Discover more from The Remarkable Fools Letter
a fools guide to addiction
and the biology of desire
You are an addict.
We all are.
Everyone is addicted to something.
Addiction is a habitual interruption of the process of experiencing either satisfaction and joy or dissatisfaction and pain.
I have worked with a number of people dealing with addiction. The most helpful book I’ve found on the subject is The Biology of Desire, by Marc Lewis. This work, backed by the latest neuroscientific research challenges the traditional disease model approach to addiction. I know what you’re thinking: Addiction is not a disease? But…
Read on fool.
Lewis, a neuroscientist argues that the disease model oversimplifies addiction leading to helplessness with those struggling. Though most twelve step programs argue that adherents admit that they are powerless over their addiction until they submit to a higher power, this is entirely out of alignment with Lewis’ work.
Instead, he sees addiction as a sign of maladaptive neuroplasticity. A hallmark of any addict is to lie to themselves. My drinking / substance use / shopping / binge eating / working is not a problem. I could stop any time I like. These thought patterns become a habit, a story in the head of an addict. Assuming the opposite stance of powerlessness is an approach to disrupt heavily established neuropathways, create a new story, learn and thereby heal from addiction.
Neuropathways. The connections in your noggin’. The fast tracked heavily wired circuitry in your fifty pound meat computer. They create themselves based on our behaviours, thoughts and actions. We can change them in a whole bunch of ways. That’s what neuroplasticity means. Our brains are plastic. Not like a Kardashian’s ass, or a detachable penis, but in the pre Mrs. Robinson sense of the word.
As I love the etymology online dictionary, here’s what we mean by the ‘plastic’ in neuroplasticity:
1630s, "capable of shaping or molding a mass of matter," from Latin plasticus, from Greek plastikos "fit for molding, capable of being molded into various forms; pertaining to molding," also in reference to the arts, from plastos "molded, formed," verbal adjective from plassein "to mold" (see plasma). Related: Plastically.
Hence "capable of change or of receiving a new direction" (1791). The surgical sense of "remedying a deficiency of structure" is recorded by 1839 (in plastic surgery). Meaning "made of plastic" is from 1909; this was picked up in counterculture slang and given an extended meaning "false, superficial" (1963).
So. I guess with a Kardashian, there’s more to plastic than merely their ass.
But our neuroplasticity? That essentially means we learn. Addiction is a maladaptive, learned behaviour. It’s something we do to survive. We have a desire, then we have a reward. From that small cycle, we receive all sorts of wonderful neurotransmitters that alter how we feel. Regularly, the biggest part of addiction isn’t the chemical impact on the body. Once initial withdrawl symptoms pass, the most difficult part of beating an addiction are the cravings and the habits that they fulfill.
Ask any addict. Most will tell you that the actions and rituals leading up to using are frequently more rewarding than the use itself. The build up, the routine is when the chemical dump happens in the brain. By the time we use, the substance doesn’t feel great. In fact, when trying to change, from active user to being on the path to healing, the use itself can be distressing, painful and shame inducing.
The biggest drug in any addiction? Dopamine. And we create it ourselves. In order to heal from addiction, you need to rewire your brain through changes in thought patterns and behaviour.
Here are some simple tips that have helped me and others I’ve helped.
Get sick. Really really sick. I last drank when I had my first COVID shot. That needle made me sick for a week. The vaccine made me more sick than any of the times I’ve had Darth Vidder itself. I’m grateful for the jab. Did it save lives? Sure. More though? I’m grateful it was such a terrible experience that took me weeks to fully recover from. I was sick long enough that I broke my drinking habit and found other ways to be in the world
Find support. Most addicts eventually use alone or just with other addicts. Surround yourself with new people and experiences. Change the set and setting of your life. Not everyone in the world has the same story in your head about addiction. Not everyone drinks or uses drugs like you. Go find them. Sure ‘programs’ are fine. And? You’re surrounded by addicts. I’m a bit of a contrarian here, but finding non addicts who don’t understand and merely want to hang out without the edge of desire in the air can be even more soothing than ‘meetings’.
If you can afford it, go to rehab. Really. These places offer psycho social support and an environment that disrupts your norm. They can be hugely helpful
Spend more time in nature. EMDR therapy is a process that uses bilateral stimulation - movements from both sides of the body - and physical rhythm to help people heal. Though the research here is inconclusive, there are some indications that a walk in the woods can have a similar impact. Walking in the forest provides a sense of rhythm and movements from both sides of the body. Natural eye movements scanning the forest also mimic those used in EMDR. Most of all though? There’s a lot to notice, feel, take in and experience as novelty when walking in the woods. It’s a great way to heal.
Replace one addiction with another. Some addicts get addicted to the meetings with addicts. Others find soothing in burnt coffee, hard doughnuts and stale cigarettes. Me? I used kettle cooked chips. When I stopped drinking I went from spending ten dollars a day on beer to spending a mere five dollars a day on a big bag of Mrs. Vickies Chips. Potato chips were easier on my mind, body and wallet.
Find other ways to rewire your mind. The new science of psychedelics offers great promise in treating addiction, recovering from PTSD, freeing people from treatment resistant depression as well as alleviating end of life anxiety in terminal cancer patients. In the world of psychopharmacology there have been no new breakthrough molecules since the advent of prozac over thirty years ago. What’s more? Prozac and SSRI’s have a 32% efficacy rate. The placebo they were measured against was 31% effective. Psychedelic assisted psychotherapy is a very promising field with implications reaching far beyond the mere treatment of disease extending instead into the realm of enhancing lives.
Finally, if you’re a substance dude, gym rat or work a holic who wants to change?
Find some other dudes doing the same. We tend to use substances more than women. Our use hurts both men and women. When we use, we live shorter lives.
When’s the best time to stop using?
When’s the next best time?
Stay foolish dudes.