Dr. Carl Hart,
“We are interested, in this society, in vilifying a drug. In that way, we don’t have to deal with the complex issues for why people really become addicted.”
Dr. Hart conducted an experiment that illustrates how addiction is a social problem. When they brought meth and crack addicts into their study center, the investigators repeatedly offered a choice between their drug and $5, and they chose each one about 50% of the time. But when the choices were drugs or $20, every single addict took the money—even though they knew they wouldn’t receive the money for several weeks. They were willing to pass up an immediate high for financial security. And no, they didn’t use the money to buy drugs—they used it to pay their bills. If addicts are given an opportunity to find a way out of their shitty situation, they are able to make rational decisions to better their lives. Dr. Hart claimed,
“So, the criteria, to me—the way we judge whether someone is an addict is whether or not they have disruptions in their psychosocial functioning. Are they going to work? Are they handling their responsibilities?”
But this is where things get tricky for me—how exactly, do we measure disruptions in psychosocial functioning? How do we define success?
In September of 2008, I was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. I was taken to jail, went to court, lost my driver’s license, went through alcohol education classes—the whole shebang. That certainly could be considered “disruption in psychosocial functioning.” But the moment I was arrested, I told myself I was never going to try to quit drinking again. I decided that I would rather succeed at being a functional alcoholic than fail again at trying to achieve sobriety. I told myself that as long as I was doing well in school and work, then I could drink as much as I wanted, and I was okay. And I did continue to do well in school and work—I was one of the top performers at my job, I graduated with honors with my bachelor’s degree in biology, I continued on to receive my master’s degree in biology and then began a fully paid assistantship position to work on my PhD in neuroscience. I had a ton of friends, I traveled the world, I lived independently and paid my bills on time, and I had pretty nice hair. I was a success story by society’s standards and by my own standards because I was somehow able to maintain my “successful” life while still drinking all day every day.
And I certainly wasn’t a drug addict. I told myself I was just going through an “experimental drug phase” for 6 years. Marijuana, mushrooms, Vicodin, Valium, LSD, cocaine, heroin, crack, opium, 2-CB, 2-CE, 2-CI, ecstasy, MDMA, chloroform, amphetamine, Fentanyl, whip-its, ketamine, and who knows what else I can’t remember. I usually only did drugs on the weekends, and not even every weekend. Sometimes I would go several weeks or even months without using any drugs at all, so I thought I had everything under control.
So what was the problem? Is excelling at school or work really how we should define success? I lost so much to drugs and alcohol: bodily fluids, driving privileges, friends, memories, respect, trust, safety, and so much money. I would often find myself waking up in a park, waking up in my own vomit, falling down stairs or falling off my bike, going home with strangers—but all that was okay because I was still succeeding on my route to becoming a neuroscientist. So while drugs and alcohol had certainly caused disruptions in my psychosocial functioning, I wasn’t even aware of it because my idea of “functioning” was so misguided.
I wish more than anything that this new perspective in the “war on drugs” will steer us in the right direction—by not blaming the drugs themselves or the addicts themselves, but blaming the fucked up socioeconomic environment we have created. But I know we still have a long way to go, especially because of comments like these on my own story:
“Memoir reads of many years of putting other people in serious danger without accountability for her own actions. Perhaps in a few years the author will have the necessary perspective to look objectively at her story and critically at her own actions.”
The unfortunate reality of addiction is that it doesn’t just affect the addict, and when in the grips of trauma and addiction, we are often unable to see how our actions affect those around us. It’s like being completely engulfed in flames—you’re flailing around, but you’re not thinking oh gee, I wonder if I’m setting anything else on fire right now, I should take responsibility for that. In my case, a victim of childhood sexual abuse and rape who turned to alcohol and drugs to cope, what would accountability for my own actions look like? Punishment? I think I suffered enough. Willingness to accept responsibility for the state of my own life? I think I did that in my book:
“It never before crossed my mind that I could potentially hurt someone. Five years later, with my sober mind, I saw myself playing that red light game and the possibility of running over a child on the sidewalk, and I knew the persistent, lingering shock and horror at what the last eight years of my life had been deserved its home in my chest.” (p. 124)
“While self-medication doesn’t excuse my destructive, careless, illegal, and dangerous behavior, it does explain it.” (p. 225)
“I did make a decision to accept the fact that, while someone else destroyed my life through no fault of my own, it was still my responsibility to clean up the mess.” (p. 306)
If you want me to say “I did a lot of stupid things because I was a stupid girl,” shame on you. Identifying the reasons I used drugs and alcohol is not a cop-out excuse for avoiding responsibility, it is the first step in healing. You have to heal yourself and forgive yourself before you can do the same for other people. Instead of shaming and punishing everybody who hasn’t always lived up to some impossible standard of humanity, let’s just help one another out.