My Brain Not on Drugs

What I have discovered over 24 years is that you don't need substances to alter the mind. As an addict, you can get addicted to pretty much anything.
03/29/2012 10:51 am ET Updated May 29, 2012

This week, I celebrate 24 years free from drugs and alcohol. Go ahead and applaud. We drug addicts are perfectly willing to be congratulated for running out of a burning building. It's our charm, a combination of inflated ego and low self-esteem sometimes referred to as "a piece of crap the universe revolves around."

Anyway, the point of sobriety is that -- minus major surgery, a valid prescription and someone holding your meds for you -- you don't use mind-altering substances. Period. What I have discovered over 24 years, however, is that you don't need substances to alter the mind. As an addict, you can get addicted to pretty much anything. Recently, science has caught up with me.

When you think about it, you already knew this. Picture an AA meeting circa 1962. What comes to mind? A group of (usually, back then) men drinking coffee out of ceramic cups, eating doughnuts and smoking cigarettes. You're not wrong, either. Nicotine, caffeine and sugar are still the go-to substitute drugs for anyone getting off alcohol. After playing whack-a-mole with those for a while, most of us end up in other 12-step programs and get those gross motor defect addictions under control. Then comes the more subtle addictive behavior.

Dancing, for instance, gets me high. Rollercoasters get me high. Winning gets me high. I can alter my mind quite nicely with a big fat paycheck, a big fat ice cream sundae or a big fat... okay, we know where that one's going. These days, a comfy sofa, a knitted afghan and a Law & Order marathon will get me to a blissful dial-tone junkie flatline just as reliably as a handful of oxycontin.

You could say -- so, what's the problem? Switch addictions to something positive, like 12-step meetings. Sober people hear that one a lot, although usually phrased as "You've just switched addictions to those stupid 12-step meetings." Get addicted to exercise, or work, or mountain climbing. You'll stay out of jail, earn money, maybe earn a place in the record books. Yes, all very true, but... I'm still an addict. And baby, I'm so tired of being an addict.

What scientists know now is that once you start using certain mind-altering substances, your brain cells produce an enzyme that doesn't go away when you stop using that substance. This DeltaFosB lingers for weeks and months, even remaining as an "addiction marker" for years to come. DeltaFosB makes the brain cells hypersensitive to the substances that produced it, so introducing even a small amount will often trigger a relapse. This is why no, I can't have just a sip of champagne at your wedding. Please don't take it personally: One drink really is too many. I have to use children's cold medicine, and legalizing marijuana means nothing to me. Damn it.

Worse, though, is that DeltaFosB is also triggered by behaviors which release the same brain chemicals as those substances. All my favorite neurotransmitters: dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, endogenous opiates... all the stuff that makes me feel like the rest of you probably feel the rest of the time. Behaviors like strenuous exercise (runner's high, anyone?) or gambling. Like dancing and rollercoasters and, damn it again, falling in love.

For most people, falling in love is a good thing. But I don't just fall in love. I get off on love. There's a difference. For me, a crush comes on with the bittersweet knowledge that immediately behind it follow the hallmarks of craving, obsession and withdrawal.

I see a cute guy and I think, "Well, that's a nice looking 6'2" pile of cocaine." Most women do not have this thought. But then, most people don't get high from Law & Order reruns, either.

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